The P Word…

I’ve touched on proposals in a few other posts, but this week I thought I’d go into a little more detail. As a new Planner, helping to prepare proposals is a bit of a rite of passage, and you may find this takes up the majority of your time until you become more involved in regular project work (or until your company hires someone more junior than you). You’ll learn this on your own, but it’s best if we discuss the ‘elephant in the room’ up front: PROPOSALS KINDA SUCK. Even under the best conditions, they are super stressful… and they rarely get prepared under the best (or even good) circumstances.

And now the silver lining(s). Proposals get easier. As you get more experienced and confident, you’ll find that the process gets much smoother – even as your workload increases. And… there’s no better feeling than winning your first proposal. Even if you only had a small role in the prep. This is when you realize that you’re not just an employee, but an integral part of the team and the future of the company (literally; no successful proposals = no company). This feeling never really goes away, and you’ll find you’re just as excited to win your tenth or twentieth proposal.

Let’s back up. What exactly is a proposal?

Well…. at this point, ‘proposal’ has become an umbrella term to describe the process used by Planners (and many other professionals) to get work. The key thing is that there are two main components:

A Request for Proposal (or RFP) – When a client (i.e. City, Town, University, etc.) requires work, they release an RFP. This is a (usually) detailed document that outlines the scope of the work required, provides some background information, and outlines the required submission materials, format, etc.

A Proposal – This is the consultants (i.e. you) response to the RFP. Based on the information provided in the RFP, and some background research (and maybe a site tour), it’s your company saying, “we’ll do the following tasks, and it will cost this much). The client will review all of the RFP’s they receive and choose a winner (based on pre-determined evaluation criteria, with money and experience usually being a pretty key factor).

RFP’s vary significantly in detail. Some will be brief, while others look like a (very boring) coffee table book. Some are flexible about format, while others will require specific page counts, font sizes, etc. Generally, you can expect to provide the following:*

  • A Cover Letter – Nothing fancy. Just says we are happy to submit this proposal, and here’s how you can contact us if (when) we win.
  • Experience and Team – This is where you describe relevant projects, and provide references. Sometimes clients will specify how many to provide, and what information they want, otherwise you just provide four or five of your best (and most relevant) projects. The goal here is to show that you’ve done this before and are not going to crash and burn under the pressure. You’ll also outline the team members here, and what their roles are on this project.
  • Approach and Methodology – For a new Planner, this is why proposals are so terrifying. You actually have to show the client that you understand what their issue is, AND that you know how to fix it. This is a few pages of text (at the most) but carries the stress of an entire thesis project the first few (i.e. 50) times you do it. You’ll probably start off slow here, helping more senior staff put this together. It could even be years before you get to do this on your own depending on how your company operates (don’t worry, there’s all kinds of other prep for you). Even as you gain experience you’ll probably still panic and divert your eyes when someone asks ‘who wants to write the Understanding and Approach?” Don’t do this! Mastering this section is all that stands between you and truly owning a proposal. Practice makes perfect (or at least acceptable).
  • Work Plan – Back to the simple bits. This is just a written description of all the tasks you’ll complete throughout the process, such as background research (what will you read?), public consultation (who, what, where, when, how), etc.
  • Fee – Once you have the tasks above, you’ll tell the client how much they’ll cost. This is usually broken down by person, hourly rate, and number of hours per task. Sometimes the client will provide a budget, other times they’ll leave it to you to tell them (which is the worst, since price is usually worth like 40% of the evaluation criteria, and another team may be way lower than you).

* Pretty pictures are always encouraged. It’s okay if you don’t know how. Someone in your office will.

That’s a quick overview of the proposal process. It doesn’t sound so bad, right? On the contrary, proposals are non-stop, and don’t care at all about your other deadlines, Christmas, flu season, Canada Post delivery boundaries, your holiday, etc. Likewise, your other projects generally don’t care about proposals, so you have to find a way to balance the two (you’ll get there, I promise). Until you figure this out, you may find yourself having a few late nights and/or early mornings. Also, proposal deadlines are final. Like ‘we don’t care if you’re one minute late’ final. So you may also find yourself in the back seat of a co-workers car, going 120km/hr down the highway, with a hole punch and binding machine on your lap… only to arrive in [enter City name here], covered in hole-punch confetti, and be told you’re too late.


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