Writing Your USAID Proposal
This article is the second in our three-part “How to Write a USAID Proposal” blog series.
Once USAID has released its solicitation, it’s time to put pen to paper—at least in a digital sense! The previous article in our series helped you prepare and put your proposal team and schedule in place to be ready for an expected opportunity. Once the solicitation has been issued, the writing begins—and the clock starts ticking! Solicitations are typically open for just 30–45 days, so it is important to plan ahead and be ready to start your response on Day 1 when the funding opportunity is issued.
This portion of the proposal development process occurs in three phases, outlined below.
Phase I: Understand the requirements.
1. Read the solicitation carefully.
It might be tempting to jump in and write up your technical approach. But if you did, you would miss the most crucial step of the proposal-writing process: reading the entire solicitation. Why is this step so important? You need to understand how USAID frames the issue in their program description, statement of work (SOW), and theory of change; the terminology they use for discussing the topic; proposal submission instructions; the proposal evaluation criteria; formats and supplemental materials that are required; and the types of approaches they may be seeking. So take a deep breath and slow down.
2. Share the opportunity with your leadership and team.
Circulate the opportunity to your leadership and to other stakeholders within your organization, including your proposal development team. Then mark up a copy of the solicitation by hand or on a computer so that you can track the key elements of the opportunity. Some organizations create a “crib sheet” that strips the solicitation down to its critical components, forming a kind of checklist to help the team ensure that they have all the required pieces. Share your markup or crib sheet with your full group of internal stakeholders and ask for their own contributions.
3. Note the required format.
Some solicitations will include very specific instructions about the sections to include and the length of those sections. You must follow all such requirements. A typical USAID proposal may include sections such as:
- Cover letter from the President or Chief Operating Officer;
- List of acronyms;
- Table of Contents;
- Executive summary;
- Technical approach for completing the deliverables in the statement of work (SOW);
- Management approach and staffing plan;
- CVs of key personnel;
- Summary of relevant experience;
- Corporate capabilities; and
- Performance references for similar work.
A budget component, or cost proposal, is also required as part of your proposal, as we will discuss in the third blog in our series. Other sections that may be required include a draft monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) plan, a gender equality and social inclusion plan, a work plan, a fee schedule or milestone payment plan, a branding and marking plan, representations and certifications, letters of commitment from sub-partners, etc. You can find resources to help with these components in the WorkwithUSAID.org resource library and answers to frequently asked questions about these proposal sections in the FAQ portion of the website.
4. Follow the opportunity on SAM.gov or Grants.gov.
USAID will sometimes amend an opportunity based on questions they receive during the open-question period for an award. You can avoid missing a deadline extension or a change of requirements by visiting Grants.gov or SAM.gov frequently to watch for any updates to the opportunity. You are strongly encouraged to submit any questions that your own organization has during the open question period. There is a designated point of contact for each opportunity listed within the proposal. Be aware that all questions and answers are made public to ensure transparency and fair treatment.
5. Schedule a kick-off meeting and confirm your organization’s “go” decision.
Once your team has read the solicitation and has a good sense of USAID’s desired approach, your proposal manager should schedule a kickoff meeting with your proposal development team and senior leadership. At this meeting, you will:
- Discuss why this opportunity is important to your organization and confirm your “go” decision;
- Brainstorm relevant prior experience and how to build upon that to address the requirements of the solicitation;
- Formulate a “win theme” for your proposal—an “earworm” that your team wants USAID to remember;
- Identify knowledge gaps and plan for how to fill them (desk research and/or outreach to your network);
- Identify experience and expertise gaps, discuss what organizations could help fill them, and plan for this outreach to potential partners;
- Review the proposal due date, your proposed schedule, and the roles that staff members will play;
- Go over the proposal evaluation criteria provided with the solicitation and discuss how your proposal will match up to those criteria; and
- Have an initial discussion about budget to ensure alignment.
A strong proposal will often require a lot of team brainstorming to work out the many facets of the technical solution. The writing can only come once the content has been developed and fine-tuned.
Phase II: Gather information and write the technical solution.
6. Fill in information gaps.
In your kickoff meeting, your team may have identified some information gaps to address before your proposal can be formulated. Begin that research now, so that your proposal will include recent, relevant facts and figures and will demonstrate a solid understanding of the subject matter. This is also when your organization should be doing community/stakeholder engagement to ensure the sustainability and relevance of the proposed interventions and prove to USAID that you truly understand the context and specific needs of the project.
7. Form teaming agreements.
Partnering with capable, respected organizations that have complementary expertise and/or relevant local experience strengthens your proposal and adds credibility to your approach. You may want to develop a “teaming agreement” with another organization doing compatible work. A teaming agreement is an agreement between a prime partner and sub-partners to combine resources in order to respond to a USAID funding opportunity. Teaming agreements are usually legally binding and are negotiated by people with authority from the organizations involved. A properly established teaming agreement reflects the role of each sub-partner, as well as the prime. Find out more about building sub-partnerships in this USAID training module. Be aware that there are two types of teaming agreements—exclusive and nonexclusive. Some solicitations may encourage nonexclusive teaming.
8. Begin drafting.
Start a draft document with the sections you will need (they may be outlined in the solicitation). You may have a lead writer, possibly your proposal technical lead, or you may make assignments to the team members with the expertise to draft each section. Sometimes you may need to have a staggered writing process, as some sections depend on others. For example, it might be necessary to finalize the technical approach before the staffing/management section. Make sure that the writer or writing team continues to coordinate closely with the budget preparer who is developing the cost proposal.
9. Stay on schedule.
The proposal manager supporting your development team will track the schedule your team developed. Proposal timeframes are short, so your proposal manager will remind your team members about internal deadlines. Make sure to leave at least two weeks for review and editing.
Phase III: Review and edit.
10. Polish your writing.
Once your team has a complete draft, your proposal lead and/or another senior staff member should review that draft proposal to ensure it is clear, consistent, and professional, and that the language you use reflects the language in USAID’s solicitation. Your proposal must grab and maintain the interest of the reader while addressing all of the evaluation criteria, as well as instill confidence in your technical expertise and ability to communicate.
- Clear: Avoid jargon and overly technical language. If you must explain a technical component of the project, do not assume knowledge or expertise. Spell out all acronyms at first use.
- Consistent: Make sure that you maintain a consistent tone/voice in your narrative, especially when sections are drafted by different team members: for example, you should decide if it is appropriate to use “we” to refer to your organization, or if you will use the third-person “XYZ Organization.”
- Professional: Avoid informal language, including contractions, and read your proposal from USAID’s point of view to assess how well your idea addresses the needs outlined in the solicitation.
- “Mirror” language: Ensure that your language mirrors that of USAID when describing your development solution. You will often want to use the same terminology and framing that USAID uses in its solicitation. A strong proposal should be very easy for USAID to review because it speaks directly to the solicitation’s evaluation criteria.
11. Circulate for feedback.
Make sure to get as much internal feedback as possible from team members with technical expertise and even colleagues on other comparable initiatives. These reviews should be kept on a tight schedule, and may go through multiple organized levels of review with specific goals at each session. If your organization has a win theme (discussed above), make sure your reviewers are aware of this theme and can evaluate its effectiveness.
12. Edit, edit, edit!
Ensure that you build time in your proposal development schedule for an editor to review your narrative for grammar, punctuation, Amercian English spelling, formatting, clarity, and flow. The editor should reference the formatting requirements in the solicitation and the stylistic guidance in the USAID style guide to ensure a compliant, high-quality document. By submitting an error-free proposal, you will show USAID that you are detail-oriented and that you are attentive to the quality of your work. It’s also important that your editor helps the team adhere to any page limitations stated in the solicitation, as USAID will not review any pages beyond the stated limit.
Writing a USAID proposal requires teamwork, attention to detail, and awareness of deadlines. The process can be daunting for organizations that have never applied for USAID awards before, but with discipline and motivation, you can craft a strong and competitive proposal package.
Watch for the third blog in our “How to Write a USAID Proposal” series for information on the cost proposal.