We asked three esteemed leaders in their fields to share tips on what makes a winning proposal. Each offered great insights based on their perspective and experience. We’ll share the questions we asked and a summary of their answers to help you enhance your proposal writing skills.

Our expert advisors included:

  • Atiba Mbiwan, The Zeist Foundation, Inc. Associate Director
  • Crystal Brown, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Director, Gender & Well-Being
  • Ayana Gabriel, Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Program Officer, Fostering Opportunity

 

Question 1. What is the most important thing you need to take away from a proposal that makes it stand out from the rest?

  • That it’s written well.
  • That all the people who are listed as part of the team contributed to the proposal (I can usually tell.)
  • I look for critical thinkers that are addressing the issues.
  • That the budget is aligned with the work and the proposed program/initiative is aligned with the organization’s mission.
  • I hope they actually answered the questions.

— Atiba Mbiwan
Proposals should really embody the philosophy for the program the contractor is writing for. For example, if writing a proposal for a teen program, there should be a strong emphasis on teen youth development and experiences that align for the specific age group. Also, most important is how the experience that the contractor can develop is different from what BGCA, another organization or contractor can provide. We are looking for cutting-edge and relevant experiences.

— Crystal Brown
It depends on the initiative. For example, our STEAM grant initiative was looking for innovation, best practices around STEAM, and impacting populations that typically don’t have access to high-quality STEAM education. For ed reform, it is completely different. I’ve noticed most grants will describe the spirit of what they care about, I look for persons aligning to that spirit.

— Ayana Gabriel

 

Question 2: What do you read first?

I always look at the price tag first. I then scan the program to check the feasibility/logic of the strategy and impact. Have you done this before? What track record of success do you have? Who are you impacting? I always search organizations websites to see evidence of their work. I will search for past work. I also care a lot about the leadership so I pay close attention to their team and board members. Sometimes going into LinkedIn to see their backgrounds.

— Ayana Gabriel

 

On a scale of 1-6, I would rate the following (in terms of importance and where we typically focus our attention)
Executive Summary – 6;
Approach to Work – 1;
Budget – 3;
Timeline/Workplan – 2;
Team Bios – 4;
Full Narrative – 5

— Crystal Brown

 

I flip through the whole proposal first. I ask, what’s in it? How long is it? Then I put it down so I can read it later with fresh eyes.

— Atiba Mbiwan

 

Question 3: Does glitz matter?

I prefer a proposal that’s visual. Just words drain my brain quicker. Avoid words you don’t really understand. (leverage, innovation, disruptor, iteration)

— Atiba Mbiwan

 

A clean layout is the most important with data to drive your efforts. Anything your team could pull to align it with your approach to work and the work plan would be strong. Incorporating this is the most important.

— Crystal Brown

 

For me no. I look for a track record of success, leadership, soundness of strategy, alignment to what we are looking for, etc.

— Ayana Gabriel

 

Question 4: Is there an ideal length?

We have a bias in society that better is bigger. It’s the opposite. Less is best.

— Atiba Mbiwan

Not necessarily. I have seen proposals with lengths ranging from 15-25 pages.

— Crystal Brown

 

In general, it needs to be something I would get through in 30 minutes. So keeping it succinct and ordered is important. It is ok to have a long appendix and a 5 – 10-page proposal.

— Ayana Gabriel

 

Final Words of Wisdom

  1. Align to the organization’s mission.
  2. Align to the organization’s priorities.
  3. Align the budget to the work.
  4. Follow instructions.
  5. Answer the questions.

— Atiba Mbiwan

 

Make sure you have a full scope of the work so that the team can respond accordingly. Ask the hard questions…. What are you really looking for? What is the vision? Who are all of the stakeholders? What is most important? What are the non-negotiable of the project?

Make sure that you get these answers so that you can return a proposal in complete alignment.

— Crystal Brown

 

For proposals, I look for the references that aren’t listed. So I will ask people I know about the organization’s work.

— Ayana Gabriel