Winning at the Proposal Game

From soothing a client's privacy concerns to building in options for more work down the road, a good pitch is as much art as science

By Karen E. Klein

Q: Earlier this year, I launched a small, home-based secretarial service. Recently, I met with the volunteer chairman of a nonprofit organization and told him I would put together a proposal for his consideration. I have a number of exciting ideas to address his administrative concerns, but I'm unsure what to include in my pitch. What information about his outfit should I be sure to ask for? What information should I provide about my business? Are there proposal templates or samples available to help guide me? -- L.R., Lansing.


At the very least, your proposal should contain three elements: First, the deliverables -- what you will do for the client and what the client can expect from you. Don't make this section too broad, cautions Barbara Lewis, of the Centurion Consulting Group, who advises: "A client may want additional services, and if they're not in the proposal, then you can ask for more money before proceeding with work that's outside the original scope."


  You may also want to be cautious about detailing all the innovative ideas you have for the project, says Linda Pinson, author of Automate Your Business Plan. "It can be risky to give away your entire plan," she says. "One time, early in my career, I listed a whole bunch of great ideas in a proposal and the client ended up paying us for writing the plan and finding somebody else to implement it!" So, try to find the fine line between getting the client excited about your services and giving up all your creative capital.

The second element to include in your proposal is a bit about the timing, so the client knows when you can deliver the product or service. And finally, you'll want to include your fee. "Some of the total fee should be remitted at the beginning of the project and the remainder at the end," Lewis says. Make sure you detail the expenses that you will be expecting the client to pay for -- with his approval as need arises, of course. For secretarial and administrative work, the norm is to charge by the hour for a defined scope of services, and then include a provision for additional payments in return for work on special projects such as planning and organizing fundraisers or producing a newsletter. Make sure that your fee structure builds in this avenue for growth.

Then there is the sort of additional information that, while not absolutely necessary, will enhance the thoroughness and professionalism of your proposal: A "background to the assignment" section that reflects your knowledge of the client's situation, for example, would include the facts that you've learned about this organization, either from the client directly or through your own research. Also, a brief discussion of key issues wouldn't go astray. This would involve briefly detailing the reasons the organization needs your services, and how you plan to solve their problems if you are hired. This can be followed by your "proposed approach," which gives the methodology you would use for accomplishing the work and provides the potential client an idea of the logistics involved. In order to pull together these portions of the proposal, it may be necessary for you to ask some follow-up questions, do some research on both the organization and nonprofits in general, and come up with suggestions.


  Finally, include some information on yourself and your business. This part would list relevant work experience, your outfit's background, your educational accomplishments, and anything else that will enhance the client's faith in your abilities to make his life easier, simpler, and more efficient. Include references from current clients, particularly if you already work for other nonprofits. And make absolutely certain that you assure the client that the work you do for his organization will be strictly confidential. A lot of proprietary information is typically handled by a secretarial service, and nonprofits can be particularly protective of their donor lists and contribution information.

Lewis recommends that you attach a cover letter to the proposal, outlining the elements contained within it. "This can be a persuasive document for convincing the prospect of your knowledge and expertise," she says.

For more guidance, you might want to check the Web site of Sant Corp., which specializes in proposal-writing software and also markets a book, Persuasive Business Proposals. Another source of low-cost proposal-writing software is, You may find that it is perfectly adequate for a home-based firm like yours. Good luck landing the job!

Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.

Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who specializes in covering covered entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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