Every proposal manager has their own approach to the pre-proposal phase, which we can define for the purposes of this post as a point in which you (1) know some amount about a funding opportunity (pre-solicitation, request for information, or inputs gathered from donor conversations), but (2) do not yet have the full solicitation. This is usually when the capture process is already well underway, but if that's not the case we've got more for you on capture strategy in previous posts.
I've worked with teams that basically skip this phase (these are usually the teams that are completely overloaded and playing proposal whack-a-mole, in which case I recommend exploring our series on the importance of a better Go/No Go process).
Some don't do much during this stage because they're already on top of the recommended pre-proposal inputs below and only need to make some tweaks and updates. (Go you! Take a coffee break Also, teach us your ways.)
Some managers like to start their proposal writer on actually writing out proposal narrative in this stage. This may be tempting if you either have staff who happen to not be too busy or you're hiring a dedicated contractor to write. In other words, you have availability.
But we should never be allocating proposal team time based on availability -- instead, we should be thinking about return on investment.
The return on investment for drafting proposal narrative at this phase is low. Even if you have pre-solicitation information detailed enough to allow you to outline the proposal, this information is subject to change. You'll very likely have your writer put a great deal of time into content that will eventually need to be re-written.
Think of it instead like a chef and create your mise en place: getting all your ingredients prepped and in their place before you begin cooking. The part where you're actually cooking the meal can come together quite quickly and smoothly if you've got a good mise en place.
It's just the same for a proposal: having good building blocks prepared without actually launching into writing the narrative will set you up well to respond quickly, while still giving you flexibility to adapt according to differences between what you anticipated and what the final guidance from the donor looks like.
Theory of change: This can keep so much information together in one place - problems analysis of the problems your organization most commonly takes on, cataloging evidence for the solutions you've found to work, and working through the causal connections between them. A robust, broad theory of change for the environments you work in can take a while to put together, but it creates a ready source of project design once donor information highlights which pathways of change the specific project will focus on.
Past performance review library: The only reason that you should be updating evidence from ongoing and previous process during live proposal window is if the project came out with a new project report during that window. Otherwise, data on project results and sharp project summaries is something that can be kept ready in advance. Maintain your "on file" version with as much information as you might ever need so that you can quickly tailor it by trimming it down to meet the focus and specifications of a specific opportunity.
Key Staff Curriculum Vitae: Thanks to your robust capture process, you should know at least some of your key staff at this point. You also may have a roster of go-to staff you regularly mention in proposals for technical expertise. Don't hold off on editing and formatting these CVs until the proposal is live! As with past performance, your "on file" version can be longer so that tailoring for the specific opportunity is a matter of trimming down to the most project-relevant information. However, I usually find even the first step of getting various CVs into a standard template, copy editing, and cutting out fluff I know we'll never need takes quite a bit of time. So why not knock that task out early?
Next time you find yourself with some proposal team time available in the pre-proposal phase, refer back to this list and see how your proposal mise en place is coming along. Getting prepared while you await the full solicitation is a great priority -- just make sure you are maximizing how that time is spent with the right kind of preparation.