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  • Writer's pictureWhitney Kippes

Building a proposal outline

A few years back, a client came to me with a request to do a compliance review of their proposal. They were about a week away from submission, but had worked with a consultant as a writer and were worried that they hadn’t had enough oversight. Although the proposal sounded good, there were a lot of issues in my review.

The writer either developed or was provided an outline that was so far away from the proposal guidance they were now missing key content. Oops!

Unfortunately I’ve seen this too many times now. The writing was good! But it wasn’t compliant and there was no way it would be a winning proposal. They would have saved themselves a lot of work if the proposal were outlined correctly from the start.

The job of creating a proposal outline of the technical narrative and annexes can fall to the proposal coordinator, manager, or writer, depending on the way an organization structures their proposal roles and responsibilities. That’s why it’s important for anyone who may fall into any of these roles to know how to make a great one.

These are just a few ways that I’ve learned to set up a successful proposal outline - and keep from deviating from that outline throughout the process.


Follow. The. Guidance.

For my USAID bidders, I can tell you exactly where to find this key information - Section D: Application and Submission Information and Section E: Application Review Information. Why and? Because sometimes these sections have conflicting information. My vote is to start with Section D to set the headings and sub-headings for sections using exactly the same language that the solicitation did. That just makes it that much easier for a reviewer to find what they're looking for!

Next, I would identify anywhere that Section E provides different or additional detail. That different or additional information should be something you immediately ask a question about, but it should also be information that can feed in to how you develop sub-headings within the required sections.

For my friends without this much detail in donor guidance? You have more flexibility. A lot of donors show you more or less how they want the bid to be organized, but even for those that don't, you'll want to organize your proposal around what matters most to them. Documenting the logic behind your bid structure can help prevent a last minute change.

Follow. The. Guidance. (part two! For formatting)

I don’t want you to just follow the guidance on section headings and page lengths. Now is the time to set up your document so the layout aligns to the correct page size, margins, and section breaks. You can also use the Styles options within the design elements to ensure that the font sizes meet requirements for each Style. Go ahead and make the color scheme match your company branding, just for good measure.

Keep Donor Guidance Front and Center

This is my own super secret tip, but I like to go into the Review tab and temporarily set my user name to be the same as the donor. Then I add the evaluation guidance and section guidance from the donor in comment boxes throughout the draft under the donor name as the username. Including the page lengths for each section in those comment boxes is key. Any reader who sees the draft going forward will know exactly where those donor comments came from and why they are important to remember.

Once I’ve got it all the guidance in, I switch back to my own name to insert any additional advice or elements I want to highlight to the proposal writer, or just as reminders to myself, keeping those less formal comments completely separate from those that come from the donor guidance.

Set Aside Space for Graphics

Ahh, if only ever proposal outline had this, every writer would be saved having to make cuts in a later draft. Inserting where a theory of change or a staffing table or an organization chart will need to be added up front shows the writer that they’ll need to set aside space. It also ensures that every draft reviewers see has at least a placeholder where a future graphic will be.

Review the Outline Together

Whether at a kick-off meeting or at another proposal writers meeting, go over the entire outline with anyone who will be involved in contributing to the text. In that meeting go through the requirements for each section, ensure you have clarity on who is responsible for contributing and “owning” each piece. At the same time, make sure everyone understands the space constraints for each section.

This is a great time to review the recommended graphics and brainstorm for any additional graphics that might be useful.

Keep an Informed Eye on Drafts

This is one area where any writer’s good intentions can easily go astray, so a good proposal coordinator or manager needs to keep an eye on the proposal throughout the process. On a recent proposal, I discovered that a writer had simply missed a sub-section - they had put it on the back burner to focus on another section and simply forgot to re-prioritize it! That happens - we are all human, after all.

Establishing a process to continually check in on each piece early on can prevent accidentally dropping a ball.


Don't get caught in the trap of writing before you are ready. Work from a detailed outline, using headers and sub-headers as guideposts. Once you are actually ready to start, begin drafting with the easiest and clearest sections and work forward. Talking through confusing sections with a peer before you start writing can be a great time saver.

Keeping these recommendations in mind will lay the foundation for a compliant proposal - the first step toward a win.

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