Consultants we work with often come to us for help negotiating sticky situations with their clients. More often than not, as we start to help them untangle an issue, we realize that much, if not all the friction is attributable to a lack of documentation about the scope of the project. That is, being upfront about what the project encompassed and why. By not starting, as Steven Covey puts it "with the end in mind", both parties may initially believe they're on the same track and don't realize they're not until it is too late.
When you look for where the disconnection started, it typically began with the proposal, or lack there of. So many times consultants, being familiar with their client, will orally review the project, come to a handshake agreement, and proceed. The customer may ask for a contract, but usually what’s given is an organization’s standard form, which doesn't fully articulate what needs to happen with a particular project.
I strongly recommend that consultants use a standard proposal format that documents everything that needs to be done, but also does it in a way that should help their customer confirm that everyone is on the same page.
So what is a format that can help you achieve this open-communication? Our proposals at Civitas Strategies are typically divided up into three sections: 1) Opportunity, 2) Methodology, 3) Project Management.
Opportunity – This section is where we set the stage for the project. As an introduction, we briefly describe the organization or client and a few highlighted accomplishments. We then describe the client’s need and state how Civitas Strategies intends to meet this need through a project (i.e. an evaluation, strategic plan, etc.).
Questions that are typically answered in this section include: Who is the client? What is their background and accomplishments? Where are they now and how would they like to make forward progress? How can Civitas Strategies provide value?
This is your opportunity to confirm that you have correctly heard the challenges and needs of your potential client. I find in our work 90% of the time we are dead-on. But for the other 10%, the Opportunity section enables us to clarify the basis of the project before it ever begins.
The opportunity section does not need to be lengthy- in fact, the more concise the better.
Here’s an example from one of our proposals with the details changed to protect our client:
For the past ten years, ABC Organization has successfully served the children of XYZ City. Over that time, ABC Organization has grown, as have the needs of the city it serves. Though you have strong supporters, the biggest question facing your leadership team and board is how to use those funds to best meet the needs of XYZ City’s Children.
Civitas Strategies is proposing a project to use quantitative and qualitative methods to assess the needs of the community, the capacity of ABC Organization and your partners to meet those needs, and clear recommendations on how you can grow to have an even greater impact on XYZ’s City’s children.
Methodology – The methodology of a project is based on the client need, resources, and project objectives. The purpose of this section is to take the client step-by-step through what you’re going to do.
You should start by stating the objectives of the project. This could be very simple and straight forward, such as “We will provide high-quality teacher professional development services in three middle schools.” It could be more tentative. For example, in our projects we are often trying to assess the ecosystem the client is working in. Instead of just saying we will “assess the ecosystem” we provide a series of questions that we are seeking to answer so they have greater specificity.
Similar to the Opportunity, detailing the objectives let you confirm the definition of project success right at the start.
You can then move into how you actually will conduct the work. I like to use a step-by-step process. That is, first we will do X, then we will do Y, etc. This may be a bit laborious, but you have the chance to be clear on the scope of the project and head off (or at least prepare for) any questions on the scope of your activities once you are implementing. (I cover this in more detail in the “scope creep” section of Small But Mighty).
For my firm, Civitas Strategies, our most common steps include: data collection (both quantitative and qualitative) and analysis and recommendations. It is important to use specific metrics to clearly define the amount of work. For example, you might indicate that you will conduct fifteen one-hour interviews, or hold three one-and-a-half hour planning committee calls. When you discuss analysis and the resulting recommendations, be sure to outline any deliverables that will be produced, such as written reports or presentations.
Here’s an example of one of our methodology sections with client specific information removed to protect privacy:
Specifically, the evaluation will seek to answer the following questions:
1. What impact did X have on outcomes?
2. Based on X’s logic model, was it implemented with fidelity?
3. If x is continued, what modifications based on lessons learned or enhancements would have a high likelihood of positively increasing outcomes?
The evaluation will have two steps: 1) data collection and 2) analysis and recommendations. Both steps are detailed below.
Step 1: Data Collection
To inform the assessment, we will collect both qualitative and quantitative data. Qualitative data will consist of the reflections of X, Y, and Z. Quantitative data will include A and B.
Quantitative data will be provided as requested by X. Specifically, this data will include:
Data point 1
Data point 2
Data point 3
We will collect qualitative data in two ways. First, we will have one-on-one interviews with up to 15 adults. They will include X, Y, and Z.
Second, we will go on-site to conduct three focus groups with X, Y, and Z. One focus group will include X. The other two focus groups will include Y and Z.
During both the interviews and focus groups, we will work to understand how those implementing perceive the effectiveness of execution as it relates to program impact. This data will not only help us understand the fidelity to program models, but also how they were deployed and lessons learned for the future.
Step 2: Analysis and Recommendations
We will analyze the data to look for tends as well as other significant findings based on our experience with similar programs. Our analysis will result in a set of observations and recommendations. They will be captured in a comprehensive report and presentation that will communicate critical information for understanding the impact of X. The report and presentation will:
1. Explain the methodology used to conduct the evaluation (including
a description of both quantitative and qualitative sources).
2. Provide key observations on model fidelity.
3. Present findings of the impact of X.
4. Recommend ways that X could be refined.
Project Management– This section provides specifics of implementation.
For Civitas Strategies, we like to include the: start and end dates for a project, the fee, when the client will be invoiced, and who will be assigned to the project. We recommend making the first payment due upon signing the contract. (See our previous blog Cash is King).
Also, don’t forget to mention expenses. Even if you don’t expect expenses on a project, you never know how things might shift in the future, so it’s helpful to be clear from the beginning. For example, if we know that a project will not likely have any additional expenses aside from the fee, we state, “Expenses will be invoiced at cost, as they are incurred, although none are anticipated for this project.” Also, when we discuss the project team, clients find it helpful and reassuring to know someone’s role as it relates to the project, as well as the biography of each team member and the company bio. The company bio is essentially a document containing the type of information you find on most websites: who you are, what you do, and who you’ve done it for.
There is value to attaching it to every proposal you produce. You may know potential customers well, but you never know who they are going to share proposals with (e.g., board members, staff, volunteers) for opinions. These others may have no idea who you are, so having your bio attached can help distinguish you from competitors.
Here is an example of a typical project management section that outlines project logistics and sets client expectations.
The fee for the project will be $X,XXX invoiced in five equal installments (one upon signing and the remainder at the end of each subsequent month). The project will begin on May 1, 2016 and be completed by August 30, 2016. The following section introduces the project team and summarizes their experience.
A proposal is often the first substantial written interaction that a client has with you. Doing it well is critical for setting the tone for a positive project and mutually beneficial relationship. Do you have any other recommendations for a smooth proposal process? Please share them in the comments section below.
As always if you have any questions that you would want answered in the blog or just directly don’t hesitate to email: firstname.lastname@example.org
With more than 15 years of management and consulting experience, Gary has the expertise and skills to help public serving organizations move from vision to implementation. He is currently CEO of Civitas Strategies, where he helps clients establish realistic strategies that connect to communities’ needs and strengths.
Gary has consulted with a wide array of organizations including: the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Take Stock in Children, The University of Florida Lastinger Center for Learning, and SmartStart Georgia. Gary has also been a line manager in science and engineering firms, (the Battelle Memorial Institute and Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure) and WestCare, Inc., a regional substance abuse prevention and treatment agency. Gary has lectured on human services project management at Boston College and the future of early childhood education at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.