How to Create a Proposal Binder

Past posts have covered how to find opportunities, identify the ones that look like strong prospects, and use online tools to organize your work and manage your email. In this post, we'll start the process of launching the proposal process.

After you identify an opportunity to respond to, you'll want to prepare a proposal binder to organize your materials. You may want to prepare several copies of the binder, one for each member of the proposal team.  The contents of the binder will vary depending on how complicated the proposal is. However, there is some standard information you'll want to include in each proposal binder.

Basic Contents of the Proposal Binder

  • Copy of the opportunity announcement (request for applications [RFA], request for proposals [RFP] request for letters of intent [LOI])
  • Copy of the opportunity summary completed during go/no-go review
  • A summary of the proposal requirements (required sections, formatting and submission instructions, etc.)
  • Copy of past proposal, if relevant (i.e. if the RFA is funding a follow-on to a project your organization currently manages)
  • Copy of any pre-solicitation material, if relevant
  • Information about the funder (e.g. foundation or government agency)
  • List of proposal team members with their contact information
  • Tentative proposal outline, with room to add the names of the lead writers once they are assigned
  • Copy of the proposal calendar (what is due by when)
  • Copy of any proposal guidance (i.e. the organization's style sheet and standard processes for working on proposals)
  • Meeting agendas and notes

Additional Content for Foundation Grants

  • The foundation's annual report
  • List of recent grant recipients for similar projects
  • Information about past projects the foundation has funded in the relevant program area
  • Copy of select pages from the foundation's website
  • Copy of foundation's general grant submission guidelines and eligibility rules

Additional Content If It Is a Government-Funded Grant

  • Relevant pages from the funding agency's website that illustrate its interests and current projects
  • Information on the agency's recent grants--who received them, what was funded, where the work took place
  • If a similar grant or program has been funded in the past, information about that project and its impact
  • If the grant funds work in a specific geographic region, list of related government-funded projects operating in the same area (and possibly funded by other government agencies)

Choosing Physical Binders or Digital Folders

to Store Proposal Materials

Whether you go with a physical binder or digital folders to manage a proposal depends on how you work best as well as the culture of your organization. It also depends on what resources you have to store and share digital materials.

Physical Binders

If you prefer working with paper,  a physical binder will be the way to go. You may also want to go ahead and create physical binders if your colleagues primarily take written notes and prefer to read physical copies of documents rather than digital ones. If your organization uses desktop computers instead of laptops--and are therefore unlikely to have a computer with them during meetings--you may want to create physical binders.

Physical binders can be easier and faster to access than digital ones since you don't have to wait for a computer to boot up or remember a login to get to the materials. All you need to do is grab the binder from the shelf.

The disadvantages of physical binders include that they can be heavy and clunky to lug around. They are not ideal if you need to travel to attend proposal meetings.  Creating a physical binder is more expensive than going digital because you'll need to buy the binders, the paper for the copier machine, the tabbed pages, etc. Physical binders are also less environmentally friendly. You'll use a lot of paper to create the binders, and most of the paper will be recycled in just a few short weeks once the proposal has been submitted. Still, physical binders have their place. Especially for people who have difficulty reading long documents on a screen, they are going to be the best option.

Digital Folders

Going the digital route and creating a virtual proposal binder can work very well. Increasingly well, in fact, as the number of options for sharing information and collaborating online increase.  If your organization has an intranet that you use for shared folders, you can set up a series of folders for the proposal team with varying permissions. Because you're establishing a virtual file cabinet, after you decide to respond to a particular opportunity you might want to go ahead and create all the folders you'll need for the entire process. This includes the materials gathered for the preliminary start-up period to the draft-generating phase all the way to folders for organizing the final draft of the proposal.

Suggested folders include:

  • All-Team Folder: The all-team folder will store the core content outlined above (opportunity description, team contact information, proposal calendar, etc.). Everyone on the team should have access to this folder.
  • The Budget Folder: If your organization has an intranet, it is large enough to have a dedicated finance staff. The finance staff probably has a system set up already to store budget information securely in password-protected folders. If it does not, you'll create a folder for budget information that is accessible on a "need-to-know" basis. This folder will contain draft budgets along with any supporting documentation required for the budget proposal.
  • The Proposal Narrative Folder: The proposal narrative folder (technical proposal folder or proposal application folder, whatever fits best) is where you will store the drafts and ultimately the final copy of the narrative proposal. Note that the budget usually has a narrative piece (the budget description or budget notes) that will go into the budget folder. Who has access to the proposal narrative folder depends on how you structure your proposal team. If you have a large proposal team with many writers and reviewers, you may want to limit access to the proposal narrative folder to just a few people, maybe the proposal managers and the senior technical lead. You may also want to create folders for each section of the technical proposal and limit access to those individuals involved in the writing and reviewing that particular section.
  • Supporting Materials: Some proposal require few supporting materials--maybe a copy of the 501(c)(3) documentation, but that's it. However, for the larger, more complex proposals, there will be a long list of attachments and you'll want to have a dedicated folder. Supporting materials can include copies of staff CVs, a table breaking down staff training and experience (the skills matrix), and letters of support from partner organizations.
  • The Final Proposal Folder: This folder will store the final versions of everything--the narrative, the budget, the attachments. You may want to have two subfolders within this folder, one for the final versions of the document in Word or other editable program, and another set saved as PDFs. A second folder should store the submitted version of the proposal (which may be different), including a copy of the cover letter.
  • Follow-Up Submissions: After you submit the proposal you may be done. You'll either learn that your proposal didn't get funded or you'll receive an award letter. There is another scenario that sometimes happens, in which the funder comes back and essentially says "I like it, but...." In other words, the funder wants you to make some changes and resubmit (no guarantees it will be funded, but it definitely will not be funded if you don't make the changes and resubmit).  While you could store the revised versions of the proposal in the "final proposal" folder, having one folder containing multiple versions of a document all marked "final" can get confusing. Additionally, you may need to submit other documents as part of the resubmission. Creating a separate best-and-final-offer (BAFO) folder can help you keep each submission organized for later archiving.

Using Third-Party Services to

Store & Share Proposal Materials

If you do not have access to a company intranet or SharePoint site, you may want to set up an online folder system using a third-party service like BoxDropbox, or Google Docs. If you choose a third-party service to store your folders, you'll want to review carefully how to keep your folders private, create collaborative spaces, and control the versions of documents.

Some project management and online storage options may not be optimal for setting up multiple folders with different levels of access. If this is the case, creating fewer folders and limiting access to the online folders to the core proposal team--such as the proposal managers, lead technical staff, and budget manager--might work.

If you do need to limit who can access online folders, you can use email to share drafts with team members. While email can work for this purpose, version control can be harder to manage using email. Additionally, if email is used to transfer drafts, team members will need guidance on which documents are confidential and should be password protected or encrypted before being sent by email. Lastly, before you choose a third-party service for document storage or sharing, make sure that your employer allows the use of a third-party product. Many employers do not, particularly if the account is established as a personal account.

Another option for online storage and collaboration is Microsoft SharePoint. SharePoint is a good option if your need to collaborate with individuals based at other organizations (you can structure the permissions so that external team members have access to either limited folders or the full project site). The downside is that your organization needs to have SharePoint in place, so it isn't a resource you can spontaneously decide to use. A second issue is its usability. SharePoint is a powerful platform but not the most user-friendly.

Up Next: Planning the Proposal Team

In part two of this series covering proposal management, we'll go over forming the proposal team and creating a plan for the first proposal draft.