Managing the Proposal Draft Process: Templates & Communication Strategies to Keep You on Track

The last post covered one of the pieces (or pillars) you'll need as you build the framework for your proposal, which is to have a system in place for collecting and defining abbreviations.

In this post, we'll cover two more essential pieces of the proposal management process. The first is to create a template or proposal "shell" for the drafting process. The second piece we'll review is some of the tools you can use to manage the draft  process and keep team members informed of changes to the proposal schedule and proposal development process.

Advantages of Writing a Proposal Using a Template

Creating a proposal template is one of the most important things you can do to facilitate the proposal process.  The template comes into play at one of two points. Either you can use the template from the start of the process, beginning with the first draft. Or, you can create a template that you'll use at the end of the process after the proposal text is finalized.  The pros and cons of each approach are discussed below.

How to Create a Proposal Template

The easiest way to create a template is to create a new document in Word and use the proposal guidelines to build your outline.

Do you have to use Word? No, not necessarily. If the proposal will be submitted as a PDF, any word processing program that can be converted to a PDF will work. However, some funding opportunities require the proposal to be submitted as a Word document, or even sometimes in two versions, Word and PDF. Before you start to build your template, review the funder's guidelines to confirm the required format. If the funder requires proposals to be submitted in Word, create the proposal template in Word. The goal of the template is to save time, so building your proposal in the format you'll ultimately use for the submission will streamline the process.

Advantages of Using a Template for the Drafting Process

Having a  template for the proposal draft process can provide much-needed structure. A template allows the writers to insert draft text directly into a document formatted to the funder's guidelines and with the required headings and sections already in place.

Using a template at the start of the proposal writing process should reduce the amount work you'll need to do when you are finalizing the proposal. If you use a proposal shell from the start of the process, the proposal should already be organized correctly and have the correct margins and font sizes throughout. Having the basic structure in place means you will be free to focus your final days on the proposal refining the text rather than formatting it. A template can also prevent the proposal from going way over the page limits, which can easily happen if the proposal writers use a smaller font than the one required by the guidelines when writing their draft text.

The Downsides of Using a Template

for the Drafting Process

There are a few potential downsides to using a template. The first is that while an advantage of using a template is that it helps writers stay more aware of page limits, the disadvantage is that by being aware of page limits, the proposal writers may self-edit too much.

The draft process--particularly the first draft--is useful to generate ideas. Although more structured than a brainstorming exercise, the early drafts of a proposal serve to get ideas on paper. With each draft, the ideas are refined as the process moves along and writers respond to feedback from reviewers. If the writers are too conscious of the page limits, there is a risk they will limit their ideas to fit into the allotted space and not use the draft process as a means of working through ideas.

A related risk of using a template is that having the headings of the proposal sections in front of them can squash some writer's creative thinking.

For example, if you are assigned to write the proposed project's management plan, seeing "Project Management" in the section heading may lead some writers to produce plodding text that answers the basic question "what does it look like." If instead the writer starts with a blank page and the question, "How should this project be managed to produce the best results?" the writing might be more dynamic and the answer more thoughtful and innovative.

Whether using a template will have a dampening effect on the writers depends on their personalities and work style. It may take a couple of proposals to determine what works best for the team members and produces the strongest content.

Another risk of using a template for the drafting process is that word processing programs like Word can be notoriously unstable. If you create your template in Word with the goal of having the template evolve into the final proposal, you may find at the 11th hour that the document has become corrupted. Mysterious page-break issues and other formatting problems may crop up and no matter what you do, you may find you cannot correct them.

If you build your final proposal by adding to, and editing, the same Word document, you may not be able to find a version of the document that is problem free without going back to one of the earliest drafts.

You can still have formatting problems if you cut-and-paste text from another document into a template after the content has been generated, but the problems can be easier to correct.

How to Resolve Common Formatting Issues

If formatting issues develop after your insert a block of text into your template, the problem should resolve as soon as you undo ("ctrl z" if you use a PC) whatever you did right before the problem appeared. While undoing the last action will solve the immediate problems in the template,  you'll still need to find a way to get the text inserted again without having the problems return.

Here are three options to explore:

  • One option, if a relatively small amount of text is causing the problem, is to type the text directly into the final template. Again, this is only a viable option if there is not a lot of text to import.
  • A second option, a little more tricky, but doable, is to convert both the template and a separate Word document with the troublesome text to PDFs. Merge the PDFs by inserting the new text into its appropriate spot in the template document, and then adjust the line spacing, page breaks, etc. to create a seamless document. You'll need Adobe Acrobat Pro to do this.
  • A third option, also requiring Acrobat Pro, is to convert both the problematic text and template into PDFs, merge them, and then convert the newly combined document back into Word. With luck, after the conversion to PDFs, the problems won't reappear when you return to Word. This option would only be worth pursuing if you want to continue to work in Word or if you need to submit the document as a Word file.

Correcting formatting issues can take a long time, and the solution isn't always straightforward. This is yet another reason you should create your proposal schedule with generous margins so you have the time you need to resolve any problems.

Three Ways to Collaborate on Proposal Drafts

In addition to deciding whether you'll use a template to build the draft, you'll also need to decide how you and the other team members will share the draft during the collaborative process. Three common methods are:

  •  Email. Email is usually the default method of sending in proposal sections and circulating the draft for review. This method works pretty well, and it's easy, which is why most people use it. The main problem with using email to circulate drafts is version control. Version control issues can creep up in a number of ways, including:
    • Wrong version attached to an email: If you have a proposal draft circulating by email, at some point an older or incorrect version of the document may inadvertently be attached to an email and enter circulation. This is hard to prevent if email is being used to pass the draft from one writer or reviewer to another.
    •  New file name introduced: A second problem that may occur is when someone saves the proposal draft under a new file name, or a name that doesn't conform to pre-established naming standards and you're left not knowing which draft is the current one. You can compare the documents by merging them into a new document, but the review can take time and may not tell you which draft is the most recent one.
    • Confidentiality Issues: With email there is always a risk that a copy of the proposal draft may inadvertently be sent to the wrong person because an incorrect email address was entered.
  • Shared Drive: If you work at an organization with an intranet, which is an internal network that only you and your colleagues can access, another option is to create a proposal folder on the intranet where you can store the proposal drafts and supporting materials. Using a shared drive can work well because it offers a central storage location, but it can present similar problems to email.
    • Version control. With a shared folder, you'll need to be careful to set up a schedule so that everyone knows when it is their turn to go in and work on the file. If you do not do this,  you may find that more than one person has gone into the folder, copied the file, and is working on the document from their desktop. Version control problems can also occur when someone retrieves the proposal draft from the folder, makes changes, and either forgets to return the draft to the folder, update the file name, or otherwise indicate that they've worked on the draft.
    • Confidentiality issues. If someone can copy the proposal draft and save it onto their computer, there is a risk that the document may eventually end up in an email and begin a distribution path you are not able to track. To limit the risk of this happening, you may want to limit access to the proposal folder to only a few team members. One other challenge to note with using a shared drive relates to external partners: If you are developing the proposal with external partners, it may be difficult to grant access to a folder on your intranet. At least for purposes of communicating with your external partners, you may end up having to resort to email.
  • SharePoint or Other Web-Based Platform: If your organization uses SharePoint, there are several reasons to choose it as your primary proposal storage and collaboration system. One major advantage of SharePoint and other Web-based tools is that you can grant access to the site to anyone, including those outside of your organization if you are working with external partners. Second, with SharePoint and other online document storage options like Dropbox, you can control access to the document by setting user permissions.  You can make the document read-only, or restrict it so it cannot be downloaded. You can also require team members to check-out the document, which locks the document for editing. Only the person who has checked out the document can edit it while everyone else on the team retains read-only access. With the check-out system, there is never any confusion about who is working on the document. Everyone can see who checked it out and can request automatic notification when it has been checked back in. The third advantage of SharePoint and other online systems is that they are flexible. You can store all of the proposal content on a SharePoint site including proposal drafts, the budget pieces, and the supporting materials, but limit access so not everyone has access to every folder or page. Having one central "hub" for all the proposal pieces is convenient. It is a lot easier to direct everyone to a single site than to say, "The proposal drafts are shared by email; the budget is in a secure intranet folder; and the supporting materials, the team list, and the proposal calendar are all on the SharePoint site."

While SharePoint and other Web-based systems resolve many of the issues found in the other methods,  they are not without their challenges:

  • Web-based systems can be confusing. SharePoint is powerful project management tool. However, it can be confusing to the new user. To use SharePoint effectively, you need training and lots of practice. If all of the proposal team members are not comfortable with SharePoint or committed to using it, it will not work as a tool to manage the proposal.
  • Web-based systems take work. Even if the team knows how to use the  Web-based system, whether it is SharePoint or something else, there will be a strong pull toward relying on email. Using email is second nature. Most of us send emails every day and find it fast and convenient to send attachments via email. SharePoint takes extra work. Not a lot of work, but more effort than sending an email. You have to type in a Web address, sign in, and then follow whatever restrictions are in place for version control. It is hard to get people to use a system if it involves multiple steps and limits their freedom.
  • Web-based systems take time to setup: Related to the point above about the work involved with a Web-based system, it takes work to build the SharePoint site. When you launch a SharePoint site for the first time, all you have is a blank template. To get a working site, you have to design it to fit your purpose, adding the pages, user restrictions, and "apps" that you want to have such as a shared calendar. Doing this can take hours so SharePoint is not a good pick if you don't have some lead time. If you throw up a SharePoint site that is confusing and not well-designed, even those team members who are willing to give it a shot will probably not use it. Additionally, if you are working with external partners, they may need to create a new account before they login to the site, which can take time and may be confusing to the new user.

Each of the three methods for circulating and managing the proposal drafts--email, intranet, or Web-based--will do the job. You may decide to use some combination of the three, such as using SharePoint for the writing process and email to send the document to the review panel. Whatever approach you choose, make sure it works with the team. If team members dislike SharePoint (and many fall in this camp) or don't like the idea of using a folder on the intranet, you may find yourself relying on email.

Communicating Updates

A central responsibility of a proposal manager is to keep everyone informed of changes to the proposal schedule. The proposal schedule, which all team members should have a copy of at the start of the proposal process, is not static. Your deadlines may begin to slip as early as the first week of the proposal development process. Being proactive and keeping the team informed of any revisions to the schedule can reduce questions and the stress the team can feel when they are not sure what is going on and when their assignments are due.

How you choose to communicate the updates will partly depend on what system you use to develop the proposal. If you are using a project management software or a SharePoint site, you'll have the option of communicating with team members within that platform.

You can also send out email updates to everyone. Although not everyone reads their email messages carefully, most people do at least scan them. In contrast, not everyone will take the time to log in to a SharePoint site or other Web-based system to check for messages on the virtual bulletin board or to view the project calendar. If you go with email,  it helps to use a template with consistent headings in each message. A consistent structure will help readers to scan your messages and find the information they want.

Up Next

In the next post we'll continue the proposal management process by going over essential points relating to the packaging and submission of the final draft.