The 6-Week Proposal Process

For many funding opportunities, particularly Request for Applications (RFAs) released by government agencies, you’ll have roughly six weeks to prepare and submit your proposal.

For private foundations, the response times can vary significantly depending on whether the foundation has rolling or set deadlines for receiving applications. Sometimes you’ll need to work within a very short window of 2-3 weeks, which can happen when a funder requires brief letters of interest before inviting a shorter list of applicants to submit full applications. However, six weeks is an average amount of time to prepare a proposal.

With this six-week period in mind, you can create a proposal development plan that consists of a general timeline of draft due dates and review periods. Once you have a general outline for 6-week proposal process in place, you can then adjust it as needed for opportunities that have shorter or longer time horizons.

The Building Blocks of a Proposal Calendar

What Tasks Need to Be Scheduled?

Writing a grant usually consists of the following steps, in the following order. Each of these steps should make its way onto the calendar:

Week 1

  • The grant announcement/RFA is distributed to the proposal team. The “team” should be broadly defined to include everyone who may play a role in preparing the proposal. Usually, this translates into one or more senior leaders of the organization, technical staff whose expertise will be central to the response, development staff representatives, and the finance staff who will be in charge of developing the proposal’s budget.
  • An initial meeting is held. This meeting can be conducted in-person or virtually, will take 60-90 minutes, and will be an opportunity to review the strategy for the response, team roles (i.e., which team members will be participating as writers, which as reviewers), and the key due dates for the proposal’s development.
  • Follow-up meeting held to discuss the outline of the response. Follow-up meetings will review the details of what should be covered in each proposal section, the themes to emphasize, etc. These more technical meetings will be attended by a subset of those who attended the initial meeting. Once the outline of the response has been created, and roles assigned, the next step is to start writing.

Week 2

  • The first draft is due. The first draft (again, assuming a 6-week turnaround) should be due about a week after the initial meeting, but no later than 1.5 weeks after the initial meeting. If more than one person is writing the proposal, each writer’s piece will need to be reviewed and assembled into a single draft to distribute to the reviewers. Depending on the proposal’s complexity and length, it may take several hours to assemble the draft for review.
  • First draft review. The draft is distributed to the reviewers (~3-5 people) for comment. The reviewers should be given ~24-48 hours for their review.
  • Comments distributed. The comments from the reviewers should be reviewed and assembled (removing any duplicate/similar comments) and sent back out to the writers. This task of going through the comments and sending the draft back out to the writing team can take a few hours.

Week 3

  • Second draft due for the technical proposal. The technical draft will follow the same pattern outlined above—sections assembled and distributed to reviewers (ideally, a different set of reviewers than with the first draft). The review panel will again be given ~24-48 hours to review.
  • First draft of the budget due. The budget components depend on the contents of the technical proposal. For this reason, the first draft of the budget will come out around the time of the second draft of the technical proposal, after there is an idea of what the project will involve and who will do what. The review process for the budget will be different than for the technical proposal and will usually involve a different set of reviewers.  The review process for the budget, at least for the first review, might consist of a meeting between the finance staff member who prepared the budget and the technical lead for the narrative proposal.
  • Comments due, second draft. As with the first draft, the comments will be assembled, reviewed, duplicate comments eliminated, etc. and any remaining comments will be sent to the writers for their response.

Week 4

  • Third draft of the proposal due. The third draft will probably be the last draft before final polishing. As with the prior drafts, the proposal pieces will be assembled and distributed to reviewers.
  • Second draft of the budget due. If all of the activities to be completed have been identified, and all of the personnel who will be covered by the grant have been named, the budget can move to the next level of review. The review could be a sign off at the organization or institutional level or, for smaller organizations, by the organization's director. For the final budget review, the reviewers will probably ask for a final, or near-final, copy of the technical proposal.

Week 5

  • Final review of the technical proposal. By the time the final review phase has been reached, the proposal will have undergone at least two reviews by a handful of people. The final review may involve 1-2 senior leaders, or possibly just the head of the organization, and could lead to a decision to reorganize or rethink parts of the proposal. Because the final review may raise new issues, it is important to allow several days for this part of the process.
  • Technical proposal and budget finalized: By the middle of Week 5, the content of the technical proposal and budget should be final. There should be no remaining substantive (i.e., major) issues by this point in the process. The remaining tasks to be completed over the next week should be at the “polishing” level.
  • Assemble the final draft: The technical proposal, attachments/supporting materials, and budget are likely to be separate files. They will need to be gathered together and assembled into a single package, depending on the funder’s instructions. The budget may need to a stand-alone file or combined with the technical proposal (with the table of contents adjusted accordingly) and submitted as a single package.
  • Editing. The proposal will have gone through multiple reviews at this stage, but these reviews will have been at the content level, not the copyediting level. It's beneficial to have a staff member do a close read of the proposal and look for issues in formatting, spelling, grammar, and consistency in terminology at this stage. If your organization can afford it, you can hire an editor to edit the proposal for you. If you plan on using an external editor, you'll want to make this decision early in the proposal process to ensure enough time to find a suitable editor and complete the necessary paperwork.

Week 6

  • Final edits and submission: It can take several days to assemble, photocopy, and send off the proposal electronically or by mail. To protect against last-minute problems with the submission process, aim to submit the proposal several days before the deadline.

Tips on Assembling the Calendar

  • Writing Time: The first draft of the proposal is usually the hardest, so consider allowing the writers more time to work on the first draft than for the subsequent ones.
  • Review Process: The review process should involve several people, but not too many, as it can be overwhelming to try to schedule the reviews and respond to all of the feedback. The first-round review panel should be the largest as it is helpful to receive the most feedback early in the process when there's still time to address major problems. As the drafts continue, the review panel ideally should shrink. The final review might consist of just 1-2 people. The review panels can function different ways, with either concurrent or serial reviews. With concurrent reviews, the reviewers receive the draft at the same time and submit their feedback at the same time. With the serial review process, one person reviews and then passes the draft on to the next person. The advantage of the serial review process is that it can eliminate the risk of duplicate comments on an issue. The disadvantage of the serial review is that if one person falls behind in the review process, it will delay the whole review process.
  • Institutional Sign Off:  If you are part of a large institution or organization, it may be possible to have the institutional review and sign off before the technical proposal is in its final, polished form. The Institution will probably be most concerned about the budget piece so the technical proposal could still be undergoing edits at the time of the institutional review.
  • Holidays: When creating the proposal calendar, be sure to note any holidays that fall into the 6-week period and could affect members of the team. The holidays should be factored into the timeline and not scheduled as due dates for any of the pieces.