This article is the first in our three-part “How to Write a USAID Proposal” blog series.
You have an innovative development idea, and you want to secure USAID funding to implement it. You’re eager to jump in and begin writing USAID proposals and concept papers. But wait! Crafting a USAID proposal can be a time-intensive process, so before you spend precious resources on proposal writing, check out the tips we’ve gathered. By following the guidance shared in this blog series, you can help make your proposal-writing process go smoothly, and you can maximize your chances for success.
The following steps can—and should—be taken even before a USAID solicitation is released. (For a refresher on how USAID issues funding opportunities, see this overview of USAID’s solicitation process.) Taking these actions early can help you be ready when the time comes to write your proposal.
Phase I: Positioning Your Organization for Success
1. Ensure that your organization is ready to directly manage USAID funding.
Review the Start Here checklist on WorkwithUSAID.org, and then take the WorkwithUSAID.org Pre-Engagement Assessment to understand your organization’s strengths and capacity gaps. If you find that you are not ready to work as a direct USAID partner (or “prime” partner), don’t worry! Focus on building your experience as a USAID sub-partner (or “sub”) and with other donor organizations while growing your capacity. Remember, organizational development takes time.
2. Do your homework.
- Read the Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) for the country where you hope to work and consider where your development solution fits into the USAID Mission’s overall strategic direction.
- Research other solicitations in your country and sector on Grants.gov and SAM.gov (you can access both through the funding tab on WorkwithUSAID.org), and review past projects in the Development Experience Clearinghouse (“DEC”).
- Respond to any Requests for Information (RFI) or Sources Sought Notices (SSN) in your area of expertise to get your organization on USAID’s radar.
- Begin gathering a standard package of materials that are required for most USAID solicitations (e.g., your organizational capacity statement; copies of your human resources, travel, and procurement policies and procedures; any current NICRA; any approved fringe benefit rate; past performance information; an organizational chart; etc.).
3. Network with potential partners.
You should build relationships with other organizations working in your country and sector. WorkwithUSAID.org has made that easier with our searchable Partner Directory. You can filter by country, sector, or keyword, and if you find a good match, you can contact that organization through the directory itself. Building your knowledge of compatible organizations may help you form partnerships later in the process. You can also talk to current USAID primes and subs to get a real feel for what it’s like being a USAID partner. Finally, it’s always a good idea to stay aware of which organizations are actively investigating opportunities in-country. Watch job boards for organizations that are recruiting for specific roles, such as Chief of Party.
4. Keep an eye on the USAID Business Forecast.
Once you feel confident that USAID is the right fit for you and you are the right fit for USAID, keep an eye on the Business Forecast — which is updated daily. This is where you will get an early glimpse at what programs and activities the Agency is planning. USAID rarely accepts unsolicited proposals, so it is a smarter strategy to determine how your work can support initiatives that the Agency already has underway. The Business Forecast is an important tool to get your organization prepared with the right staffing, resources, and documentation to compete for funding.
Phase II: Preparing for a Specific Opportunity
5. Make an initial “go” or “no go” decision.
When a promising opportunity appears on the Business Forecast, your organization’s senior leadership will make a “go” or “no go” decision about whether to pursue that opportunity once it comes out as a solicitation. Proposals can be a costly venture, not to mention the major impact of a new project on your organization. Leaders in your organization must ensure that you can adequately resource the proposal, that it's a good fit with your organizational growth strategy, and that your organization can be a competitive candidate before committing significant resources.
6. Identify your team.
When your organization’s leadership identifies a potential opportunity on the horizon, it’s time to get set up for success. A proposal development team usually has at least three core members:
- A proposal manager who organizes the team and keeps the project on schedule,
- A proposal technical lead who serves as the main subject matter expert and may lead the writing, and
- A budget preparer who assembles the cost proposal and budget narrative.
The core team will be drawn from existing staff, but you may need to supplement your organization’s skill sets with additional support. For example, you should ensure that you can connect with a strong copy editor to review your proposal for correct grammar, punctuation, formatting, clarity, and flow. And if your team does not include anyone with prior experience writing USAID proposals, you could consider seeking external support.
7. Create a proposal development schedule and template.
You can prepare your proposal development schedule before USAID releases the solicitation. Map out your plan and create a proposal template before the solicitation is released. Most USAID solicitations are open for 30-45 days after they are issued. FundsforNGOs.org has a basic schedule that you can customize for your team. While it may seem like a good idea to begin drafting portions of your proposal ahead of the solicitation, it is better to wait so that you know USAID’s exact language and framing of the opportunity. (One exception might be your organizational capacity statement, which outlines your prior experience and can be developed ahead of time.) Even at this early stage, some organizations may also begin conducting field visits to collect data for their proposal in the location of the future project.
All USAID awards are unique, and each proposal process will differ, but the steps you take now to prepare for responding to a solicitation can give you a strong head start once the right opportunity is released. More importantly, most of these actions—researching your sector, networking, etc.—are beneficial for your organization no matter what partnership path you pursue.
Read some tips for Day 1 and beyond in our second blog in this series.