Take Time to Develop a Proposal Timeline

Many RFPs require that you include a timeline that will describe when your project will actually unfold—remember that the “when” section is part of the 5Ws and H. Even if the RFP writers forget to require a timeline, you should include one anyway, either under the “Project Description” or “Evaluation” sections because the timeline will clarify both your own thinking and the reviewer’s understanding of how you plan to sequence activities and achieve milestones.

Think of your project timeline as something like the timelines cops are always trying to establish in police procedurals. A shocking crime is committed—perhaps a socialite is killed. A rogue cop on the outs with the department is trying to solve the case. The night of the murder, the husband was at a charity ball, while the ex-husband was at the gym, while the husband’s jealous lover was at a taqueria. Could the husband have slipped away between the main course and the souffle? Did the ex-husband have time between 9:45 and 10:45 to slip out of the racquetball game, run over to the condo, and do the deed? In asking these questions, the cop is always trying to figure out if the crime is plausible. He—and he is almost always a “he”—is checking the believability of the tales he’s constructing. When you write a timeline for a proposal, you’re trying to do the same, only for the future. You’re trying to convince yourself, and the reviewer, that you’re believable in doing the job (except in this case the job is human services, not murder, for most nonprofit and public agencies).

Doing a timeline right requires a number of elements, including:

  • Startup Period: You probably can’t start delivering services on the day you execute the contract with the funder. Chances are good that you’ll need staff, training, space, and maybe more. Some RFPs will dictate how long your startup period should last, either from the notice of grant award or from the execution date of your contract. Usually they’ll demand somewhere around 90 days, which is fairly reasonable if it’s from the date you’ve executed your contract. Even if the funder doesn’t include a minimum or maximum startup period, you should. Unless otherwise directed by the RFP or client, we usually include a 90 day startup period.
  • Staff Recruitment/Assignment and Training: Make sure to provide for staff recruitment/assignment and preservice training in the startup period, as well as periodic or annual refresher training. Funders love professional development as much as mystery writers love plot twists, so serve it up in your timeline.
  • Outreach Start: Many if not most projects will involve some effort to get the word out to the target population. You’ll probably need to start outreach prior to the start of service delivery. Outreach is usually an ongoing activity; I might eventually write a post about everything that outreach should entail.
  • Project Oversight/Participant Committee: Most projects should have some form of participant, staff, and community oversight committee mentioned in their proposal. The formation and meeting facilitation of such committees should be reflected in the timeline.
  • Referral and Intake: Once you’ve made the target population and other providers aware of your project, you need some system for deciding who gets services and who doesn’t. Put referral and intake in between outreach and service delivery.
  • Services Start: Whatever services you’re providing should have a start date, often three months after the project begins. In many projects, service delivery is ongoing. In others, the referral/take process is done on a “batch” basis, repeating annually or periodically, rather than ongoing. This is how many job training programs work.
  • Evaluation: Your project should have some form of annual evaluation. The timeline should include some time for developing the evaluation criteria, conducting the evaluation and preparing/disseminating the evaluation reports.

Those are the basic elements for a human services timeline, like the one that might go with Isaac’s hypothetical Project NUTRIA. If you’re doing a capital campaign, you’d have a different set of milestones relating to construction, like permits, architecture, engineering, the commencement of construction, burying the body of Ralph “Ralphie” Cifaretto in the foundation for Tony Soprano, and so on, but the same basic idea would remain: you’d enumerate significant steps in your project, without going into too much minutia. Most of our of timelines are 10 – 15 rows, which is enough to give the general idea while avoiding specifics the client might not want to meet.

You also have to decide how to lay your timeline out. We used to make elaborate Visio drawings, and if we did the same thing today we’d use Omnigraffle Pro. But with the rise of online submissions, it’s too dangerous to use anything but tables in Word; now we usually make tables with three columns: the “date” column, with the number of project months it will take something to happen; a “milestone” column that will say something like “evaluation begins” and a “description” column that will say something like, “The evaluation, to be conducted by an expert evaluator selected through an open bidding process, will examine both process and outcome measures, as described in section 4.b.” If required by the RFP, we will also include a “responsibility” column or similar. For most projects, it’s absolutely not necessary, and is likely to time wasting and counter-productive, to use such professional scheduling software as Microsoft Project or Primavera. Such software will drive you nuts and, if embedded in a Word document, will probably bork the upload process.

Timelines don’t have to be extraordinarily complex, but they do have to match what you’ve written in other sections of the proposal. Internally inconsistent proposals will often be rejected because they fail to make sense, which is one danger of doing when you split a proposal among multiple writers (see more about this in “Stay the Course: Don’t Change Horses (or Concepts) in the Middle of the Stream (or Proposal Writing)“).

If you have no idea what should go into your timeline, it’s probably means your narrative lacks cohesion. Sometimes you’ll find that writing the timeline reminds you of something that should go elsewhere in the narrative, which is another use for them: back checking your own work, just as the cops in police procedures use timelines to make sure their own logic is sound. Your job might be slightly easier and less likely to leave a crazed serial killer on the loose, but it’s still important to do it well if you’re going to get the money.

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