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Up your game: nine golden rules to win a call for proposal

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By Simon Gupta

· 7 min read

The Climate Week NYC is in the books and governments have announced further contributions to combat climate change. Given that most of the funding is taxpayers’ money, international competitive bidding processes are the standard procedure to allocate these funds. Participation in such processes to receive funding is tough as it requires grueling efforts to beat dozens of competitors. Since the winner takes it all, being a close second is no consolation. Here are some rules followed by successful participants that you can adopt to increase your success probability in tenders.

Rule 1: Start early

Calls for proposals usually "fall out of the sky" without prior notice and usually give you 30 to 45 calendar days to submit your proposal. As the days leading up to the submission deadline are always hectic, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of starting early. Designate a scout to screen tender websites so that you spot the relevant tender notice ideally on day one. Establish a pre-determined ad-hoc committee to make a decisive decision whether you want to participate or not. This seems obvious, but many participants lose 10 to 20 calendar days from the initial publication date until they actually start working on their proposal. This is a disadvantage that is hard to compensate for when you have strong competitors.

Rule 2: Build partnerships

Due to the increasing complexity of projects, it is important to consider consortia in order to bring in all the required expertise at the highest level. You can form a consortium either in the form of a joint venture or by engaging subcontractors. The broad availability of experts and the qualifications of the company involved are often the main issues in a procurement process. Nevertheless, many competitors try to win them on their own. This may still work for very large companies, but it is becoming increasingly challenging for medium-sized and small competitors. However, choose your partners wisely, as it is one thing to win a tender together and another to collaborate effectively in a trusted relationship over a number of years (sometimes even with joint liability towards the client). Also, consider if a local partner (instead of an international one) might be a good option in your specific case.

Rule 3: Know the procuring entity’s preferences

As with almost all processes and procedures, deep experience from repetition goes a long way. Particularly when you are unfamiliar with the procuring entity, there can be a negative bias as such processes inherently favour process-experience. In tenders, there are many items that are to be understood implicitly as the procuring entities generally do not benchmark themselves. This requires experience with tender processes and knowledge of the procuring entity’s undefined preferences. Some procuring entities demand strict adherence to the terms of reference, while others strongly value your own thoughts. In order to “fit” well from the procuring entity perspective, consider support so that you don’t have to make all the mistakes yourself.

Rule 4: Confirm eligibility

In most tenders, the procuring entity has some predefined qualifications that the candidate to be recruited must have. These are usually defined as eligibility criteria (aka minimum criteria) in order to define prerequisites such as a certain must-have size of the bidding company. Although the minimum criteria should be explicitly mentioned in the tender documents, unfortunately sometimes one has to read between the lines and infer them with the help of experience and process knowledge. Since failure to meet a single minimum criterion usually means automatic exclusion from further proceedings, you should take special care to identify all minimum requirements and also demonstrate in your proposal that you fulfil all of them. In reality, failure to meet minimum criteria is more common than most participants expect. And after you have worked hard up to the deadline, it is extremely painful to realize later that you have overlooked a minimum criterion. Thorough analysis at the beginning and careful proofreading at the end is therefore essential.

Rule 5: Understand the scorecard

In a standard tender, after excluding participants who do not meet the minimum requirements, all remaining participants are invited to submit a technical and a separate financial proposal. The technical proposals are evaluated according to a set of predefined selection criteria. As with any evaluation process, it is important to know 'what' the points are awarded for so that you can maximize your score. As every tender is different, you should never assume that you know the last procuring entity’s RfP and therefore know what is important to them in the tender at hand. It is crucial to check and focus on where the points are to be earned in your specific tender. In well-prepared tender documents, there is typically an explicit scoring table that lists the selection criteria and the respective points for each selection criterion (or at least for each group of criteria). Typically, the technical scores enjoy a higher weighting than the financial score but the financial offer can still play a special role in the selection criteria, as the weighting of pricing can range widely from 10 to 50 % of the total score.

Rule 6: Be clear

Your proposal is the first deliverable you present to your potential new client. The structure, layout, length, clarity, meticulousness and other factors all matter in the evaluation. Do not neglect such "soft factors". A well-structured technical offer, ideally following the proposed structure of the tender documents, ensures all your qualifications contributing to the selection criteria are clearly visible and stand out among all supporting information you also want to include. As such make sure to address all requested items and particularly elaborate on each qualification mentioned in the tender documents. If you are asked to provide a critical review on a specific element, do so by showing your expertise (without self-praise) and by providing thoughtful advice. This can include justified suggestions to extend the scope of work as you can demonstrate that you understand the foreseen underlying objectives. Needless to say, being concise is highly valued as no one likes redundancies.

Rule 7: Request clarifications

Especially if you do not regularly participate in calls for proposals or procurement processes, the devil is often in the details. In addition, tender documents are sometimes poorly written and ambiguous. You typically have the option to submit written clarification requests up to 10 calendar days before the submission deadline. Therefore, if in doubt, address your questions to the procuring entity or the tender agent. However, do not overdo it; it is common practice to ask only a handful of important questions. When formulating your questions, be precise and refer to the relevant paragraphs in the tender documents. Also, be aware that your clarification requests and the answers to them are typically shared with all participants to ensure transparent information access and fair treatment among all competitors.

Rule 8: Register early

It is in the nature of international tender procedures that any potential applicant worldwide can participate. However, although you are not usually required to register with the procuring entity or the tender agent, we strongly recommend that you inform the tender agent well in advance of your (non-binding) intention to submit a proposal. This will put you on the mailing list, which is helpful if there is important information about changes to the tender documents (e.g., postponement of deadlines, etc.). Registration also means that you will receive the answers to the clarification requests submitted by your competitors. This is a very quick thing to do which can have a significant impact.

Rule 9: Last mile

Data rooms and e-procurement systems became the norm during COVID. They greatly increase the equality for all candidates as the participants’ locations no longer matter as much. In the past, a candidate from, for example, Brazil had to send their “shoebox of documents” several days prior to the submission deadline in the UK to safely meet the deadline. Data rooms, like all technical tools, can however have their challenges. We strongly recommend that you familiarize yourself with the functions of the data room a few days before the actual upload so that you are not confronted with technical problems at the last minute. Data rooms close exactly at the second of the deadline and not submitting in time means non-participation. In this context, also pay attention to the correct time zone of the deadline. We also suggest logging in for a “test upload” a few days before the submission deadline. Furthermore, you might want to submit your final proposal the day before the official deadline (if your schedule allows) to make sure that no technical issue risks your submission on the due date.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Simon Gupta is the Founder & Managing Director of Broadpeak, a Swiss-based Advisory Company specializing in Impact Finance. He has 20 years of experience in development finance in Latin America, Africa and Asia. He is also a Partner at investment firm Investment Associate AG, where he leads social and environmental impact investing. Simon has been involved in the set-up of multiple blended finance structures on the LP side as well as the GP side. Before founding Broadpeak, he worked for financial institutions DEG, KfW, and ResponsAbility Investments AG.

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