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How long should it take to prepare a proposal?

I've seen benchmarks thrown around, usually to justify a budget. I've never seen a reliable industry-wide benchmark, probably because it's not possible to create one. Every company, customer, and industry is different. But most people will cite figures based on their particular company or industry and they probably won't apply to you. The benchmarks I’ve heard quoted have ranged from half an hour per page to 8 hours per page. With a range like that, you know people are not comparing apples-to-apples. 

Estimating the time and level of effort required to prepare a proposal is a bit like any other project management estimate. Unfortunately, some types of projects are incredibly difficult to estimate.  If I asked you how long it takes to design a network or write a software program, without giving you any other information, what would you say? Could you use the same project estimate from a company that does small business networks on a project for an international conglomerate? Asking how long it will take to write something can be just as difficult to estimate. When you factor in the huge variance in requirements from one RFP to the next, you end up with too much uncertainty to have a reliable industry-wide benchmark.

The best you can hope for is a benchmark within a company for a particular type of RFP where the requirements are consistent. In other words you may (and maybe not if the RFPs are not consistent) be able to come up with a benchmark for your proposals, but don’t count on it being relevant or even useful for someone else’s proposal.

Another thing about proposal development that is similar to project management is how elastic the level of effort can be. People will continue to improve a proposal section right up to their deadline. Sometimes it seems like a proposal is never "finished." It may be due and you may stop working to submit it, but until it's due people don’t stop working on it, regardless of how long you thought it should actually take.

The approach we prefer for estimating the time it takes to respond to an RFP is to calculate how many person-days of effort will be required. How many people do you need to address the topics? How many days of their time to write to those topics (tricky when different people write at different speeds)? How much to prepare the pricing? What about reviews? Final production?

You stand a much better chance of being able to guess the level of effort if:

  • You have read the RFP
  • You know how many topics you need to address and who will address them
  • You know the size and complexity of each section
  • You know the steps your process will take, from planning to submission
  • You know what it will take, in addition to writing, to complete each section

It is much easier to do this by guessing the number of people than by guessing the number of hours. It also brings you face to face with the question of who's available or what the company is willing to provide instead of what you need. It’s very rare that a proposal has enough people, with all the right backgrounds, to respond to all the requirements.

You can get a quick estimate for how long it will take by figuring out who will be dedicated and who will be part-time. Then multiply by the number of days until the deadline. We’ve found that it’s more accurate to estimate this way than to try to guess how long writing should take. Even though it's a little crude, because of the way proposals play out in the real world, we’ve found this approach to be as accurate as trying to do a more detailed estimate based on page count or hours.

It also makes a budget calculation fairly straightforward. For each person or labor category, add the rate. Then multiply by the number of days. Add up the rows and you’ve got a budget for proposal staffing.

Within the MustWin Process documentation, we provide some worksheets that make these calculations easy. First we define the roles that people play on proposals. Then we suggest which ones are typically full-time or part-time and give you a place to enter your expectation. Then enter the number of days and multiply.


The MustWin Process that comes with a Premium Membership provides guidance and worksheets for staffing a proposal

By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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