AID EVALUATIONS OF UNIVERSITY PROJECT PROPOSALS
(50 Ways to Write a Losing Technical Proposal)
Country Programs Division
While the competitive procurement system has tended to provide AID
with excellent quality resources of those universities able and
willing to bid on a particular project at a given time, this matching
process necessarily results in the rejection of good quality
institutional resources offered in the unsuccessful proposals.
An examination of official selection memorandums sent to the Contract
Management Office by the Technical Evaluation Panels during the last
few years was made to determine why some proposals were successful and
others not. A categorical pattern of some 50 common weaknesses and a
few notable strengths became apparent as seen below.
Overall the most striking reason for low marked proposals was the
consistent failure of universities to be fully responsive to what was
asked for in the REI or RFTP. These errors of omission in responding
completely to each of the selection criteria resulted in the needless
loss of points that could have made the difference between a winning
and losing bid. One can only speculate as to the cause: perhaps the
most logical one is that of simple oversight; in the rush to put
together a proposal that may have been written collectively, it was
not adequately proof read by the coordinator before its submission to
Another general deficiency is that proposals are not organized such
that their distinct sections can easily be matched up against the REI
or RFTP categories of evaluation standards. This tends to obfuscate
whether a proposal is indeed fully responsive to each selection
criteria. If the format of the proposal structure does depart
substantially from the categorical and sequential order of evaluation
criteria, then a 'key' that shows correspondence between the REI or
RFTP and the proposal is advisable so reviewers can readily take
account of all relevant information in scoring the proposals.
This guide is an appendix from the 1983 study "Matching Title XII
University Resources With AID Project Requirements" authored by Jiryis
S. Oweis and John R. Shields.
A. CIMMION WEAKNESSES OF UNSUCCESSFUL BIDS
The following observations are paraphrased judgements rendered
by the evaluation panels.
1. Project Conceptualization
a. The proposals possess little insight or exceptional
understanding of the development problem confronted
and the corresponding project requirements.
b. The rationale for choosing a particular approach as
the best possible solution to a problem (which the
project addresses) is missing or not very well thought
c. Knowledge of the country--its cultural milieu, social
structure, political system, etc. and its development
support institutions, as they pertain to the
project--is not clearly demonstrated.
d. A sterile, mechanical approach to the provision of
technical assistance is presented without an
accompanying philosophical or strategic sense of
e. The constraints most likely to be encountered are
inadequately considered, and no tactics for overcoming
them are envisioned (especially for technology
f. Too often, universities merely declare their prior LDC
technical assistance activity to be relevant without
explaining how. Lessons learned from previous
institutional project experience must be shown
pertinent to the present project requirements.
2. Implementation Management
a. The project paper (PP) plan is adopted at face value
without comment, whereas constructive suggestions for
improvement of the project design might be expected of
an imaginative proposal.
b. An understanding of what outputs are to be
accomplished by the project and how is not apparent.
Potential problems in accomplishing such outputs are
not anticipated nor are remedies suggested.
c. Work plans are too vague; they lack specifics on what
activities are to be done, why, how, when, in what
sequence, and by whom (university personnel, host
government officials, and USAID Mission officer)-- right
down to the sub-project level. [Note: Division of
responsibilities should be clarified at the contract
d. In the case of a joint university proposal 'too many
cooks may spoil the broth.' A proposal with more than
3 university partners raises concerns about potential
coordination difficulties, management problems, and
even 'turf' battles. This issue becomes particularly
acute on large and/or complex projects. The
implementation plan often fails to address this matter.
e. Weak evidence is presented of ability to meet
schedules in a timely manner, if indeed a detailed
monthly or quarterly schedule has been included at
all. Timetables for accomplishing work plans are
occasionally too optimistic.
f. The timely arrival of personnel in the field is not
g. On-campus pre-departure preparation/training of the
field team is missing, as is the provision for an
in-country orientation session for staff to become
more fully acquainted with host country counterparts
and USAID Misssion personnel, the project environment,
and their professional responsibilities as a basis for
drawing up realistic individual work plans covering
the first six months or so.
h. Lines of authority from the campus to the field are
not made explicit. USAID Missions need to know who is
in charge of what, where. Moreover, the amount of
independent decision-making power of the
Chief-of-Party (vis-a-vis that of the stateside
project backstop manager and other campus officials)
must be sufficient to ensure adequate and timely
responses to problems as they arise.
i. Management responsibility and capability are not
clearly demonstrated in terms of planning activities,
budgeting funds, procuring commodities, keeping
records, writing reports, coordinating personnel, etc.
(e.g., Will the team leader have a local national as
an administrative assistant to handle day to day
routine matters, thus preserving his time for
management oversight and technical assistance
j. Self-sufficiency plans for logistical support (i.e.,
housing, furniture, appliances, vehicles, equipment,
etc.) are not spelled out; thus AID wonders how much
of a burden the university contractor will become to
the mission with regards to commodity management--a
major failing of many universities in the past.
k. Overly simple statements are made that inputs will be
provided--without saying how they will be procured,
how the quality will be ensured, and how the
shipment/delivery will be accomplished.
1. No attention is paid to how the project effort will be
successfully institutionalized for continuation after
AID support comes to an end.
m. Expatriate-counterpart relations are ignored with
respect to the nature of on-the-job technical training
and preparation to assume leadership and management
n. General concerns of the project's facilitating clients
(i.e., host country agencies/institutions) about
implementation are sometimes overlooked.
o. Discussion of how the project is expected to
positively affect the ultimate target beneficiaries
(e.g., farmers) is omitted.
p. Provision for monitoring the progress and evaluating
the impact of the project -is lacking, and/or staff
lack proper training and experience to measure effects
3. Personnel Qualifications
a. Outdated and/or incomplete biodata is provided about
the field team and the campus backstop unit.
b. Overseas nominees are not technically qualified by
training and experience for the particular position
which they are slotted to fill.
c. Foreign language capabilities are self-proclaimed
without certification that an individual is at the
required FS reading and speaking level. Nominees
often test out at lower than anticipated levels.
d. Proposed staff have not had IDC experience in general,
and possess no intimate familiarity with the specific
country or region where the project is located.
e. Universities have unwittingly nominated project team
members, whose past performance overseas has been
found wanting by the USAID Mission or host country.
Consortia are particularly vulnerable to this problem
since they are not likely to know personally the
candidates nominated by a lead institution.
Background checks are advisable.
f. Candidate's orientation is high-level pure research,
whereas practical application experience is sought.
g. Chief-of-party nominee has no prior experience as a
project manager overseas. Moreover, the individual's
reputation as a professional may not be sufficient to
gain the respect of host country counterparts
(especially in Asia where status is important).
h. In proposing an individual for the chief-of-party
position universities will sometimes stress the
nominee's management capability, but then neglect to
emphasize the candidate's credentials as a
professional agriculturalist who can perform well in
his/her discipline and provide intellectual leadership
to the project team.
i. Team leader is unfamiliar with AID programming and
documentation requirements (AID Handbook 3) as it
relates to project design and implementation.
j. Too many (3+) persons are put forth as potentially
filling a position, which leaves AID uncertain of whom
it will actually get and what the mix of skills and
experience of the team as a whole will be.
k. Only one individual per position is proposed with no
backup/alternate person identified in case of
legitimate unavailability subsequently.
i. Potential second tour nominees are not identified or
are of lower quality than initial team to be fielded.
4. Backstopping Capability
a. Overly complex/cumbersome backstopping arrangements
are presented--especially for proposals involving more
than one university.
b. Organizational chart with clearly delineated lines of
responsibility and authority for decision making is
c. Potential communication and coordination problems
among campus backstopping personnel, field team
members, and host country counterparts are not
d. There is no prior institutional experience in
backstopping overseas projects, or at least not this
type or this large; and no compensating evidence is
presented that individuals assigned to backstopping
duties have acquired the proper training and
experience elsewhere to ensure efficient management of
e. Backstopping personnel appear to be overburdened with
responsibility for other overseas projects and regular
university duties, possibly detracting from the
support expected by this project.
f. Provision of short term consulting personnel on an
as-needed (even emergency) basis is not spelled out.
Contingency plans for locating off-campus personnel
when the university is unable to supply the necessary
expertise have not been formulated.
g. Prior project performance, particularly campus
management, as an AID contractor has been judged
5. Participant Training
a. American university admission standards and the
acceptability of transcripts/credits from host country
educational and training institutions is not made
explicit. This causes apprehension about time and
cost of degree training.
b. U.S. University degree requirements are insufficiently
flexible to allow for the inclusion of courses germane
to the project needs.
c. Programs of study appear to be biased in favor of
theory and against practical applications of knowledge.
No exercise or plan is evident that will orient
participants to the process of adapting knowledge
acquired in the U.S. to host country development
problems to be encountered upon their return home.
d. No project related training/experience is planned for
e. No senior project (B.S. degree) or graduate thesis
(M.S. degree) research in the host country, or at
least relevant to the AID project, is programmed.
f. Proposing that all long term participant
trainees--especially those in the same descipline--be
assigned to the contracting institution is not
generally advisable. Such arrangements raise concerns
about producing uniform mind-sets that collectively
may be sterile, or at least narrowly circumscribed,
when interactively attempting to generate creative and
adaptive responses to program challenges confronting
them upon their return home. A diversity of
educational experiences at different universities is
considered more likely to result in a cross
fertilization of perspectives and ideas that will
produce imaginative and innovative solutions to
project problems they will encounter.
g. No strategy or criteria is evident for placing
students in other universities with respect to the
expertise needed for their eventual project related
6. Institutional Commitment
a. The design team members (under a Collaborative
Assistance Mode) are not promised as part of the
implementation team, possibly leading to a lack of
continuity between the two project phases.
b. Too few (and in some cases none) of the team members
nominated (particularly key personnel) are from the
university submitting the proposal. If necessary and
justifiable, the merits of staffing a project with
off-campus personnel are not presented.
c. None of the nominees affiliated with the university
are actually tenured faculty; rather they are recently
graduated Ph.D. students of the proposal submitting
institution or temporary staff members not on tenure
d. Individual nominees have not submitted letters of
intent to go overseas if the university secures the
contract; or they contain qualifying conditions that
render their commitment suspect. 'Bait and switch'
tactics have occurred too frequently, whereby a
senior/well qualified faculty is promised in the
proposal but not delivered once the contract is
awarded--a lesser candidate being substituted.
e. Immediate supervisors (i.e., department chairs and
deans) have not submitted memoranda indicating they
will release nominees for overseas assignment.
f. Simultaneously nominating a good quality faculty
member for two different projects in the hopes of
maximizing chances of the university at least winning
one contract becomes a complicating factor in
evaluating a proposal; doubts are raised not only
about the individual's preference/commitment for a
project, but also their probable availability.
g. Universities who nominate .geriatric teams (i.e.,
elderly, but professionally undistinguished and LDC
inexperienced faculty nearing retirement) are
perceived to be 'unloading deadwood' onto
international programs in order to recruit fresh Ph.D.
replacements to strengthen their domestic program.
Such institutions communicate a lack of both short
term and long term commitment to Title XII--long term
because the university isn't supplying younger and
mid-career faculty, whose accumulation of knowledge
and experience overseas now will contribute to the
building of institutional capacity to meet future AID
B. NOTABLE STREINTHS IN SUCCESSFUL BIDS
1. Project Conceptualization
Superior proposals have demonstrated an ability to
translate a conceptual model of the development project
into an operational plan that shows insight and originality
in dealing with important aspects of the project.
An in-depth understanding of the problem is illustrated
through the relevant application of theoretical frameworks
and practical approaches in meeting the technical and/or
institutional needs of clients and beneficiaries (as
spelled out in the RFTP).
2. Implementation Management
Outstanding proposals provide an unusually clear picture of
what the university's role and obligations are in executing
the project plans (vis-a-vis those of the host country and
the USAID mission).
An analysis of current university project workload relative
to the capacity to commit resources to execute (field) and
support (campus) the proposed project is highly valued.
Copies of joint venture agreements or sub-contracts with
cooperating institutions are especially illuminating.
3. Personnel Qualifications
Exceptional proposals nominate their top quality faculty in
terms of their professional standing, administrative
position, academic rank, and extensive LDC experience.
4. Backstopping Capability
Excellent proposals provide for the principal backstopping
person to participate in the design of a project (under a
collaborative assistance mode contract) to guarantee
intimate awareness of field team needs. For implementation
only projects (under a standard university mode contract)
the backstopping person is professionally involved as a
short term consultant and eventually (after a 1 or 2 year
tour of duty) replaces a team member, who rotates back to
campus to become the new backstopping officer.
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5. Participant Training
Noteworthy proposals provide for an orientation of foreign
students to American life and university academic
procedures, assign them to a host family, budget for
special tutoring as necessary, and accommodate additional
TOEFL training as needed. (Note: Assistance is often
enlisted from the International Student Office and support
organizations like the Faculty Wives Association and
various foreign student clubs.)
Also highly valued are mechanisms by which participant
trainees (often dispersed to different American
universities) can maintain continual linkage with the
contracting institution, the technical assistance team, and
host country counterparts. This has been done in two
ways: (i) a quarterly 'project newsletter', reflecting
input from all the actors at home and in the field, is
produced by the campus backstopping unit and circulated to
all concerned parties--including participant trainees;
(ii) a series of workshops/seminars over a week's time
during the summer or X-mas vacation period is organized to
discuss the progress, problems, and plans of the project.
Invitees include the project manager on campus, the Chief-
of-Party in the field (plus any team members who might be
on home leave), the host country counterpart to the
university team leader, perhaps the AID Agricultural
Development Officer, possibly a key upper echelon Ministry
of Agricultural official, short-term faculty consultants
contributing to the project, and of course the participant
trainees in the U.S. Such an annual conference is budgeted
for in the cost proposal negotiated prior to the contract
6. Institutional Commitment
The University President, Vice President for Academic
Affairs, and the Director of International Programs all
signify their support of this project and faculty
participation, usually by signing the proposal cover sheet
and submitting letters of endorsement.
The university expresses interest in long term
institutional involvement with the host country beyond the
life-of-project. This is particularly appealing to foreign
counterparts seeking a mutually beneficial and enduring
relationship with an American campus.
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C. CONSEQUENCES OF UNIVERSITY SITE VISITS
If one proposal is decisively superior to others based on a
thorough analysis of the written university submissions, no site
visits to the campuses are necessary. However, when the
evaluation panel's initial assessment of the proposals results
in a close point spread and raises significant questions/issues
needing resolution, site visits are scheduled to determine the
final ranking of university competitors.
1. Alleviating Evaluation Panel Concerns
On the positive side the university has the opportunity to
not only answer the specific questions of the evaluation
panel, but also to enter into extensive dialog with its
representatives to stress its ability and willingess (even
enthusiasm) to undertake the project. Furthermore,
institutional capability and commitment can be clearly
demonstrated by the faculty and administrators
respectively; and a well organized site visit can create an
image of management competence generally.
2. Raising Evaluation Panel Doubts
A site visit can also result in negative impressions where
none previously existed. A review of the evaluations in
the contract files seems to indicate that more universities
are downgraded relative to others than upgraded following a
site visit. This is because the polished veneer of an
accomplished proposal writer often melts under the heat of
questions posed directly to faculty and admininistrators.
Among the most common faults are these:
a. The proposed team members and alternates turn out to
have a poor grasp of the project and the country,
indicating they did not meaningfully contribute to the
substance of the proposal. Indeed, they may not have
even met as a group to thoroughly discuss the project
and proposal content. Instead, the proposal was
crafted by an experienced staffer in the international
programs office and polished by an accomplished
proposal writer in the grants office.
b. Otherwise informed and technically qualified nominees
display ignorance of the university backstopping
system in terms of its organization and what support
it can render when problems arise in the field.
c. Team members are perceived to be deficient in such
personal attributes as congeniality, patience,
empathy, open-mindness, enthusiasm, adaptability--all
of which are considered important in effectively
communicating and interacting with host country
counterparts overseas as well as advising and
counseling participant trainees on campus.
d. Key members of the field team or the backstopping unit
are absent when the evaluation panel visits the
c. Faculty, whose names are listed in the proposal as
being available for short term consulting, are found
to be unaware they were 'committed' to participation.
f. Department chairs and deans haven't been consulted on
the release of their faculty for overseas assignment.
g. University administrators, supposedly committed to the
project, seem unaware of what exactly the project
involves and the extent to which institutional
resources are being pledged.
h. Written proposals are found to have exaggerated the
quality of research facilities and the relevance of
ongoing research activity to the AID projects.
Likewise, academic programs and training opportunities
for long and short term project participants may not
meet the expectations raised in the written proposal.
i. The university poorly organized the campus site visit
of the evaluation panel. Agendas of meetings are
ill-defined, key people are absent from appropriate
meetings, the committee is allowed no free time to
meet alone, and the logistical arrangements are
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