The World of Proposals: To Students, From Professionals

by Vincent Tran

The World of Proposals: To Students, From Professionals

The World of Proposals: To Students, From Professionals
Roundtable visit with proposal professionals in the DMV area

The English Department’s Proposal Writing and Development course (ENGH 489/509) had a unique and valuable experience to hear from professionals in the proposal writing field at a roundtable discussion on November 20, 2019.  ENGH 489/509 is a course dedicated to teaching introductory elements of proposal writing to undergraduate and graduate students.  The main purpose of this roundtable was to give a nuanced account of the day-to-day of a proposal manager or writer and any other experiences that are otherwise unknown to students.  Attending the roundtable as speakers were proposal specialist Maria Fitzpatrick, proposal manager Evan R. Fitts, president of Justis Consulting, LLC, Bob Justis, and program manager Heather Breeden.  

The course instructor, Heidi Y. Lawrence, led the discussion with questions before turning it over to an open discussion.  Some of the topic questions were about how the speakers entered the field of proposal writing, what their duties were in a typical day, success stories, and lessons learned.  An important takeaway is the fact that all of the speakers started out in entirely different fields and “fell” into their roles as successful proposal professionals, which points to the considerable demand for this profession.  Maria, for example, began her career as a legal assistant and then moved into proposal editing with Noblis out of demand.  Bob studied physics and theater, started his career in computer programming, and still moved toward proposal writing for IBM before starting his own consulting firm.  From political careers to science careers, Maria, Evan, Bob, and Heather’s experiences highlighted the need for proposal writing and the advantage students have leaving university with skills equipped to fit this role.

Having such diverse backgrounds in work experience despite having similar job titles, the panel’s individual experiences were enlightening to listen to as they explained how they operate in such different ways.  Heather, who works as a program manager for Amazon Web Services, relayed her difficulties with Amazon’s lacking resources in the proposal department.  Despite Amazon’s lack in proposal readiness, Heather explained her making headway by providing materials and matrixes as well as working on multiple proposals at the same time to push the company’s development.  Evan’s experiences with leadership roles in Virginia Tech’s marching band translated to his job as a proposal manager in which he focuses on morale and positivity to lead his team in proposal efforts at Mission Essential.  Even though the panel shared varying job environments, they all seemed to understand each other when it came to lessons learned as proposal writers.

As a proposal writer, it is crucial to learn and understand successes as well as failures, and as such, the speakers shared some of their most important lessons learned.  They expressed the need for understanding and appealing to the audience, which can shadow, with little consequence, not fully understanding the “technical stuff” in a proposal.  In addition, researching beyond schema is a great way to develop discriminators in one’s proposals as it favors your company’s ability to cover all of the client’s needs.  And, even as a writer, it is imperative to ensure your company’s engineers, scientists, or other non-writing professionals, who are contributing to proposal development, are addressing the needs of the client.  In summary, the speakers kept going back to the zenith of proposal success—writing and appealing, as best as possible, to the audience’s wants and needs. 

The roundtable discussion was a success and a great learning experience for students.  What is otherwise an unknown field to a lot of undergraduate students, proposal writing as a discipline, or even a course, can be an entryway into an extremely rewarding and in-demand career.