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What are the Main Elements of a Proposal?

What are the Main Elements of a Project Proposal?

A proposal is a written document that outlines what you want to do and why.

Before I was a small business owner, I had to write my fair share of project proposals for bosses. Even now, I often need to write them for partnerships, stakeholders, and clients. 

Throughout creating dozens of them, I’ve learned how important it is to include all of the main elements of a project proposal right off the bat. 

Here’s a breakdown of the main elements of a proposal to help you structure your document appropriately.

Key Takeaways:

Whether it's for a client project, investor, or your boss, a proposal must outline the project in detail to be effective. Key elements to include in a proposal include:

  • Cover letter
  • Project scope
  • Project timeline
  • Next steps

Online proposal software can streamline the process of writing proposals and help you keep track of all of your proposals.

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Elements of a Proposal

Sometimes, you may receive a Request for Proposals (RFPs), which typically includes exact details about what needs to be included in a proposal. 

Follow the RFP closely to increase the chances of your proposal being accepted. Failing to include everything may lead to dismissal.

Beyond what is included in the RFP, or when an RFP is not provided, businesses looking to submit a proposal should include the following:

1. Cover LetterElements of a Proposal - Cover Letter

The cover letter is the first part of your proposal. Introduce yourself and outline what exactly your company can do for the business you are submitting a proposal to. The main points in this section should cover:

  • What services or products does your company offer?
  • What specific experience do you have in this industry?
  • What are your company strengths in this particular field?
  • Why should the client consider you over other competitors?

As a whole, you should try and keep your cover letter brief. If there were any important notes and hot topics brought up during your initial meetings, or in the RFP, make sure to include them here. Generally, cover letters are skimmed by readers, so make sure to bold important items and outline sections with bullets.

2. Project Scope

Elements of a Proposal - Project Scope

Outline the scope of the project to set expectations. This section also lets potential clients know that they have chosen the right person for their job

The project scope section should be extremely detailed. This will prevent scope creep and ensure that there are no surprises down the road. When writing a project scope, you should include:

  • key deliverables and what each specific task entails
  • points of measurement or review
  • any known issues or risks and how they will be handled
  • possible exclusions to the list that need to be defined before including in the final plan (in other words, what's not included with the deliverables)
  • a clear definition for assumptions as well as plans on addressing uncertain information when it arises
  • any/all constraints that could potentially impact the project

3. Project Timeline

Elements of a Proposal - Project Timeline

Outline the amount of time that each phase of the project will require to complete is another important element of a proposal. This should be as specific and detailed as possible and include the following:

  • a timeline for planning
  • the time that each phase will take (such as research)
  • time estimates for any tasks or milestones needing to be completed before starting on other phases (like testing)
  • any known risks with project timelines and how this information will impact your final product delivery date

Without a clear timeline, clients can't accurately predict when they will receive your product/service. This makes financial planning more challenging and can diminish confidence in your business's capabilities.

There are many different project timelines to use for proposals, but it's best to use the one most common in your industry. A good rule of thumb is a 30-day timeline per phase with some extra time added on top of each phase due to uncertainties and unknowns.

4. Cost Estimate

Elements of a Proposal - Cost Estimate

Next, include a general cost estimate or budget in your proposal. This will help potential clients understand what they are getting into before moving forward. It should be a summary of all costs associated with delivering the product/service. This would include:

  • general expenses
  • direct labor costs
  • indirect labor costs (freelancers, contractors)
  • third-party and miscellaneous expenses
  • any other time and materials required to complete everything outlined in the project scope

If you are bidding for a competitive contract, it's best not to include a detailed breakdown of costs in your proposal. Remember that all of these costs will be negotiated as part of an eventual agreement. Including it may hurt you as companies will have more insight to shop the project around.

In general, companies who want more specific information about pricing should contact vendors directly before submitting their proposals rather than relying solely on estimates from project research. This helps clarify what is expected up front and prevents hidden expenses down the road.

5. Next Steps

Elements of a Proposal - Next Steps

To effectively close out your proposal, clarify what happens next. Make sure the client knows:

  • How to get in touch with you for more information.
  • When they can expect a response from you (in terms of days or hours).
  • What your next steps will be after reviewing their feedback on the proposal. This includes what type of contract is required, how long it should take, and any other requirements that need to be met before moving forward.

It's important not only to request feedback throughout the process but also have an action plan set up ahead of time when revisions are needed. The last thing you want is for something like this to come as a surprise during negotiations which could throw everything off track if there aren't clear expectations beforehand.

Review potential revisions to the proposal with your team before sending them over and make sure everyone is on board.

Bonus: References and Case Studies

Elements of a Proposal - Case Studies

If you have past clients and case studies that are relevant to the proposal, include this. They can make a huge difference in convincing potential customers who might not know much about your company.

While case studies can showcase your experience and the potential value that you can deliver, don't include more than three references in a brief proposal.

It's possible that there might be some overlap between your case studies, but remember not to focus on one particular client too much if they're not the target audience for this potential contract. As a general rule of thumb, it's best to include case studies and references as an addendum. You don't want your past work to outshine your proposed solution.

How Online Proposal Software Can Help

How Online Proposal Software Can Help

Rewriting similar proposals over and over again is not a good use of your time.

One way to cut down on the proposal writing process is to use online proposal software. This software will help you create different proposals for your clients and keep track of everything in one place.

Here’s how it can help:

  • Take care of the tedious parts of proposal development like formatting, calculations, and pricing estimates.
  • Use ready-made templates or create your own. This saves time on revisions, ensures that you hit all of the main elements of a proposal. 
  • Enjoy pre-built features like banners, graphs, slideshow presentations, video intros, and more which allow you to create high-quality proposal materials in less than 30 minutes.

Streamline Your Proposal Writing 

Putting together a proposal can be time-consuming, and sometimes overwhelming, but it doesn't need to be. 

If you follow a standard outline and use tools to build templates, you can hit all of the high notes and crank out more proposals with less effort. 

Streamline proposal writing with software to impress clients and put you in a favorable position. 


What are the elements of a proposal?

All project proposals should include the cover letter, project scope, project timeline, cost estimate, and next steps. 

What is the importance of a proposal?

Proposals outline the who, what, where, when, and why for projects. They make sure that you and the client are on the same page, and set the stage for detailed negotiations. 

How can I save time writing proposals?

Writing proposals gets tedious, especially when crafting similar ones for different clients.  Using online proposal software can streamline the process with ready-made templates and automatic calculations.