No question about it, given the increased emphasis and desire for new partners in the USAID industry, there is an ever-increasing need for cost preparers, both in-house and freelance. So if you’ve been toying with the idea of becoming a cost preparer, now is a great time to jump into the deep end.
When most people think about cost proposals, they think of Excel, huge workbooks with dozens of tabs, and mystifying links and formulas. While Excel is obviously an important element to cost proposal preparation, there’s a lot more to being a cost preparer than just having a command of Excel. In fact, one could argue that Excel mastery isn’t even the most important part of developing a cost proposal. Many companies have their own templates with links and formulas already in place, making the Excel part of cost preparation a breeze, with low risk for human error. There are also countless online forums and tutorials that you can find in a simple Google search to help you develop complex and fancy formulas. I have been preparing cost proposals for years and I still find myself scrolling Excel forums to find new ways of using Excel functions to reduce room for error in my budgets. So while having an advanced understanding of Excel will certainly help you begin your cost proposal career, it’s not a requirement to start.
The greatest challenge in cost proposal preparation is figuring out what to actually put into those templates. As a cost preparer, I’ll often hear “non-cost” folks indicate that developing a proposal budget is a complete mystery to them or that they “just wouldn’t even know where to start”. Fair enough – cost proposals seem daunting before you know how to approach them.
Here’s the thing, though: as the cost preparer, you shouldn’t be expected to “know where to start”. That’s because a complete, realistic and accurate cost proposal is almost entirely dependent on the information your proposal team gives you.
Technical assumptions are the meat of the proposal budget. A cost proposal must complement the technical proposal. So of course you can’t be expected to know where to start until your team gives you these assumptions. And as you are not a technical expert or the person developing the technical strategy, you cannot be expected to come up with staff titles, travel plans, or technical activities without getting that information from your team. Once you start gathering this information from your teammates, developing your budget will suddenly no longer seem so enigmatic.
At this point, you might be asking, but what about budget narratives? They’re so long and detailed. How am I supposed to know what to write?
As with the budget itself, much of what goes into the narrative comes from the technical. The purpose of the budget narrative is to explain your budget to USAID and to let them know why you’re budgeting what you are, and why everything budgeted is necessary to complete the work, as well as allowable per the regulations. So as you begin gathering your technical inputs, you’ll find that explaining those assumptions will become pretty straightforward.
Ah, but I mentioned regulations! That’s a scary word, I know. Compliance can be daunting. In fact, I would recommend that if you’re looking to become a cost preparer, you get familiar with some key concepts, such as “allowability”, “allocability” and “reasonableness”. You’ll also want to know how to use the Department of State Standardized Regulations (DSSR) if your company offerors allowances and differentials to expatriate personnel.
By no means will your first cost proposal be a walk in the park. But becoming a credible cost preparer is not as scary a prospect as you might think. Akiri Consulting has partnered with Keylime International to offer a Fundamentals of Cost Proposals online training, whichreveals a logical and attainable approach to preparing a cost proposal, including where and how to gather cost-critical information; developing pricing strategies and best value analyses; and an overview of commonly referenced regulations that you’ll need to know.
Looking for more of a business development overview and how cost preparation fits into the big picture? In partnership with Keylime International and Same Page Consulting, Akiri offers an online, self-paced USAID Business Development 101 training that provides such an overview, including a deep-dive on what you'll need to know for cost proposal preparation.