Help me understand contracting: expectation of proposal design for free?
July 15, 2021 3:42 PM   Subscribe

An international development consulting firm (we are both in the USA) is interested in adding me to a proposal that's due next Friday, and is asking for my participation in a "design session" in the next week and potentially a "technical presentation" if the proposal goes into the next round of review. This feels a hell of a lot like writing the grant one's own salary gets paid from, which I learned early on was a major no-no. Is this normal? How should I respond? More details below.

In the past year, I've started for the first time working as a contractor for less than full-time work. I've been officially a contractor for many years, but always as a hire for a position that has been funded, not ever to write the proposal itself. (The one exception was a brief stint providing research and insight for a proposal, but there was a contract drawn up to pay me for that work.) I currently have one gig with very low hours that asked me to meet with the client before a contract was finally signed, but that was in the context of an existing award: I wasn't being asked to provide a design needed to win an award.

A friend of mine who is very well-connected and important to my network recommended me as a potential contractor to the CEO of a DC firm that works with the US national aid agency. The work is right up my alley, but the CEO is asking me to provide what I understand to be design support for them to write the proposal itself, with no mention of payment. I get the sinking feeling that many contractors *do* do work like this, and worry that maybe I would be shooting myself in the foot to ask to be paid.

What they're asking for: "If you could review the RFP and share what role you could play if you were in a lead and/or support role, and what you would need to support you... Given your experience with ABC processes and if you are leading I want to be sure we are writing to the approach you would want to take. I really think we would want to draw on content/ideas from you. Would you be able to provide some technical approach content in the coming week or join us for a design session?

[Agency] are also asking for a Technical Presentation on Monday, August 16 or Tuesday, August 17 to give more details about the proposed methods, previous experience with similar facilitation, and to respond to questions from the panel related to the proposed approach. Presentations should also include: [Requirements for presentation that I understand I am being asked to potentially create]."

Other Relevant Details: I'm an early-senior-level professional in international development working in the US, and my last full-time role was a DC-based GS-13 grade 6-7 equivalent, so I'm not cheap. I stated my rate, which is right in line with my experience and accomplishments, and the CEO responded with a proposed rate about 20% less. I let her know that my rate was firm and provided her some supplementary work history, and she responded that "Since the RFP is due next Friday, we have some space to play with the budget and could still possibly make it work. "

I know that I am quite sensitive around my rate and being paid for all of my work for multiple reasons. I was brought on to a job about 5 years ago at what I found out later was 20k less than a (male) colleague with equivalent experience; in that job, I routinely worked 10-20 hours of overtime with no response from my supervisor on managing the asks being made of me; my supervisor seemed non-plussed by my providing justification for a greater pay increase than was offered in my final performance review last year, and she eventually stopped speaking with me (a whole other kooky situation) and the firm let me go, despite a record of excellent performance.

What Should I Say? My partner works in tech and wants to support me to say, Fuck you; pay me, but I'm afraid that even a kindly-worded version would be taken poorly. "I'd be excited to provide proposal design support under a contract for billable hours." There are not many jobs in my field at my pay grade, and so I fear making a faux pas and getting a reputation as difficult, arrogant, etc.

I've done work for free so many times in the past, and I could certainly do it again, but I'm trying to set a boundary and change the way I relate to work. Am I being unreasonable? How would you handle this situation? Thanks in advance for your advice, wise MeFites.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt to Work & Money (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know the international development consulting world, but in my consulting industry, the rule is that companies do not get paid for writing proposals. It is an overhead cost that they need to have covered by their overall rate. That means that if you are a subcontractor, you would not expect to be paid for time spent preparing a proposal. You need to take these unpaid marketing hours into account when figuring out your hourly rate. If you are an employee of this company, of course, you would expect to be paid for that time.
posted by agentofselection at 4:08 PM on July 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

The question to answer is "Does this work provide value to them?". If it does, they need to pay you. If the proposal is detailed enough that they could take it and do the work themselves, they need to pay you. If the proposal is more about timelines and cost, I'd say it's more in line with what agentofselection described.
posted by AaRdVarK at 4:11 PM on July 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

but I'm afraid that even a kindly-worded version would be taken poorly.

I'm a woman so take this with a grain of salt, but I've never had that go well. If your gut is telling you it won't go well then you're probably right. I've seen guys demand huge concessions and salary in egregious ways and get them. What's great is, you have no way of knowing which way it will go or whether it was you or some nebulous other thing.

I don't know your industry so huge extra flakes of salt but I think you want to have a longer conversation with the CEO about the parameters of the job before you go in and give it your all. I wouldn't find it too weird to participate for free, in a team on a project proposal if I was really interested in the project and the team and found it to bring me personally some fun, fame or fortune. Up to you to balance those three. But, it sounds like they want your help to win the project (profitable for them) and ultimately to be on the project. For me, it's not so much the paying for your up-front time, it's whether your time guarantees you a spot on the project and whether that will be a good experience for you - is it worth your sweat equity? How do you know?

I think a longer conversation with the CEO will help you out. "It's really great to be given an opportunity to come in on this but I need to make sure I understand what the proposal is so that I'm not just doing a lot of work for something that either doesn't have a chance or isn't the best fit for me. Can you tell me more about the team? If we win the project, am I guaranteed this role? Will there be a contract put in place - do you have a version of this I can read now?", etc..

Also, just want to say, I'm sorry you've been burned in the past. I've been burned, too, and it's definitely a factor that I'm aware of in many extremely talented women "opting out" of the regular employment field. It just seems more lucrative, less hassle and more advantageous to go your own way. Good luck with this and just keep your eye on the prize - what is good for me and my future as I see it right now? How could this help me and how could it hurt me?
posted by amanda at 4:12 PM on July 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is totally normal, and you should not expect to be directly compensated for your time. If you win the work, everyone gets paid when they execute the contract.

If you work in an RFP/proposal-centric world (as ID is), work like this is going to be your new normal. This is how you get business. This is why larger firms have people who do nothing but this, all day every day. As a solo provider, you need to balance this with your paid work.

As was mentioned above, when you figure out your rate/fees, you need to take into consideration that you'll be spending a fair amount of time on things like this, to generate future work.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 4:18 PM on July 15, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: If I understand this right this is a tender rather than design work. The firm I work for does these, particularly for government jobs; what's called for is something to show the client a) that a tendering group has all the right disciplines and expertises, with capacity to do the work, b) they know roughly what's involved in terms of scale and purpose, and c) the price. If the government wants to build a bridge, they want to know that the contractors really can build a compliant structure, and understand which river it's going to cross. It's not paid, except for the very very largest, where there might be many rounds of tendering. The key thing is that it's not work in the sense of your doing design or giving advice, it's you demonstrating that you can, if you were contracted to. This is, by the way the major advantage professional firms have over individual contractors like you.

I have documents full of boilerplate paragraphs and dot points I keep just for these kinds of proposals. I never work very hard on them and nobody would expect me to. Cut-and-paste is called for and normal.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:19 PM on July 15, 2021 [9 favorites]

Every sector exploits contractors in its own way, and I don't know the particulars of yours. DC always struck me as an unusually rigid town when it came to the mores of work, and I don't want to advise someone to do something ill-advised in their field. If you're lucky enough to have a whisper network or if you can source anyone in your profession online, I would use it to assess the exploitation norms, as it were.

That said, I have worked as a contractor for years, I have an excellent resume, a lot of experience and a long memory for the exploitation I endured in the early years, and the thing about American labor exploitation is at some level it's an acceptable way to behave, and I just don't have any patience for it anymore. I don't give discounts. I don't take low bids. I don't do it just this one time because more work is around the corner. I simply ask for a model of what they want, so I know what their expectations are and, on that basis, I tell them I charge X per hour or X per project, and I expect 50% up front. If they're not amenable to that arrangement, I walk away. I don't always have to walk very far these days, and sometimes folks come running after me. But that's the thing: If you're in a position where you can walk away, literally walk away from what are fundamentally exploitative situations, unreasonable terms and a paycheck than never comes, you're doing us all a favor in a way.

On a related note, I don't work in video games, but the crazy assignments, crunch times and "fuck you to labor" attitude in Alex Pareene's "Video Games Are a Labor Disaster: Why do game studios keep imploding?"really resonated. What was especially interesting about it is it didn't just talk about what doesn't work, it also pointed to a real-life model that does work. It's worth reading.
posted by Violet Blue at 4:20 PM on July 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: What exactly is your role in the program? The way the CEO's message is worded, it kind of makes it sound like they are considering you to be a partner in the proposal as opposed to strictly being a fee-for-service consultant. I worked in international development on the NGO side for 5 years or so and it seems like they are thinking of you in the same way I can remember us working on proposals with say a small consulting company that was considered to have a portion of the SOW contracted out to them. I don't think we paid the consulting company in that case for their involvement in the proposal because the process was seen more as us as a consortium/team together putting together this proposal in response to the RFP - to which we as organizations would both eventually benefit by having the contract.

On the other hand, there are other cases where we've named a person in the proposal as key personnel or referenced a specific contractor that we were going to work with. I could see the individual contractor in that case maybe looking over a draft and not getting paid for it, but I don't think we'd ask them to be writing sections or designing our project without compensation. That's what you pay proposal development consultants for.

This is a tough question given that it feels like your position is maybe veering towards the second but a little between the two? I think it is probably worth diplomatically broaching the question of payment with the CEO if you truly feel like you're going to be playing a hand in designing the program as opposed to just providing information on your background or CV for the proposal and maybe reading a section or two that they produced and providing a few comments. If you go that route and they say they can't pay you, you might then draw some boundaries about what you have time for (eg, that quick review of section X and just think of it as part of the process of "applying" for the job) - and tell them you'd be more than happy to delve into the specifics of the design once the proposal is won. A lot of program design happens after the proposal, after all - when people actually get down to implementing things.

*Quick disclaimer in that I've never been an independent contractor myself, but I have been involved in a lot of proposal processes from the NGO side. I think you might be served by reaching out to some others who have contractor experience in your field to ask what is normal if you can, though.

**Oh and one final thought - what if you end up being approached by another organization on the same RFP? Assuming that it is allowed for you to put your name on more than one proposal, you might want to censor how much input you give into the design of this project for this particular company. If not now that might be something you run into in the future.
posted by knownfossils at 4:29 PM on July 15, 2021

Best answer: In my field, it would be fairly typical and expected for a consultant in a proposal to provide some input into the proposal without pay up front. Depending on whether you're playing a lead role (often "senior/key personnel") or a more minor role, the amount/type of information you're providing could vary pretty widely.

If the latter, it might just be a bio and some credentials, a couple of paragraphs about the work you would contribute to the proposal, a paragraph about any facilities/equipment you have available if it's the sort of work where that' s relevant, and a proposed budget. Even to do that much you'd still have to have at least one or two conversations with your proposal partners to make sure you're all on the same page about how you're going to contribute to the overall work so you can write that documentation. But typically your work would be more or less standalone so you don't need to be deeply engaged in a design process with other members of the team.

If the former, where you're proposing to play a bigger role in the project, then you would likely be more involved in an iterative process where you have to really understand what all the other team members are doing, discuss how your work is going to slot in, go through multiple rounds of draft-writing with the other team members to make sure the whole proposal flows together smoothly and meets all the requirements of the RFP, possibly write several pages about your work, maybe provide more detailed background information about yourself, potentially have to make disclosures about your other work, etc.

It sounds as if the CEO is trying to give you an opening to set your own expectations here about which of those sorts of roles you want, and ensuring that the work you'd be putting yourself on the hook to do is actually described and funded the way you want it done. It sounds as if you'd be a lot more comfortable at the low-involvement end of that spectrum, and I don't think it would go over badly for you to just say as much - you can't commit to a lead role, you'd be interested in a supporting role doing xyz, you can join them for one meeting for X hours, but you can't prepare a presentation on that timeline. Or whatever you actually are comfortable contributing unpaid on the hope-but-not-guarantee of eventually landing the gig.

Do stand firm on your budget. In my experience the initial budget is often a truly wild guess, and gets reconfigured a great deal in the final week or so, and it's very possible they can find the money to pay you the rate you want. If not, so be it, but don't sell yourself short especially if you're hoping to parlay this into an ongoing relationship.
posted by Stacey at 4:50 PM on July 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

I do proposals as my job, and certainly I and the technical people I team with get paid. It is considered "overhead" because we don't bill a client for it, but we get paid just the same!

Also there is no such thing as a guaranteed proposal win, so assurances that you'll get paid later don't fly with me.

Let them know your rate and get their agreement to it in writing. Delineate what tasks you will provide (consultation on one particular area of proposed work) up to whatever the final date is.
posted by emjaybee at 7:04 AM on July 16, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who gave advice here - it's helpful to read a full range of experiences and opinions.

knownfossils and Stacey, I found your advice really helpful to reframe what was happening: we originally discussed a support position for 1-5 days a month, and I provided a rate commensurate with that kind of work. If I'd been asked to be a technical/project lead, with an expectation of co-authoring a proposal and budget, my rate would have been higher. It helped immensely to be able to write back and say, "I'd be glad to provide feedback on a draft proposal and work in the support role we discussed, but given my original proposed rate and the timeline for the proposal, I'm not interested in being the project lead." (As a matter of fact, it turns out that they had nothing, and my saying No Thanks to project lead led them to drop their application completely. Bullet dodged!)

Fiasco da Gama, your point about boilerplate language is also really well-taken. It underlines that this particular job wasn't for me - if it had been an RFP for creating Google-Sheets-based data management tools and socializing them with team members, for example, I've got great language to rely on from writing up previous successes, and love that kind of work so much that creating new language wouldn't be onerous. If in future I don't have ready language to describe what I'd do on a particular proposal, I'll take that as a sign to think twice about whether I'm genuinely interested or not. (Also encourages me to think more modularly about my work, and to come up with some good boilerplate for the things I *do* want to do in future.)
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 3:23 PM on July 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

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