In most companies there are significantly more good ideas than there are time, money, and resources to bring those ideas to fruition. From new features and updates to updating processes or making things more efficient, it’s hard to always know what’s the best use of the limited resources you have.
Getting buy-in for your project, whether it’s a new feature, update, website, or service, is a key part of your job as a project manager. And that all starts with a project proposal.
A project proposal is a blueprint and a sales brochure for what you’re going to build. It outlines what your project is going to accomplish and the steps you’re going to take to get there. It covers everything from your goals and deliverables to the timeline, resources you’ll need, estimated budget, and the risks and rewards of seeing it through.
Agencies and freelancers use project proposals to win clients, while project managers at larger companies use them to get resources and budget.
It’s a lot to fit into one document. But if done right, you’ll have the support and buy-in you need to turn your project ideas into a reality.
In this guide, we’ll run you through how to write a project proposal that gets approved, the process of pitching your proposal, and show you some examples of what a good project proposal looks like.
Ready to learn how to create a successful project proposal of your own? Here's how we've structured this article:
Why do you need to write a project proposal anyways?
Businesses live and die by the choices they make. And when you’re asking your leader to choose your project to commit time, money, and resources to, they need to know they’re making the right decision.
A project proposal gives them that proof. It shows that you’ve thought the project through, know it’s feasible, and have a plan. More than just another exercise in bureaucratic nonsense, a proper project proposal is as much for you as the project manager, as the stakeholders who are approving it.
When done properly, a project proposal will:
- Give you and your team a roadmap to success. Filling out your project proposal is real work. Not only are you selling the potential benefits of what you’re making, but you’re showing exactly how you’re going to get there. All this means that you’re basically creating a step-by-step plan that, once approved, you can follow all the way to the finish line.
- Prove the project is viable and can be done with the resources you currently have. With a clear timeline, budget, and deliverables in place, your project proposal will allay any fears that you’re asking for too much.
- Get you buy-in from key stakeholders early on. Great projects happen because someone champions them. Your project proposal is the first opportunity to make a stakeholder into a supporter and open the lines of communication.
- Create structure around the project. By focusing on the goals, risks, and benefits early on, your project develops a structure that will support it when things go wrong. If you get lost along the way, your project proposal is a great document to look back on and remind you of why you’re making the choices you are.
The essential elements of a project proposal that will get you buy-in
The goal of your project proposal is to get approved. That’s it.
Yes, it’s a great document to help guide you when you eventually start your project. But if you don’t get over that initial roadblock, it won’t
Think about who your audience is. The stakeholders at your company have significantly different needs, motivations, and concerns than the people on your team. So while it’s easy to go down the wrong path and treat your project proposal like a plan, it’s important to step back and recognize who you’re writing this for.
While it’s easy to treat your project proposal like a plan, it’s important to step back and recognize who you’re writing this for.
Here’s a basic structure that will help you get your project across in the most persuasive and attractive way:
Step 1: Explain the problem and why it’s important to solve it right now
The first thing your project proposal should do is make the person reading it nod their head.
You want to quickly paint a picture for them of a familiar scenario: Your company and an issue you all know you’re facing. Maybe it’s a higher-than-average churn rate? Or a step in your onboarding flow where people are falling off? Or even just tanking traffic on a marketing page. Whatever it is, it needs to be clear what the problem is and why it needs to be solved now.
Fear is a powerful motivator, but so is opportunity. So while it’s easy to just get caught up in fear-mongering and the negative effects of not dealing with this challenge, you should also present the positives.
One of the best ways to paint a clear picture is to situate the issue in the larger context of your company. How have you historically dealt with this in the past? Why did you make the choice to do it the way you did (or not do it at all)? How will making this change right now bring you huge benefits?
A good test for this section of your project proposal is to use an old journalist’s trick and ask: Why now?
If you can’t answer why it’s important to do this project at this moment, it will be hard to convince your stakeholders that it deserves the resources you’re asking for.
Step 2: Tie the project’s benefits into the bigger company strategy
No project exists in a vacuum. Once you’ve clearly defined the challenge and your potential solution, you need to show how doing this will move the whole company forward.
When we wrote about efficient goal-setting exercises, one piece of advice that continually came up was that you have to be able to tie those goals to the bigger picture. When it comes to your team, proper goals are what motivates them and builds a sense of togetherness.
Your project proposal should do the same thing for your stakeholders.
Ask yourself: Why should they care? Sure, a new marketing site might look better, but how does it affect the bottom line? How does your project push the company’s strategic goals forward?
It helps to frame these as both a business problem and a business opportunity. This connection is critical if you want to get your project approved, so go deep into the project’s benefits.
When it comes to your team, proper goals are what motivates them and builds a sense of togetherness.
Step 3: Explain why you’re the right fit (for agencies and freelancers)
Agencies and freelancers use project proposals to win work. So while you shouldn’t have to sell yourself if you’re already a project manager at the company, you do if you’re coming in as an outside contractor.
Before diving into the specifics of the project, take a minute to explain why you’re the right fit for this project. How do your past skills apply to the project and the challenge at hand? Can you talk about or link to any relevant past work? What unique qualifications or capabilities do you have? Are there awards you can show off?
Again, a classic journalist’s question works well here: Why you?
Step 4: Spell out exactly what you’re going to deliver
Now it’s time to explain what you’re actually going to deliver.
A good way to do this is to start high level with a project vision statement and your top goals, before breaking these down into specific deliverables.
A vision statement articulates what is being solved, what success looks like, and the timeframe of the project. For example: “Our vision is to launch a new child-focused version of our meditation app, growing our overall user base by 15% by Sept. 3rd.”
Next, your goals should be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time based). For example:
- “Run a design sprint to prototype potential solutions during May.”
- “Create an MVP of our new app and complete user-testing by August.”
- “Finalize testing and launch the new eCommerce website to our existing user base by Sept. 3rd”
It’s important that both your vision statement and your goals don’t leave any glaring unknowns. Ambiguous goals can lead to misunderstandings, disappointment, and expensive rework. As the Harvard Business Review wrote in their Guide to Project Management:
“Take, for instance, the following statement: ‘Develop a website that’s capable of providing fast, accurate product information and fulfillment to our customers in a cost-effective way.’”
“What exactly does that mean? What is ‘fast’? How should accuracy be defined? Is one error in 1,000 transactions acceptable? One in 10,000? To what degree must the site be cost-effective? Each of those questions should be answered in consultation with the project’s sponsor and key stakeholders.”
When it comes to listing your actual deliverables, you should go into as much detail as necessary to show how you’re hitting your goals and the scope of the project.
Step 5: Define what success will look like
Now that you’ve shown what you’re making and why, it’s time to show how you’ll know if your project is successful. In other words, how will you be held accountable for the project?
Is it completing all of the deliverables on time and on budget? Or is success measured by outcomes? In the second case, you should list a few KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that the project’s success can be measured against. This could be things like time on site if you’re creating a new blog, or lowering customer churn by 25%.
Whatever it is, the best metrics are what Pinterest Engineering Manager Marty Weiner calls MMOM:
- Meaningful: Is it tied to a specific business goal that most people can agree on?
- Measurable: Is there a number attached to it or some way to quantify the results?
- Operational: Will you be able to quickly see the effects of your changes?
- Motivational: Is it something you and your team want to work on?
Step 6: Break down the project timeline
Every project proposal needs a timeline in order to be taken seriously. This doesn’t mean you’re locking dates into your calendar, but you should have a good idea of how long each deliverable will take to complete.
List a basic breakdown of the full project timeline, deadlines for key milestones, and a high-level project plan. Gantt Charts are a good way of visualizing such a plan.
Some things to think about at this stage are:
- Who else is involved that will affect whether or not you will hit these deadlines (like outside contractors or other teams)?
- What project management methodology are you going to use? Agile? Waterfall?
Don’t be too optimistic in your timeline. Remember, no one has 8 hours to do focused work in a day. Be mindful of time lag and work in buffers for when things take longer than expected.
If you’re unsure of how long deliverables should take to hit, we’ve put together some helpful tips in our Guide to Task Management.
Step 7: Show them the money (i.e. how much is this going to cost in resources and budget?)
What do you need in people, resources, and budget to make this project a success?
Start with resources and people, listing who you need, for how long, and any additional tools or software. Then, break each down by cost, adding in a buffer for when things go wrong (they always do!)
Think about the intangible costs as well, like site downtime or training customer support on new processes or software. It’s always scary to ask for money, so add in a simple ROI calculation if you can. For example, if you’re asking for $50,000 in resources, but you’re estimating the project will bring in $250,000 in revenue over the next 12 months, your ROI is $200,000.
Step 8: Explain the risks, issues, implications, and how you’ll report progress
The final section of your project proposal answers any lingering questions your sponsor might have, including:
- What are the risks or issues that might come up by undertaking this project?
- What are the implications of not doing it?
- How are you going to report progress to stakeholders? (Planio gives you powerful tools for tracking and reporting your progress.)
Be as honest as possible here. According to the Project Management Institute, one of the main reasons project proposals fail is because they aren’t credible enough. No one can see into the future, but taking the time to really think about what could happen will help you get buy-in and approval.
5 Best practices when writing a project proposal
If you read all that and feel like your project proposal is going to have to be a novel to get all that in, take a breath. It’s not that bad. In fact, as we said at the beginning, your project proposal is more of a story than a textbook. You want to create a vision of a brighter future based on the work you’re going to do.
Here’s a few quick tips and best practices to help you:
- Keep it short. We’re talking 1-2 pages if at all possible. The decision maker will know in a few minutes of reading whether or not they’re going to give your project the OK. If you’re spending too long with background, write an executive summary. You can get into the details later. As Scott D. Anthony of the growth consulting firm Innosight explains: “One of the first pieces of advice I got when I began writing holds true: Tell them, with some degree of precision, what you are going to tell them — from the start.”
- Do the research (and be able to back it up). A project proposal is a small project in its own right and can’t just be thrown together. Be ready to discuss what you’ve done and be able to back up the research you’ve included. Acknowledge the risks as well as the benefits and show that you’ve thought this through.
- Don’t ignore flow. A great project proposal has an arc. It takes the decision maker from the current, underperforming or risky world and shows them a brighter future. Overall, keep it tight. This applies to deliverables as well. Don’t include deliverables that aren’t really in the scope of the problem. They might make sense tangentially, but if they don’t fit in the story you’re telling, you should leave them out.
- Bracket budgets if you’re unsure. If you’re working on something entirely new or using your project proposal to pitch to a client, you’ll want to be as clear on budget and costs as possible. But if you’re unsure, use brackets to give a general idea of what you propose. This way you’re still anchoring the cost in a certain way, but you have some wiggle room if the deliverables change.
- Remember that a plan is only a guess. Your proposal needs detail, but you can’t be married to it. Plans are just educated guesses. Show as much information as possible, but be clear that this is a work in progress.
A great project proposal has an arc. It takes the decision maker from the current, underperforming or risky world and shows them a brighter future.
The art of the pitch: How to sell your project proposal
A project proposal is an important part of getting your project approved. But it’s still only part of it. You need to be able to sell it and champion it within the company. When it comes time to pitch your proposal, some classic persuasion techniques can go a long way in making sure your sponsor connects with the story you’re telling in your proposal.
According to The Art of Woo, intelligent persuasion is all about working to align interests, values and relationships. This means understanding what your stakeholder connects with the most and tailoring your project proposal pitch to that “channel”:
- Relationships: Persuaded by contacts, fiends, rapport, and reciprocity
- Emotion and Inspiration: Persuaded by a sense of purpose, or values and beliefs
- Politics: Concerned with appearance and alliances
- Authority: Defer to rules and policies
- Interest-based: Cares about their own self-interest
- Rationality: Influenced by logic, reason, evidence, and credibility
If you’ve been around your stakeholder in the past, you probably know which channel they’re most likely to respond to. Otherwise, ask other people who have more experience.
Some other factors you’ll want to consider before your pitch are:
- What is the approval process like at your company?
- Who has influence over the decision maker?
- Who else might benefit from this project happening?
- Do you have credibility and rapport with these people?
- What is their knowledge about your proposal topic?
- What’s worked (or hasn’t worked) in the past?
Don’t assume that just because you’ve put in the effort to make your project proposal that it will be approved. There’s truth to that old saying that it’s not what you say. It’s how you say it. The more you know about who you’re talking to and what they’re persuaded by, the better chance you have of getting your proposal pushed through.
Download our free Project Proposal Template and get started
There you have it! By now you should have everything you need to write and pitch a project proposal and get approval.
If you’re a project manager, freelancer, or even a consultant, you’ll probably write hundreds of proposals throughout your career. And there’s no reason to start each one from scratch. We’ve put together a full project proposal template you can fill out and customize here: