How to Ensure Your Proposals are Diverse and Inclusive

Like many companies, mine prioritizes its participation in its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts. We place a high value on ensuring every person feels like they have a voice in our company because we believe it makes us a better organization. We don’t want anyone to feel excluded, no matter who they are or their background. Despite whether your company is similar, mine is not the only company that feels this way about DE&I.

As proposal professionals, we have likely encountered RFPs that ask us about our efforts to promote DE&I. These companies sometimes even evaluate us on our responses to topics like promoting diversity, minority/women-owned business enterprise subcontracting, and community participation. We often check a few boxes, respond to these requirements, and move on. But as a proposal owner, you have much more liberty than you think to make your proposals a little more DE&I friendly. And why would you want to do that? It establishes yourself as an ethical company that cares about people, shows empathy, and builds trust with your client.

Plus, it’s just kind.  

Here are 10 ways you can incorporate DE&I into your proposals: 

  1. Cover letters and gender preferences. To respectfully address someone, etiquette tells us to start with Dear Mr, Mrs, Ms + last name. But are we ever really sure of the gender preference of the person we’re addressing? To err on the side of caution, consider just politely using the contact person’s first name instead of presuming their preference for Mr, Mrs, or Ms.
  2. Pronouns for Key Staff CVs. When creating CVs, confirm your key personnel’s pronouns and don’t assume their gender preference. I usually like to send CVs back to the individual for a final review anyway, so tacking on the “Do you have a pronoun preference?” question is a simple way to ensure we’re discussing them correctly.
  3. In photos: Many of us use stock photography on the covers of our proposals and throughout the proposal. Choose photos that represent a person of an unrepresented community. Of course, the idea of the image is to complement the information and not be too distracting, so choose your photos tastefully. For example, if using a photo showing a group, consider using one that displays diversity – men, women, a gender-fluid individual, one with religious headwear, minorities, etc. 
  4. Avoid stereotypes. Beyond photos, sometimes we use examples of customers by creating profiles. Be diverse in your examples of those in sample roles unless your proposal is to address a specific demographic. For example, I am Hispanic. It would strike me as offensive if I read a proposal that presented a scenario where only Hispanic profiles or names were associated with a stereotypical role or undesirable situation. However, suppose I noticed there was also a scenario where the proposal listed a successful Hispanic person. In that case, I’d recognize the tasteful balance of their examples.
  5. Be sensitive to education levels. Aim to write for an 8th-grade education level to not exclude some readers. This may not be possible with all proposals in every section because sometimes the details get complex. However, note that evaluators aren’t always the ones with the technical backgrounds. To ensure your proposal doesn’t discriminate against education levels – and to better connect with those who will evaluate you – communicate as clearly and simply as possible.
  6. Avoid Twitter-speak; avoid ageism. Speak simply, but not too simply. Avoid too much brevity or “universally” used acronyms unless your company is in the social media sphere. I know this seems like a ridiculous suggestion. Still, I have seen a proposal from a company that wanted to communicate their new, fresh outlook on technology by using hashtags, acronyms, and some slang. We passed on them because, while their product was promising, the older generation didn’t understand their proposal.

  7. Avoid colloquialisms that could exclude others. I struggle a lot with making my proposal relatable yet professional. Sometimes I fight the urge to throw in a “common” colloquialism like “your service can resume without a hitch,” but then I realize maybe not everyone knows that expression. While I mean no harm in including a phrase like that, I may be inadvertently discriminating against someone for whom English isn’t their first language or who isn’t familiar with American colloquialism.
  8. Keep your audience in mind. However, a caveat to this suggestion is to not be afraid to use a specific region’s terminology if you want to show some respect to their “language.” Of course, tone, colloquialisms, example scenarios, and photos will change by opportunity and client. For example, we mirrored the language of a Hawaiian company by starting our letter with “Aloha,” as they had said to us in their RFP. We also translated a letter into German once for a company in Germany. Even though they recognized we were an American company, we wanted to politely translate it into their native language. If you’re writing to a UK audience from the US, a polite gesture would be to modify your English to British spellings and wording (i.e., diary instead of calendar, pounds instead of dollars).
  9. See if the company prioritizes DE&I. It should be a standard practice to visit the company’s website anyway, so while you’re there, see if DE&I is a priority for the potential client. If the company seems concerned with diversity and equality, try to discuss any mission your company also has and list out any related accomplishments. Of course, this is much easier to do if it’s asked for in the RFP, but if not, you might be able to tactfully address it in another section. Many RFPs have requirements to work with small or minority-owned businesses, which could be an appropriate place to discuss your company’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion. To take the offer even further, see if your bid team is willing to offer anything that speaks to their DE&I initiatives, like offering a discount to their customers in underserved communities or offering your services in other languages for free or at a low rate.
  10. Genuinely care. We often don’t know who’s on the other side of the page reading our proposals. We see a company name, write in our best polished professional language, and hope to win a bid. But maybe the person on the other side is someone who has felt excluded before – for their gender, race, religion, sexual preference, age, etc. Maybe they’ve had a great day; maybe they had a crummy day. And then they read your proposal. How will they feel about it? Acknowledged, represented? Or unrepresented, unrelatable.  

As DE&I becomes more realized in companies, there’s no disadvantage to starting to make an effort. There are dozens of reasons a proposal wins a bid, and diversity efforts may account for none. But at the end of the day, we’re all people – bidders, evaluators, proposal writers, decision-makers – and we all want to be seen. So while DE&I may or may not be necessary to you or your company, keep in mind that these small changes can impact your evaluators. And while DE&I may not win you the bid, being insensitive to it can lose you one. 


About the Author

Susie Medina is the Manager of Proposal Content & Quality at PSI Services, Credentialing.

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