The whole notion of proposal recruitment and staffing presents a unique complexity in working in international development. This can pose challenges for both employers and professionals looking to engage on donor-funded projects. In the Devex LinkedIn group, one Devex member, Sue, posed the following question:
“What if you are currently interviewing for jobs and a consulting firm wants to put you on a bid where you have to sign an exclusivity form? What if I find a job in the meantime? I don’t want to sign my life away and I want to have integrity, yet I also want a Plan B in place in case these interviews don’t pan out. The consultancy would pay well and last about a year. Do I sign my life away on a maybe?”
As someone who used to do proposal recruitment for U.S. Agency for International Development-funded implementers, this is a scenario I understand all too well.
For those of you not familiar with the unique nature of proposal staffing, let me provide a brief primer. A donor like USAID or the European Union will release a request for proposal or application for a specific project. In addition to a technical proposal and cost proposal, bidders typically have to include the personnel that will carry out the project. Given the very specific technical, country and language expertise typically required of each solicitation, and the numerous projects an organization will compete for over the course of a year, it is not practical for an organization to have all of this expertise that they may or may not need already on staff. So instead, they must go out and recruit candidates as RFPs or RFAs are released and the required expertise known. If the employer is awarded the project, then they can actually hire you for the position. (Hint, a way to spot job advertisements for positions that are in the proposal stage is to look for terms like an “anticipated” or “forthcoming” project).
So why the need for letters of exclusivity?
Since there are typically many firms or organizations bidding on the same offer, part of their competitive advantage is the personnel they can bring to the table. It is common for 25 percent of an award to be determined by the proposed personnel.
To maintain that competitive edge, bidders will often request that the personnel sign a letter promising to not be on anyone else’s bid and to be available should the project be awarded to their team. The bidder includes this letter in the proposal to demonstrate to the donor that the personnel proposed are real people who are actually committed to working on the project — not just a CV they threw in to try and win. (Though that can certainly happen.) Sometimes, the RFP or RFA will even require these letters of exclusivity or commitment.
Additionally, employers often include the proposed personnel into conversations around the technical proposal and other confidential information. They are concerned you could share this with one of their competitors if you do not also have some “skin in the game.” Furthermore, if a firm includes you as part of their key personnel in a proposal and is awarded the project, but then you are not available, the donor could decide to revoke the award or a competing agency could contest the award, sometimes completely throwing out the procurement all together.
So, what to do when you are asked to signing one of these letters?
First of all, recruiters understand that life changes and it can be difficult to predict what your availability will be three months, six months, even a year from now. And with donors often taking at least this long to award a project — and sometimes cancelling them before they are awarded — they do not realistically expect you to be sitting on standby indefinitely without a paycheck on a “maybe.” What they are looking for is a good faith statement that you will do your best to be available should they win — and will not put yourself on a competitor’s bid for the same project. The letters are not legally binding contracts by any means and would not hold up in court in the extremely unlikely scenario of an employer seeking legal recourse for not being available.
If you are uncomfortable signing such letters, here are some tips for negotiating this tricky scenario:
Know whether the letter of commitment or exclusivity is in fact a requirement of the RFP or RFA or something the bidder has actively chosen to include on their own. If the former, then declining to sign a letter will likely mean they will not include you in their proposal — and likely none of the competing firms as well — and can sour your relationship with the employer. They are just trying to comply with the rules. If the latter, there may be more room for negotiation. (You can find this out by reading the full solicitation notice, which are usually publically available documents.)
While an employer may provide a template letter for you to sign — and again, this could be included as a requirement in the RFP — you can try and negotiate less definitive language. For example, rather than stating you are “committed to being available” you can say you “intend to be available.”
Make sure that the letter states exclusivity for this specific RFP or RFA only. If a hiring organization tries to get you to sign a letter of exclusivity for all proposals and positions, then you can certainly push back.
Be open and honest with the recruiter. Do not see recruiters the enemies but rather partners in achieving a mutually beneficial relationship. Their goal is to win the project and secure funding for their organization. Your goal is to be able to work on that project. If they think you have the right expertise to win the project, they need you as much as you need them. If you are honest with the recruiter — as well as keep them updated with any new job offers while they wait to hear about the award — you can maintain your integrity and reputation with the employer even if you ultimately have to turn down the work.
Several recruiters have shared recently that they noticed USAID backing away from requiring these letters and in some solicitations even explicitly disallowing them. So we may be seeing the tides change as donors realize the undue burden this puts on both the employer and the proposed employee.
Do you have any suggestions for navigating the complex world of proposal staffing? Do you think donors should require key personnel or should they wait until a project is awarded to identify staff? Please leave your comments and tips below.
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