Are you a charity or social enterprise considering applying for commissioned contracts? Here are some helpful hints


What are the key dos and don’ts of winning grants/commissioned services?

I have extensive experience of being both a commissioner and being on the other side of the fence as a commissioned service lead. The following is based on my experience of constructing tenders and bidding for contracts. 

If you would like me to help you with putting together a bid for a grant or a commissioned service, I would be happy to talk to you.

Prior to bidding
  • Do check where your local authority/CCG etc advertise tender opportunities and register for alerts.
  • Do ask yourself honestly ‘Is this right for us?’ 
  • Don’t just chase money. Consider whether the work fits with your mission, values and strategy.
  • Don’t be put off by the mystique of commissioning – it’s actually fairly straightforward in essence despite some baffling terminology.
  • Do consider the impact of taking on a new contract on the rest of your business. Is the opportunity cost worth it?
  • Do ask yourself ‘is the tender process worth the trouble?’ – you can go to a lot of effort to gain relatively small amounts of money, so consider a cost-benefit analysis. (Govt guidance says commissioners should keep processes commensurate to the value and duration of the contract. This doesn’t always happen).
  • Do work on promoting your local profile. Commissioners ought to be consulting widely before a tender goes public. Make sure you are on their radar.
Preparing your bid
  • Do get the support of your board/trustees prior to bidding. Especially if the bid will have a significant impact on time taken to construct and subsequent business operations if successful.
  • Do read the specification carefully and ask yourself honestly if you can deliver and at the price on offer (if stated).
  • Do ensure you meet the stated tender criteria before bidding. Not meeting the published criteria is one of the most common reasons for tenders falling at the first hurdle, (a bit like applying for a job when you don’t meet essential criteria!).
  • Do your homework on the commissioning authority – even down to individual level. Get to know their concerns, local issues, preferences (Google them, check out Linkedin).
  • Do have important docs –  H&S, safeguarding, equal opps policy, QA docs etc up to date. The commissioner will want sight of them. Tender timelines can be very short and you want to avoid a mad scramble.
  • Do have a bid manager and a bid team in charge of the bid if possible (esp if it’s a significant bid).
  • Do apply project management principles to your bid process. This is especially important for complex tenders.
  • Do think about how your balance sheet looks. Do you look financially stable and well managed? Commissioners are required to undertake due diligence on the health of your organisation prior to awarding a contract.
  • Do consider who your competitors might be (competitor analysis). What marks you out against them? What can you do that they cannot? Highlight your competitive advantage in your bid.
  • Consider whether your bid would benefit from having a partner bidding jointly with you. Particularly if there is an evident skills and/or resources gap in your agency.
  • Do read the commissioner’s local strategy. Reference the strategy in your bid. Playback phrases/concepts from the strategy in your tender.
  • Do put yourself in the commissioners shoes. What are they actually looking for? What are their major concerns?
  • Do ask questions in the bidding phase. No such thing as a dumb question. (Though bear in mind your questions will be on public view once the tender period is open).
  • If you are bidding with a partner organisation, construct a partnership agreement. The commissioner will most likely require one of you to be the lead agency for the contract. The relationship should be clear in your partnership agreement.
  • Do get outside help for bid writing/bid management if you lack internal expertise (especially for larger bids).
  • Do have a critical friend ‘second reader’, preferably someone outside of the immediate bid team, or even outside of your organisation.
  • Do check for spelling/grammatical errors and make sure your numbers add up.
  • Do complete every section of the tender form. Leave nothing blank. Avoid saying ‘see section X’ even if the tender question appears repetitive.
  • Don’t promise to do things you obviously cannot deliver or overclaim your past achievements (a good commissioner will ask you to support your claims with evidence).
  • Do check if the tender process requires a presentation and prepare your best presenters (might not be the bid team). Including service users in the presentation can be very powerful.

(Some of this may seem obvious but poorly presented, badly written tenders are surprisingly common and will undermine your pitch no matter how brilliant your offer).

Style – presenting your pitch
  • Don’t only say what you do and what you are good at. Describe how you are going to use your expertise to deliver what is being asked for in the tender specification.
  • Do highlight your USP. Don’t hold back. No need for British reserve!
  • Do reference your achievements, especially where this shows achievement of concrete outcomes. Impact data is especially valuable.
  • Don’t assume the commissioner knows all about you. In fact, better to assume the opposite. Describe your organisation (in glowing terms!)
  • Do emphasise your community links (esp if bidding for a local contract).
  • Start each section of a tender submission with a strong ‘We will’, ‘We can’ type statement. 
  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short and punchy. This has the effect of making you sound confident. Avoid waffle!
  • Do use positive words about yourself throughout – ‘dynamic’, ‘flexible’, ‘innovative’, ‘reliable’, ‘well established’, ‘high achieving’ etc. 
  • Do use case studies and photos. They carry weight (esp when presented alongside impact data) and help to break up blocks of text.
  • Do promote your innovation/creativity. Commissioners frequently ask for innovative solutions though often struggle to articulate what that means. Do it for them!
  • Do check if the tender submission form has weighted sections. Put your best ‘stuff’ in the sections carrying the highest marks.
  • Do check word limits if they exist, (they usually do and that’s a good thing). 
Pricing – one of the most difficult elements of any tender
  • Do include your overheads in your price. Avoid the temptation to present an ‘attractive’ price by keeping overheads artificially low.
  • Do challenge any commissioner who says they will pay direct delivery costs only and not overheads. Apart from being wholly unreasonable (and surprisingly common), it is contrary to government procurement guidance.
  • Do have a thorough understanding of your costs – both direct (staffing, equipment etc) and indirect (building, utilities etc). This will help you with accurately pricing your bid. This is important as once you submit a price in a tender, you may not be able to change it later.
  • If there are TUPE implications, ensure you pricing covers all employee costs and liabilities (if there is a current provider, they are required to inform all bidders of potential TUPE liabilities).
  • Do keep your pricing realistic and be prepared to defend it in negotiation.
  • Don’t be hesitant about adding a margin (profit) to your tender price. This is for future investment in your enterprise so don’t be shy about it. 5% to 15% is perfectly reasonable.
  • Do allow for cost inflation if pricing a contract over years.
Things to beware 
  • Do look out for ‘risk shunting’ – the commissioning body attempting to pass unsustainable or unfair risk to you. This can apply to employment and pension terms of transferring staff, upkeep of buildings etc. Sometimes this is deliberate and therefore ought to be transparent. However, sometimes commissioners may not have understood the risks they are attempting to pass to you. Get advice if you are unsure.
  • Do get advice on whether there are TUPE implications associated with a tender. If someone is currently delivering the service you are bidding for, TUPE is likely to apply and you will have to match T&Cs, (at least to begin with).
  • However, don’t accept a TUPE transfer list at face value. The current provider may try to pass staff (and costs) on to you who have no real association with the contract. Be prepared to query and challenge.
  • Do get expert advice if transfer of pensions is involved, (particular final salary pensions). Pensions can have very significant liabilities hidden away in the detail. 
When you win!
  • Do read and understand contract terms. They will be written in legalese so get advice on anything you’re not sure about. 
  • Councils often refer to contracts as ‘standard terms’ and declare them ‘non-negotiable’. Don’t be put off. Just about anything is negotiable so push back on things you don’t like, (payment terms in arrears for example).
  • Do bargain hard using good negotiation skills. Don’t be browbeaten or concede on an issue without achieving a commensurate gain.
  • Do insist upon a mobilisation period – duration and what can be expected in terms of delivery. It is perfectly reasonable to allow time for a contract to come up to speed.
  • Do trumpet your achievement on social media etc. 
Post tender 
  • If you don’t win, do ask the commissioner for feedback. Valuable lessons can be learned in this way, (most are happy to oblige).
  • Do review your bid process internally – win or lose – for key learning points.