Member Profile: Sharon Cooley, Creative Associates International

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August 01, 2017

Member Profile: Sharon Cooley, Creative Associates International

Sharon Cooley, second from left, presenting on "Organizing the Development Function: Approaches and Practices" at the Inside NGO Annual Conference in July 2017.

By Elizabeth Walsh

Director, Communications and Marketing

Our Member Profile blog series features InsideNGO members talking about their work and how they manage the operational challenges within their organizations. This month we feature Creative Associates International Vice President and Senior Director, Development Division, Sharon Cooley. Based in Washington, DC, Sharon has been with Creative Associates for six years. Here she talks about her role, the importance of being a learning team/organization, and shares what she loves the most about her job.

Q: How long have you been doing business development work?

A: Since my start in international development per se—Budapest, Hungary, with the Urban Institute, in 1998. I remember writing my first proposal paragraphs for a USAID program on local government reform. For a good part of my international development career, I’ve worn many hats: STTA, program management, and business development. I transitioned to business development exclusively when I joined Creative Associates International in 2011.

Business development is one of the most pressure-driven areas within international development. What drew you to this work?

Proposal people have two sides: a love for vision, strategy and big picture and a passion for the very nitty gritty. What does a proposal manager do when a solicitation drops? We immediately jump to section L [a USAID request for proposal’s “instructions”] and start mapping the proposal out in our head—how many pages, major sections and annexes, what’s the font size, method of delivery—hard copy or electronic? Geekdom at its best. But when we embark on the development of a proposal, we are also at a moment of creation and creativity—we’re at the forefront of designing a program that will carry an important impact with and for a population in need of some assistance. We’re in the profound and mundane at the same time. Intangible and tangible. There’s a thrill to the process that only people who love BD can fully understand!

What does your day-to-day entail at Creative Associates?

Email and meetings! One of the first things I do in the day—and then again several times—is check the various sites where donors list opportunities. For the U.S. government, of course, that would be Fedbizops and grants.gov. We have staff scanning these and other sites daily, sometimes thrice daily, but the urge never leaves you and this is one of the tasks where I don’t mind seeing redundancies. I oversee the Development Division, which works hand-in-glove with Creative’s Program Divisions in developing strategy, setting targets, and prioritizing effort. A good deal of my day (on a good day) is focusing on that bigger picture—what’s the long game? How do we get there? What trends are we seeing among our clients, how is the competition responding? These are questions that have acquired even greater importance in recent months, given the shifting priorities of our clients and potential reduction of assistance funding in the years to come.

Pursuant to the strategic thinking, we are constantly focused on ongoing business process improvements, performance analytics, and human capacity development to ensure we have the systems and processes in place that foment successful business development and capacity to achieve our goals. We recently overhauled our capture process, enriching it with a robust overlay of field operations to ensure our program designs are steeped in well-informed, highly contextualized management approaches. We’ve worked hard on our bid decision gates and what goes into them, and who decides. “Tradeoffs” are a big part of the lexicon and certainly make decision making interesting.

And then, of course, there are the bids—much of the activity stemming from the first two points are swept away by the myriad challenges and opportunities bids present—every single bid brings its own personality, tempo, and temper; and I, at least I hope I do, provide troubleshooting support, general oversight, and review of our “win strategy” and bid quality on a daily basis.

Finally, I would like to mention learning. We spend a lot of time looking at our bid performance—through various analytics with data breakouts that would make the staunchest M&E analyst blush, internal after-action reviews for every bid, and in-depth debrief analyses to understand what our client is telling us when we win and lose. This learning and rich discussions among staff across the company is fed back into immediate process improvement when necessary and annual business planning.

What are some of the operational challenges/issues you face in your organization?

We are a learning organization and a growing organization—and with that comes new challenges of how to organize knowledge. Fortunately, we have a crack knowledge management team and wonderful information technology services that are looking at innovative ways of handling our learning, knowledge, and information. Having the right resources available at the right moment is also critical and as all business development people know, the timing of solicitations with one’s own readiness never quite makes that perfect storm. But we are using technology to help efficiencies, beefing up our databases and collaborative sharing across the company, countries, and continents.

InsideNGO focuses on advancing operational excellence within our membership. We define operational excellence as the “mastering of the skills, competencies, and practices which enable social sector organizations to achieve the delivery of their core mission.” What kind of opportunities do you provide for your team in terms of furthering their professional development?

Business development must be a core competency of any international development organization—and every development professional. If we don’t win new awards, we cannot implement the great work we do. But the best business development folks are those who have experienced various facets of the work, including program management, technical assistance, recruiting, budgeting and pricing, operations, and procurement. Having cut one’s teeth in these other aspects only makes one a better proposal manager and writer. We work in very difficult, challenging places and the objectives we are trying to achieve on behalf of our clients and counterparts are awesome responsibilities. Experiencing that first-hand, and imbuing proposals with that knowledge, sense of responsibility, and know-how—is critical.

With this in view, we’ve been working on providing “rotational” opportunities for proposal development staff to experience program implementation, surge support to field operations and recruiting, especially in start-up—we had many in the past year due to a great year in business development (!)—and we hope to institutionalize rotational opportunities in the future.

We also provide staff with opportunities to attend trainings, conferences, workshops—including the annual Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) conference, Society for International Development (SID), and of course, InsideNGO events!

Do you have any career advice for a young professional wanting to work in business/proposal development?

Jump in! Recognize that it is a major aspect of international development. The skills you gain are very transferable and will never leave you. Enjoy it! There is a palpable, unshakeable camaraderie on business development teams. You’re building a program together, bringing your organization’s capabilities to bear, identifying new opportunities and moments to seize—it’s a very creative process with ongoing learning, but also a tangible end, at least until it’s awarded and until the next proposal. Embrace the team aspect of business development. My team’s mantra is: we have each other’s backs. There is an uncanny built-in teamwork and friendship and I wouldn’t be able to budge it even if I tried—and, of course, I wouldn’t—because this is what I love about my job the most. 

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