4 min Read
June 1, 2009

Beyond the RFP: Better, Stronger, Faster!

Big Duck

This June, Big Duck is celebrating our 15th anniversary. In addition to dressing up in costumes, playing silly games, and patting ourselves on the back, it’s been interesting to think about how nonprofit communications have changed over the past 15 years. The biggest change since 1994 is, of course, the invention of the Luther Burger, and, um, a small thing called the internet.

One other change is that nonprofits use RFPs (requests for proposals) more than ever as part of the process of determining which vendors or partners they’ll hire. RFPs can help you gather information about a lot of different possible vendors or partners in one fell swoop. That’s the good news. But there’s also a dark side…

The dark side of RFPs

Before you dive into your next RFP process, consider these challenges:

  • It’s hard to write a good RFP. Most organizations omit critical details, and most of the people you send it to will call you anyway to ask questions.
  • Most candidates will need a minimum of two weeks, often times a month, to respond thoughtfully.
  • You can’t judge personal chemistry on paper. Often, the best fit will be the people who really understand your issue and connect with you. Chemistry is something you pick up on through conversation — not in writing.
  • Beware of the fancy response. The best candidates may also be the busiest — and that means they’re more likely to give you the least impressive proposals.
  • There’s no such thing as apples to apples. For every scope of work, there are lots of possible approaches and skill sets. The fees, process and variables respondents outline will almost always differ, making it harder for you to compare them.

A better, stronger, faster approach

If you don’t have to issue an RFP, consider this approach instead. You’ll be able to complete it faster, and with better results.

Week One:

  • Make a list of possible candidates. Call your peers or organizations you admire for recommendations. Conduct web searches. Ask your trusted advisors and colleagues.
  • Start a list of the qualifications you’re hoping to find in an ideal relationship.
  • Visit the websites of all possible candidates. Make notes: what do they seem to do well? What questions pop up? What will you need them to deliver for you? This will not only help you narrow the playing field, it will help you clarify what you do/don’t need.

Week Two:

  • Call the candidates that seem viable. Outline your needs and ask them about their capabilities. If they’re experienced, they should give you a sense of how long their work will take, what it might cost, and other nitty-gritty variables. By the end of these calls, you’ll be able to eliminate most and get a sense of which are the real contenders. Candidates who aren’t a fit might even help you find others who are. Don’t be afraid to have frank conversations about your mutual needs, pricing and goals at this stage; this is a bit like speed-dating.
  • Create a short list. Reflecting on your review of websites, the conversations you’ve had, and your list of requirements, define a short list of two-four candidates. It’s helpful if you can define why you like each one what your concerns are about them at this stage.

Week Three:

  • With your decision-making colleagues, visit the folks on your short list. If you’re looking for a long-term partner or hiring a team (for instance, an agency — not a freelancer), seeing them on their own turf will give you a truer sense of who and what you might actually be hiring. Try to meet everyone on the team you’d be working with, not just people in sales-related roles. You’ll leave with a taste in your mouth you can discuss with your colleagues.
  • Lastly, if the best candidate still isn’t clear, ask the folks on your short list to write a proposal. This will give you one final way to assess them, and they’ll have talked with you so much you shouldn’t have to issue a formal RFP. If it is clear who the best fit is, ask them to write a contract so you can get all the details in writing before you officially select them: it’s better to be sure you’ll move forward before you let the other options go.

The process outlined here typically takes roughly one month, start to finish, if you block out time on your schedule in advance. That’s about twice as fast as a typical RFP process — which requires getting sign-off for the RFP you write, waiting two-four weeks for responses from vendors, reviewing proposals, then meeting with finalists. Instead of spending your time writing and reading, you spend it talking with people, visiting interesting places, and getting a more dimensional sense of your options. You might even come up with a new approach to the project along the way.