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December 10, 2013

Crafting Better RFPs

(This post was originally published 10/28/2010 and has been updated for today’s nonprofit world.)

With 2014 knocking at the door, I suspect some of you are already sharpening your pencils, or perhaps dusting off your keyboards, getting ready to write an RFP for the big project you’re hoping to tackle soon. Writing an RFP can be a bit like telling the doctor what medicine you need when you’re sick: it requires a certain amount of self-diagnosis. In particular, this process also asks you to figure out how long the cure should take and what it should cost. And, much like what you expect from a doctor, the real-life answers to those questions are often very different than what you’d expect.

Nonprofits send us Ducks dozens of RFPs each year for communications projects like rebrands, websites, online fundraising, and more, and we’ve seen it all. Here are three tips we hope will help you write better RFPs in 2014.

Set a realistic budget and timeline based on other nonprofit’s projects. Most organizations set budgets and timelines for work based on variables other than experience managing similar projects. Often, the timeline to complete a project is linked to an event, fiscal year, or other variable that’s not necessarily connected to how long projects like these typically take.

Similarly, the budget is set based on what the board thinks should be spent, or what’s affordable, rather than what doing the job right will cost. If you’re thinking about redoing your website (or other communications tool) reach out to the communications staff of organizations who have websites you admire and ask them what they spent, how long it took, and what the experience was like. Ask about the team they worked with and assess if you’d need a similar level of resources. Find out what kind of staff time was required to get the project done and think about your own ability to make that time.

Talking with peers will not only give you a realistic sense of what a project like yours might cost (both in terms of budget and time), it’ll generate a list of firms who’s work you know you like and might want to contact. If you’ve underbudgeted or been unrealistic about timing, it’ll also give you information you need to push back internally and avoid working with dissappointing vendors.

Let the consultants be the doctors. Rather than going in to detail about all the deliverables you imagine you could need, consider outlining the challenge you’re facing and let the people you send the RFP to suggest a solution. It’ll save you time writing the RFP, and you might get a better result in the end.

Go for process and experience over flash. If you were taking out your appendix, you’d probably want to hire a surgeon who’d done thousands of comparable surgeries and could talk you through their process in detail, right? More experienced consultants and agencies typically respond to RFPs with how they would manage the process rather than with creative ideas.  They don’t presume to know the solution to your problem until they’ve been engaged and started doing the necessary homework to get to know you. 

In fact, many of the best (including Big Duck) have policies against doing spec work.  Don’t be dazzled by a creative response full of flash; look for a substantive process and a team you feel confident will get you results based on their track record and your needs.