Think Twice Before You Write That RFP

Requests for Proposals (RFPs) are a common way to hire people in every sector, including the nonprofit sector. I receive them often and respond when the project seems like a good match.

If I had my way, though, RFPs wouldn’t be the way I first interact with potential clients. A recent blog post and guide to “Choosing a Consultant” from 501 Commons—an organization that both directly serves nonprofits and specializes in connecting them with consultants—explains why your organization might want to skip the RFP:

It is often hard to understand the organization’s real needs based on the RFP, and it is difficult to develop and explain the consultant’s approach without having a conversation and access to more background information about the organization.

That last point I find a particularly common problem. RFPs skip engaging consultants in the “Phase Zero” of a project, analyzing an organization’s goals and needs (a task that often benefits from an outside expert pair of eyes). Even worse, it’s common to find an RFP full of technical requests and assumptions made before the technical expert has been hired!

More than once, I’ve faced the odd situation of describing a set of services different from those requested in the RFP if I think the alternate services will better meet the client’s needs. With little human contact in the normal RFP process, that’s a hard case to make for a consultant and to evaluate for the client.

Responding to an RFP is also a big ask for consultants who probably haven’t met you:

By submitting a proposal, a consultant risks spending a lot of time, giving away their best ideas, and then not being selected. So, many of the best consultants ignore RFPs.

You get more out of people when you let them do their thing.

That is absolutely true. I used to respond to more RFPs than I do now that I have more potential clients that hope to work with me.

Concerns about RFPs are common among many creative services providers. The always-on-point A List Apart tackles the same issues in “RFPs: The Least Creative Way to Hire People.” Their take focuses more on how the restrictions inherent in an RFP hamper the creativity you likely want from a web project:

The rigidity of the process, and the lack of meaningful dialogue makes this little more than a game of roulette.

There’s even an entire website devoted to resources arguing against RFPs, NoRFPs.org. It makes a good point about what RFPs are good for:

If you’re looking to purchase several tons of wood, an RFP is probably the best way to go about finding the best vendor for your project.

Those in favor of RFPs will argue that they remove any bias toward a particular consultant and are a great way to compare bids (as in the case of several tons of wood). I would beg to differ.

  1. I’ve been on both ends of submitting a proposal when the selection is mostly a formality. Sometimes I’m the preferred consultant but an organization requires an RFP. Other times, I learn afterwards that the organization had tentatively picked a consultant already but wanted a few final offers.
  2. As for comparing bids, most clients I work with need help understanding what services and approaches they should have me provide. An RFP generally prevents this. As NoRFPs.org points out, writing a proposal isn’t the same thing as serving a client.

I often joke that my entire job is communicating with clients, but there’s more than a little truth to that. A consultant’s ability toassess your needs, respond positively to feedback, and communicate technical or creative information usually influences a project’s success as much or more than pure design or development skills. Those skills also happen to be the hardest to judge from an RFP. As NoRFPs.com writes:

An RFP will only show you how good a vendor is at writing an RFP response, but won’t necessarily yield the best vendor.

So here’s what to do instead:

  1. Identify a few potential consultants from different sources: talk to your colleagues and peers, do an internet search (such as “seattle nonprofit web design” 😉), attend a meetup with likely consultants, or follow those little “made by” links in the footer of websites you like.
  2. Arrange a call or in-person meeting with the top three consultants and discuss your website. Share what you like, don’t like, and what you hope to get from your project. Listen to what they have to say and get an idea of how they approach working on a project like yours.
  3. Invite your favorite consultant to submit a proposal for the project. As long as it displays that they understand your needs, get started. Your website will likely be better for it. If you must get bids from multiple consultants, keep them as short as possible.

(NoRFPs.org also has a great list of suggestions for clients and consultants)

RFPs likely aren’t going anywhere soon, but the next time you reach for your rfp-template.doc, maybe think twice.  Chances are your project will be better if you find help a different way.

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