What Makes A Good RFP – A Consultant’s Viewpoint

12/14/2016 1:03 AM | Ed Graziano (Administrator)

By: Debbie McCann, W4Sight LLC
One of the services that ACN offers to nonprofits is distributing notifications of Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to its members.  Through ACN’s process of distributing RFPs, W4Sight has both  successfully secured new business and gained some insight about the RFP process. Last week’s post focused on advice for consultants on going through the RFP process. Today, we’re addressing some advice to nonprofit organizations, from a consultant’s perspective.

Why submit an RFP?

An RFP describes a specific project for which an organization would like to hire a consultant, and provides a set of instructions for preparing a bid. Organizations use RFPs – rather than simply interviewing several consultants gathered from recommendations of friends or colleagues – to provide additional formality to the process and to avoid favoritism or lack of competition.  Some funders, particularly public funders, require a competitive process designed to foster a broad range of choices for the agency.  Organizations compare RFP responses on price, qualifications, and the proposed approach to the project.  Most funders do not require an organization to select the lowest bidder when the RFP is for consulting services.

While going to the trouble to put together an RFP and select a respondent does take time, it also has some advantages:

  • The process of putting together the RFP forces your organization to establish internal consensus about the project before engaging a consultant
  • The RFP allows you to attract a wider range of potential respondents than you may have personal connections with.
Why use ACN?

As a professional association of career consultants, ACN distributes your RFP to a core group of high-quality, reasonably-priced practitioners with a wide array of experience and – just as importantly – a professional network of potential colleagues. For projects of larger scope, ACN members can connect with one another to develop a proposal that meets an organization’s needs: according to the most recent member survey, 19% of ACN members have collaborated with one another on projects in the last year.  Essentially, submitting an RFP through ACN is the fastest way an organization can get their project in front of a variety of specialists.

What goes in an RFP?

  1. Know what you want.  Recently, a colleague of ours encountered an organization that distributed four versions of a single RFP in three months’ time, each with a slightly different scope and project description. This is a red flag – if your staff and leadership aren’t comfortable with an RFP going out, then it needs to be revised internally until they are.
  2. Be clear.  In our experience, many organizations have little experience in preparing RFPs, and their initial project description may not be a clear description of what they are really looking for.  For example, many projects include the term “strategic planning” to describe anything from a board-level strategic plan to chart the future of the organization to a more tactical plan for executing existing organizational priorities or initiatives.
  3. Be specific. If your RFP is only 2-3 pages, it’s a good bet that consultants will have a lot of unanswered questions about the project. If your work plan depends on conducting interviews, for instance, but it’s not clear how many interviews the consultant will need to conduct, it will be difficult for them to provide you with an accurate price.  In order to help consultants prepare an accurate work plan and pricing, provide the detail they need.  An organizational chart and explanation of which parts of the organization are affected by the project is extremely helpful.  Also, be as specific as you can about the timeline you are expecting and any special constraints that will affect the project – such as a special event that will be a major factor for staff time for the 2 months prior and 2 weeks after the event.
  4. Set a budget. In our experience, pricing in RFPs is sometimes like a game of “chicken” – no one wants to set the price first. Organizations worry that consultants will develop a project plan that uses the entire budget, while consultants are leery of doing the work of putting together a proposal until they know that an organization has budgeted an adequate amount.  But by being explicit about their budget, organizations will attract the most qualified candidates who can do the work and stay within your budget. If a proposal comes through that seems as if the consultant is “padding” the scope of work to meet the budget – it’s easy enough to put their proposal in the “no” pile!
  5. Be open and fair.  Independent consultants may not have graphic designers to polish their proposals – but that doesn’t mean that the quality of the work is any different.  Stay focused on the substance of the expertise you are looking for.  Also, remember that independent consultants don’t get paid for writing proposals, so please be mindful of the time you are asking them to put in.  There are occasionally situations where the client asks for so many revisions to the proposal that they are essentially looking for a good portion of the project work to be done as part of the selection process.  This is an unfair expectation, and can make for a difficult start to a relationship.

Thanks for taking the time – Best of luck on your next RFP!

– Debbie McCann, W4Sight

Want to submit an RFP through ACN’s portal? Click here.

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