We launched an unscientific poll series on LinkedIn several weeks ago to tap into the nonprofit zeitgeist about Requests for Proposals (RFPs). The season for issuing and responding to RFPs is beginning to rev up, as many organizations evaluate partner relationships in the early months of the year for mid-year contract renewals.
The RFP process is a notoriously laborious and lengthy undertaking for both requesters and responders; we were curious to learn how colleagues on the client and partner sides of the nonprofit world felt about it. As 2021 came to a close, our survey series sparked lively discussions with clients and among our Account Teams internally. Here are some of the musings that could improve the experience for all parties.
A Necessary Nuisance Whose Reimagining Is Due
Most organizations request proposals every three years, primarily because strategic needs are expanding. We learned that the most common reason an organization would not require an RFP is because an initiative is a low risk. Not surprisingly, hardly anyone viewed the experience as entirely pain-free. Our conversations were pretty split between colleagues who find the RFP process extremely painful and those who find it a tolerable one. Opinion was equally distributed about whether the process required a complete teardown or just some renovation. So how might the RFP process be reimagined?
Every organization comes to the RFP process with specific strategic goals and success metrics detailed for the initiative at hand. But how clear are the goals around the working relationship? This idea emerged from conversations among our Account Teams and clients, highlighting the need for questions to more effectively identify the agency partner who will work most harmoniously with the organization’s staff.
To that end, RFPs should include a clear description of the nonprofit organization’s culture and values related to collaboration and communication and spell out the expectations of a partnership founded on those elements. While RFPs often focus on the end work product and seek an explanation about the agency’s process of getting there, we believe in asking questions that showcase client/agency communication success stories and demonstrate the agency’s problem-solving philosophy. Typically, RFP responses are replete with the best-case stories. Perhaps a more authentic relationship will arise from sharing stories of unexpected challenges the agency had to resolve shoulder to shoulder with clients.
Other ideas that might help set shared relationship expectations:
- Besides meeting the nonprofit’s initiative objectives and hitting bottom line or operational metrics, how else will the agency consider this partnership a win?
- Balanced relationships are the most successful relationships. What do the nonprofit and agency have in common regarding values, goals, and visions for the future?
- How does the agency define collaboration? How do they work with other agencies that clients rely on to meet strategic objectives?
- How will the collaborative nonprofit/agency team celebrate wins? How will they handle losses?
- How did the agency course correct when a program started to veer from a plan? When and how was the client looped in?
On average, nonprofits invite three to five agencies to participate in an RFP. In their current state, responses are 50-100 pages in length. Theoretically, that’s hundreds of pages for evaluators to read and review — while making apples to apples comparisons between at least three agencies. And that’s on top of their regular deliverables and responsibilities.
As suspected, the overwhelming majority of RFP evaluators admitted that proposals do not get read cover to cover. Instead, evaluation teams home in on several critical content areas, begging the question: Given the commitment it takes to respond to and evaluate RFPs, why not only ask the most vital questions in the first place?
This pivot would immediately elevate the RFP process into a more fruitful one. Agencies would provide a better RFP product because enthusiasm and energy wouldn’t be expended on responses that the requester didn’t value from the start.
Taking this approach is respectful of everyone’s time — including all the nonprofit’s stakeholders who will be evaluating the RFP. And speaking of stakeholders, we learned in our RFP process conversations (and from our recent RFP participation) that the composition of evaluation teams is expanding. Nonprofits are inviting more Marketing disciplines to the assessment table plus Finance and Operations professionals. Alerting potential agency partners from the start of the evaluation team mix and the interest area of those stakeholders will ensure that answers are prepared with those perspectives considered.
Similarly, better RFPs emerge when nonprofits share the criteria the chosen agency must meet (and any deal-breakers), along with the weighted scoring rubric that will be used to filter out partners. This way, participating agencies can estimate their chances of winning the business and, if the opportunity warrants participation, focus on providing richer, more thoughtful responses that delve deeper into the areas that matter most to the evaluation team.
Traditionally, RFPs give a lot of response real estate to stories of past accomplishments and nuts and bolts details about processes and toolboxes. While these provide tried-and-true value in understanding and comparing potential partners, we believe more RFP effort should be spent envisioning what’s next. As the saying goes, “There’s a reason the windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror. Where one’s headed is more important than where one’s been.”
The RFP process is an opportunity to imagine the future and motivate the requesting nonprofit’s team and the potential partner around a shared dream. Nonprofits should include open-ended vision questions to elicit inspiring ideas and directions that might surprise and impress evaluation teams. And don’t forget, the RFP process is a two-way street. The experience makes an impression on participating agencies, setting an expectation about what it might be like to work with the nonprofit. Don’t squander this moment to get partners excited about how working together will be inspirational and forward-looking.
Better RFPs, Better for All
The net-net of our RFP conversations with clients, within our teams, and across our agency colleagues is that it’s time for a more streamlined, focused approach to RFPs. As timelines grow shorter and to-do lists lengthen relentlessly, creating a positive and inspiring modernized approach sets the tone for a productive and mutually rewarding collaboration from the first impression.
If you’re considering launching an RFP, we’re happy to share our POV in more detail. Our entire nonprofit sector benefits when great causes connect with the right partner to make social impact. Click here to learn more.