How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The RFP

This article was originally posted on the NTEN Blog in January of 2014.

Requests for Proposals (RFPs) seem like they belong in the world of bureaucratic paperwork instead of a lean, tech-savvy nonprofit. There’s a lot that can be said for an RFP when both sides understand how useful a tool an RFP can be – even to tech-savvy nonprofits.

Here’s a safe bet: preparing and/or receiving Requests for Proposals (RFPs) is not exactly your favorite thing. Too many RFPs seem like the type of anachronistic, bureaucratic paperwork more worthy of the company in Office Space than a lean, tech-savvy nonprofit. So you may wonder why I would pitch a 90 minute session on the topic for this year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference. I’d like to make the case for you to attend my session: Requests for Proposals: Making RFPs Work for Nonprofits and Vendors.

The problems with RFPs are numerous, and many of you have tales from the trenches that could fill a few horror anthologies regarding them. I’ll be the first to agree that they often end up doing more harm than good for a project.  But I believe that this is due to a poor understanding of the purpose of the RFP, and a lack of expertise and creativity in designing them. What a successful RFP does is to help a client assess the suitability of a product or service to their needs long before they invest more serious resources into the project. That’s very useful.

The mission of the RFP is two-fold: a well written RFP will clearly describe the goals and needs of the organization/client and, at the same time, ask the proper questions that will allow the organization to vet the product or consultant’s ability to address those needs. Too often, we think that means that the RFP has to ask every question that will need to be asked and result in a detailed proposal with a project timeline and fixed price. But the situations where we know exactly, at the onset, what the new website, donor database, phone system or technology assessment will look like and should look like before the project has begun are pretty rare.

For a consultant, receiving an RFP for a web site project that specifies the number of pages, color scheme, section headings and font choices is a sign of serious trouble. Because they know, from experience, that those choices will change. Pitching a  fixed price for such a project can be dangerous, because as the web site is built, the client might find that they missed key components, or the choices that they made were wrong. It does neither party any good to agree to terms that are based on unrealistic projections, and project priorities often change, particularly with tech projects that include a significant amount of customization.

So you might be nodding your head right now and saying, “Yeah, Campbell, that’s why we all hate those RFPs. Why use ’em?” To which I say, “Why write them in such a way that they’re bound to fail?”

The secret to successful RFP development is in knowing which questions you can ask that will help you identify the proper vendor or product. You don’t ask how often you’ll be seeing each other next spring on the first date. Why ask a vendor how many hours they project it will take them to design each custom object in your as yet un-designed Salesforce installation? Some information will be more relevant — and easier to quantify — as the relationship progresses.

At the RFP session, we’ll dive into the types of questions that can make your RFP a useful tool for establishing a healthy relationship with a vendor. We’ll learn about the RFPs that consultants and software vendors love to respond to.  We’ll make the case for building a critical relationship in a proactive and organized fashion.  And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all leave the session with a newfound appreciation for the much-maligned Request for Proposal.

Don’t miss Peter’s session at the 14NTC on Friday, March 14, 3:30pm -5:00pm.

Peter Campbell is a nonprofit technology professional, currently serving as Chief Information Officer at Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit that promotes equal access to justice and provides grants to legal aid programs throughout the United States. Peter blogs and speaks regularly about technology tools and strategies that support the nonprofit community.

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