Tag Archives: 14ntc

Does Your Request For Proposal (RFP) Ask The Right Questions?

This post was originally published on the Community IT Innovators Blog in November of 2014.

foler-29373_640Requests for Proposals (RFPs) are a controversial topic in the nonprofit sector. While governmental and corporate organizations use them regularly as a tool to evaluate products and services, their use in our sector is haphazard. I spoke recently about the RFP process and how it could work for us at the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference. My slides from that talk are here, along with this blog post outlining my key arguments in favor of RFPs. But a recent conversation on NTEN’s DC community list really summed up the topic.

A member posted an RFP for CRM consulting and asked why he was getting scant responses from the vendors. I looked over the RFP, and saw that it requested a fixed bid quote for work that was not well defined. I popped back into the forum with some comments:

“This five page RFP contains about a tenth of the information that a decent consultant would need in order to propose a meaningful bid for the work. If you’ve received any such bids already, I would advise you to throw them out, because those bids are wild guesses, and you will either be paying more than you need to, or setting yourself up for a combative relationship with a vendor who is angry that the project is taking far more hours than they guessed that it would. Decent consultants are passing on the RFP because it lacks so much specificity. There are two ways you could address this problem:

  1. Significantly beef up the RFP. If I were to go this route, I might hire a consultant to help me write the RFP, because they can better communicate the requirements than I could.
  2. Stop asking for a fixed bid. Query their expertise in the areas that need it, and request ample examples of work they’ve done. Also, ask for their hourly fees by role. The RFP can provide a fairly high-level overview of the project, as you won’t be asking them to generate a meaningful estimate. Instead, do reference checks and ask specific questions about their billing in order to vet that they are honest and sensitive to nonprofit budgets.

Many consultants would pop in here and say “forget the RFP – let us come talk with you and get a sense of the project and we can go from there.” As a customer, not a consultant, I wouldn’t go for that. A good RFP, sent before any face to face meetings, can tell you a lot about the professionalism, insight and care that a company will bring to your project.  Rapport and relationship are also critical, but assessing those elements is the second step. (And when it comes to that step, insist that you are meeting the people who you would almost certainly be working with). An RFP response can also be attached to the contract to make sure that the vendor is obliged to live up to their claims.

I do fixed-bid quotes for phone systems and virtualization projects, where I can tell them exactly what the project would entail. I don’t for websites and software development, because not only do I not know what the ultimate product will look like or require, I shouldn’t – a lot of learning takes place during the project that will shape the requirements further. Once I’ve hired a good consultant, we can do a defined discovery phase that will allow them to provide a fixed quote — or reasonable range — for the rest of the work.  It’s a much better way to set up the relationship than by basing it in unrealistic projections.”

Subsequently, a consultant posted a reply suggesting that RFPs are a pain, and they should really just hire a consultant they like and see if it works out, perhaps after doing a small Request for Information (RFI) to learn more about the consultants available. I replied:

I did say that consultants will often dis the RFP process and say, “just hire us and see if it works out.”  It certainly is easier on the consultant. As Clint Eastwood would say, the question is, “do you feel lucky?” Because if you feel lucky, then you can just find a suitable-looking consultant and hope that they are ethical, not over-booked (and therefore liable to under-prioritize your project), experienced with the technology that they’re deploying, etc, and do a discovery phase that will cost you x thousands of dollars, and then find out if they are the right consultant for you. Or you can do an RFP, throw out the responses that clearly don’t match your requirements, throw out the ones that don’t seem interested or well-resourced enough to respond fully, and interview the two to four consultants that look like good matches. It’s more work up front than hiring someone and hoping they’ll work out, true, but, here’s what it gets you:

  1. Focused. Just writing the RFP gets you more in touch with the goals and requirements for the project.
  2. Informed. The RFP review and interviews are a chance for the project team to explore the project possibilities with various experts.
  3. Confident. Without investing thousands of dollars into a “vendor test,” you will know who has the right experience and a compatible approach. For me, it’s often less about the skill and experience than the approach (e.g., we want a collaborative partner that would teach as they go, rather than experts to outsource the work to).
  4. Accountable. The RFP can be a contractual document, so if the vendor lied about what they can do, they can be held responsible for that lie. And, not all consultants lie, but some do. I’ve caught them at it.  😉
  5. Documented. In the future, after you’ve left the organization, your successors might wonder why you selected the partner that you did. The RFP process leaves a knowledge management trail for key organizational decision making.

And finally, RFI vs RFP is a question of scale.  For smaller projects, without much associated risk, RFI. The investment in doing a full RFP does have to be justified by the cost and complexity of the project. For big projects, doing an RFI in order to identify who you want to include in an RFP can be helpful.

——————–

Community IT Innovators are a DC consulting and outsourcing firm located in Washington, DC.  Their blog is a great source of good tech advice, with similar themes (but more expert advice, less over-indulgent opinion) as mine.

NTC Summary 2014 Edition

Me and a friend at the Science FairI’m back from the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference.  This one had some real high points for me, and a few things that made me a little sad, but I think I might have learned more than I do most years and I had a simply great time with old and new friends.

Here’s a  summary of highs, lows, and links:

This was my longest conference (of the nine I’ve attended): I met up for breakfast with some good friends at 8:00 am  on Wednesday, and I was one of the last people at the hotel at 6:00 pm on Saturday.

The IT Leader’s Roundtable that I led with Richard Wollenberger and Katie Fritz started out a bit rocky when Katie’s plane was delayed, but Richard and I facilitated a healthy conversation with the 20 or so attendees.

#NTCBeer was wild and woolly. There’s no way of knowing how many people showed, but we were turning people away from the 225 capacity bar from 9:00 to 10:00, so about 250  is a safe assumption, with 50 or more turned away. The beer was great (80 on tap!), as was the company. This is my last year as the main organizer of #NTCBeer, but NTEN will keep it going and I’ll always be ready to show up.  In NTEN’s hands, we should be able to secure larger locations.

On Thursday, I found myself roped into performing at Steve Heye’s Plenary Ignite session called “Bringing Techie Back“. Steve had Dahna Goldstein and I join him, on guitar and backup vocals respectively, on his rewrite of the Justin Timberlake hit.  I’ve seen the video (about 55% of the way through this plenary recording. MyNTC login required), and all I’ll say is that people are kind regarding my performance.  But Steve and Dahna rocked it with a rousing call for loving the tech that supports our missions.

Midday I joined the panel on “Marriage Therapy for Communications and IT Staff“. These have been dubbed “Franken Panels“, because the session was a mashup of proposals by me, Caring Bridge and Picnet, but I think we really pulled ours off.  The Nonprofit Times posted a recap of it, and here are the slides.

I had a great dinner Thursday night.

nten14foodie
Friday’s plenary put me off a bit. Titled “Where Does Tech Belong And Who’s In Charge?“, I had high hopes that this would address some of the chronic problems that technologists at nonprofits face when management thinks of tech solely as a cost center. I had reasons to be optimistic, as one of the panelists is a strong CTO at a large nonprofit.  But the other two panelists — who are bright, nice people — came from tiny NPOs (one a one person operation!) and had little perspective to offer on this topic.  It ended up being a very feel good session that left the issues that we really struggle with unmentioned.  I’m not sure who put this panel together, but they really let me down, particularly when one panelist suggested that we take the word “tech” out of everyone’s title, because we all use technology, but still said nothing about the damage done when technologists are shut out of the key decisions and have no parity with other company directors.  I get the point that he was making, but I can see a thousand techno-phobic CEOs taking that advice while still under-staffing, under-budgeting and under-thinking about their technology needs. Way to undermine nptech from the NTEN stage, guys.

I lunched with many of my LSC colleagues and special conference guests Richard Zorza and Katherine Alteneder.  Richard is handing the leadership of the Self Represented Litigant’s Network over to Katherine, and they came to the NTEN conference both to introduce her to the community, and celebrate Richard’s role in founding NTEN.  Richard was an early member of the Circuit Rider’s Network, which eventually morphed and merged it’s way into the Nonprofit Technology Network. At their second national get-together, in 1998, just before NTEN was proposed, Richard said “We must all act with non-territoriality, and actively share and pool our collective knowledge. If we act as competitors, we won’t get anywhere.”

I presented solo on Making Requests For Proposals (RFPs) That Even Your Vendor Will Love. This session went really well, with a robust discussion that I learned a lot from. Slides are here. Thorough collaborative notes are here.

On Saturday, I attended great sessions on Funder/Grantee collaboration and strategic tech planning (the latter featuring high-level advice and astoundingly silly visuals by Steve Heye, Lindsay Bealko and Andrea Berry). Then I ended the conference hanging out near the karaoke stage (but not on it!) at the Geek Games. Check out the T-Shirt I got (or a reasonable facsimile on Farra).

Farra Joleen Bingo

 

Congratulations to Jason Shim for winning the NTEN award! This is well-deserved for one of my Communities of Impact partners who is generally the smartest person in any given room.  You can see some of his work in the free NTEN ebook, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits.

Next year, we’re in Austin.  Who’s going?

Where I’ll Be At The 2014 NTC

NTEN‘s annual, awesome Nonprofit Technology Conference is (obviously) my favorite annual event.  No failure on the part of other cool annual events, like LSC‘s Technology Innovation Grants conference, Halloween and my birthday; they’re great events as well, but they don’t have over 2000 attendees; four days of jam-packed networking, collaboration and education; and the inspired antics of Steve Heye. If you read this blog regularly, there’s a good possibly that you’re already booked for the event, and I look forward to seeing you there. Here’s where you’ll be able to find me:

Wednesday, 3/12: From 1:00 to 4:00 I’ll be leading the IT Leaders Roundtable with my colleagues Richard Wollenberger and Katie Fritz. Here’s a description:

Fill in the blank: “the toughest job an IT person can do is ______________.”  You might guess “program a Cisco router” or “design a SQL database”. But let’s face it — the hardest thing is gaining the trust and camaraderie of the non-technical staff who depend on our competence and, often, have little understanding of what the tech department (or person) does. Join us to share our challenges, tips and success stories about integrating IT into the organization.  Making it work. If you manage technology (as an accidental techie, a CIO, or anything in-between) or you depend on it (as a CEO, data entry clerk, or anything in-between), we’ll use this time to share our best ideas about how technology and staff successfully integrate to support an organization’s mission.

Then, at 7:00 pm, you know it: #NTCBEER. The event so iconic it’s name is it’s hashtag. The 6th annual #ntcbeer is shaping up to be the biggest – as of this writing, two weeks before the event, we have over 180 people pre-registered and the numbers go up progressively every day, as people start setting their MyNTC schedules.  We will likely fill the 225 person capacity of the Black Squirrel and spill out to DC Libertine, their sister bar, four doors down.

Thursday, 3/13: I’ll be part of a very therapeutic panel, Marriage Counseling for Comm and IT Staff, with Melissa Bear, Brad Grochowski and Andrew Kandels. This one grew out of concerns that there was animosity between the technical and marketing staff brewing at 13NTC, and seeks to not only smooth those relationships, but dispense good advice and examples of IT and Communications departments that successfully partner and collaborate.

Thursday evening is NTC party time, and I’ll be stopping by the NPO Engagement party hosted by Idealist Consulting, but probably looking for something more intimate to escape to after a while. My evenings aren’t as sewn up as usual this year, so they’re good times to have dinner and connect. Most years, I put together a dinner for the legal aid attendees, but this year we don’t seem to have as many of our colleagues showing up, although there are a few, like Brian Rowe and Ken Montenegro. There are a whopping seven of us coming from LSC, I think our biggest showing ever.

Friday, 3/14: If you want to get down and get wonky, I’m presenting solo on Requests For Proposals: making RFPs work for Nonprofits And Vendors.  I blogged about this: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The RFP for NTEN, where I said

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.

So, how’s your second week of April shaping up? Want to connect?  The best way to reach me is Twitter. I’m looking forward to seeing you in two weeks!

Notes From Here And There

IMAG0236_1
Long time no blog, but I have good excuses.  Moving cross-country, even with a modest family of three, is no picnic, and we are now, over 13 months since I was offered the job in DC, starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Since summer, I’ve been frantically house hunting and, since December, busy relocating (for the third time) to our new, tree-laden home in Reston.

This, however, doesn’t mean that I haven’t been writing or totally neglecting my nptech duties. So here are some things to look forward to:

#ntcbeer. First and foremost. The annual Nonproft Technology Conference runs here in DC from March 13th to 15th, and the 6th Annual #ntcbeer will take place, as always, the night prior (Wednesday, 3/12, 7pm).  This year we’re at the Black Squirrel, a bar that’s a 15 minute stroll from the hotel (in the trendy Adams Morgan district) with three stories and 80 craft beers, which one would hope will meet the requirements. But I’m willing to bet (seriously!  Who wants to get in the pool?) that we will top their max standing room of about 200 people.  Here’s my logic: we averaged about 175 people last year in Minneapolis and the year prior in SF.  Minneapolis likely would have been bigger but a lot of planes were delayed by weather.  This year, we’re in DC, and that means two things: first, this is the largest center for NPOs in the world.  A lot more of the attendees live here. Second, it’s a very social place.  So I think that it’s not only likely that we’ll top 200; I don’t think 300 is out of range. We’ll have the Facebook page up in a week or two and we can hammer it all out there.

Also, #ntcbeer has sponsors this year.  We’ve been bought out by Blackbaud. (kidding!). Blackbaud and CommunityIT will be on hand with snacks and possible giveaways.  We’re figuring all of that out. Sponsorship is good, because this year we did manage to find a bar that doesn’t require a financial commitment up front, but I don’t think that will be possible in SF next year, given what a hard time we had finding a location in 2012.

Related, details to come, is that, prior to #ntcbeer on the 12th, I’ll be hosting a pre-conference workshop on IT Leadership with Richard Wollenberger and Katie Fritz.

As to that writing, keep your eyes open this week and next for NTEN’s release of “Collected Voices: Data-Driven Nonprofits. I spent 2013 participating in NTEN and Microsofts’ Communities of Impact program, where I joined 17 other nonprofit staff in diving into the challenges of managing, maximizing and sharing data in our sector.  We had two in person, two day meetings; numerous calls with bright presenters; active and professional facilitation by Julia Smith, NTEN’s Program Director; and this is the final product.  In addition to a few case studies and short pieces, I contributed an article on “Architecting Healthy Data Management Systems”. As this is really the focus of my career, whether it was unifying the database backend and building a portal to all client data at a law firm in the 90’s, or developing an open source retail data warehouse at Goodwill, or migrating/connecting all of LSC’s grantee data and documents to a Salesforce instance at my current job, this is the work that I think I do best, and I have a lot of best practices to share.  So I’m somewhat proud and happy to be publishing this article. it will be a free download for NTEN members.

Speaking of LSC, I’ve been busy there as well. We held our 14th annual technology conference two weeks ago, with record attendance. Among the crowd were frequent collaborators of mine like Laura Quinn of Idealware and Matt Eshleman of CommunityIT. It was a great time, with a lot of valuable sessions and discussions on data, internet security, and business process mapping.  We held a “Meet the Developer” session where our grantees, for the first time, got to speak directly with the guy that programs our online applications and give him some direct feedback. I attended in order to both facilitate and act as a human shield.  😉

The conference followed the release of our report on the two year technology summit that we hosted.  This consisted of two gatherings of leaders in the access to justice community from legal aid law firms, the courts, the ABA, the State Department, and the NLADA, along with key application developers and strategic thinkers.  We worked on a goal:

“to explore the potential of technology to move the United States toward providing some form of effective assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs.”

Currently, the research shows that only 20% of those that qualify for and need the legal assistance that our funding provides are being served by the limited pool of attorneys and resources dedicated to this work. The report makes the case that 100% can receive some level of assistance, even if that isn’t actual legal representation, by innovative use of technology.  But we are working on the assertion that some help is better than no help, which is what 80% of those who need help get today.

The key strategies include:

  • using statewide portals effectively to connect people to the available resources
  • maximizing the use of document assembly to assist individuals in preparing court forms (a goal that lives or dies by the standardization of such forms, which is currently a big challenge)
  • Expanded use of mobile and SMS (many of the people who need assistance lack computers and smartphones, but can text)
  • Business Process Analysis, to insure that we are efficiently delivering any and all services, and
  • Expert Systems and intelligent Checklists, in order to resource individuals and attorneys to navigate the legal system.

As I mention here often, the right to an attorney only applies to criminal cases, not civil, but the peril for low income families and individuals from civil lawsuits is apparent.  You could lose your house, your children, your job, or your health if you can’t properly defend yourself against a wealthier accuser.  Equal justice is a cornerstone of American ethics. Take a look at the best thinking on how technology can help to restore it.

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.