When I spoke with my client, Jackie, back in May, she was pumped.

She had been planning a project and budget for a new website for what seemed like forever and she just got word it was approved! Whoop whoop!

Together, we had just finished refining the organization’s digital engagement strategy, so this was great news. Jackie was flying high with visions of an awesome new website and was ready to find a creative agency to work with.

Flash forward to our call a few weeks ago. The pep was long gone from Jackie’s step. She sounded stressed out and just a bit cranky. When I asked her for an update on her website partner search, she said she was totally stuck.

“I found a couple of online templates and used elements of them to make our RFP. Then I posted it on four nonprofit message boards and sent it directly to 4 agencies to make sure we got a variety of bids.

We got over 30 proposals(!), so I spent the entire month of July reviewing them. The project budgets were all over the place (why are they so different???), so I picked the four least expensive to move forward with.

Then our development director wanted each agency to come in and do a presentation for our leadership team. That took FOREVER to set up because of vacation schedules. After the final agency presentation, we realized that there were a few important things missing from the RFP, like training services.

 I’m almost ready to just live with our current website for another fiscal year!”


Wow. Jackie is living the nightmare of an RFP process gone bad.


RFP = Really Frustrating Process

The RFP has just one job – to start a conversation about your project with people who can do the work.

Alas, most of the time RFPs aren’t designed to deliver that outcome. Instead, the RFP process is expected to REPLACE the conversation with a formal bidding process. Or, like in Jackie’s case, the nonprofit staff skips some of the fundamental internal work and smashes a bunch of RFP template sections together.

The outcome is often something that feels either too rigid or completely structureless.


You Hold the Keys to A Better RFP Process

It doesn’t matter whether these words fill you with joy or fear – it’s the truth. This is completely your process, your timeline, your budget, and ultimately, your project.

If you’ve had a crappy RFP experience in the past, don’t blame the template you used or the vendors who put in a bid. A few simple changes to the way you manage the process can make a big difference to your experience and outcomes!


Key #1: Get Organized

The very first key is all about you and your team. If you’ve jumped right into the RFP writing process without having made agreements about roles, steps, and process, you’ve skipped a few critical steps. And you might not realize it until it’s time to review the proposals.

What does getting organized look like?

  • Assemble a search committee. You can’t do this alone! Find the right folks to walk this road with you (and don’t forget to assign roles and responsibilities).
  • Set your selection timeline. Work backwards! Pick the date that you expect to start the project and add 4 weeks to that for reference checks and contract negotiation. Now you can pick dates for the release of the RFP, proposal review, and conversations with the finalists.


Key #2: Get Clear

Now it’s time for your search committee to define your requirements – the right requirements, that is. Is your organization in total agreement about your project goals, needs, and timeline? This is your chance to hash it all out as part of creating the RFP.

What does getting clear look like?

  • List concrete project goals and outcomes. Reflect on the business reasons you are doing this project. Do you expect to increase donations or grow a new program? Make sure the RFP includes details about your expectations.
  • Agree on project budget & timeline. Don’t make your prospective vendors guess here. Being transparent about your budget and launch date dramatically increases the likelihood that you’ll receive proposals that are in line with these important data points.


Key #3: Get Selective

Who do you really want to partner with? Perhaps there’s a trusted vendor who should be included in the proposal process, or you had a great conversation at a conference with a shop that’s done great work for an organization that you support.

What does getting selective look like?

  • By invitation only. Rather than spreading your RFP far and wide, you can release your RFP only to specific companies that seem to be a good fit for your requirements, saving you a lot of time in the proposal review process.
  • Think beyond the project. While the RFP will be written with specific deliverables in mind, it’s usually helpful to build relationships with a vendor who can support you after the project is wrapped.


It’s Time to Break the Bad RFP Cycle

Everyone – customers and vendors alike – has a story about a ride on the RFP train to Hellsville station.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. There are absolutely some useful aspects to going the RFP route. Rather than making it up as you go along or just doggedly going through the RFP steps, a few tweaks will make sure that you are getting all the benefits and none of the baloney.


Your Turn!

Have you figured out how to wrangle the RFP process into submission?  Help our nonprofit Accidental Techie community by sharing your tips in the comments.