Nonprofits, vendors, and the RFP process

I’m not really enthusiastic about the “Request For Proposals” (RFP) model of identifying the right vendor for the job.  However, there are times when a much-loved nonprofit client really needs to go through the process, and in that case, I want to be there for the staff – as the designated worrier, the framer of requirements, the fierce defender of the organization’s interests.

That’s my role right now, with a highly esteemed client that needs a service provider.  Of the firms that I contacted in order to solicit proposals, three are led (or even owned outright) by valued friends of mine.  It’s a great exercise in professional ethics and appropriate boundaries!

Moreover, it can be painful to go to a friend and ask him/her to invest a significant amount of time – on spec – in jumping through hoops and preparing a document.  A difficult twist is that I’ve never been hired as a consultant through an RFP process.  In general, my clients simply decide that they need me.

I’m pleased to say that in the current RFP process, my client received some very strong proposals; none of my friends who submitted proposals did a perfunctory or substandard job.  However, we did get our share of the perfunctory and the substandard.

Here are a few tips for vendors, from someone who writes RFPs, solicits responses, and evaluates proposals on behalf of nonprofit clients:

  • Every item mentioned in the RFP is there for a reason.  Please respond to each, if only to say that you can’t offer what is requested in the form that the client organization wants it.
  • Someone like me will have to comb through every piece of information requested (e.g., services required, client concerns, references) and create an item-by-item, side-by-side comparison of each proposal.  Please make it easy for me or my counterpart, by including a spreadsheet that lists every item with your direct response to it, in the order each item is mentioned in the RFP.
  • If you simply must describe what your are offering with terms and categories that are utterly different from the ones used in the RFP, please provide annotations or diagrams that help us map your concepts to what we need.
  • Sometimes, “no” and “we need more information” are reasonable responses to an item listed in an RFP.  At the moment, I’m looking at a spreadsheet comparing the responses in seven proposals, and it’s littered with notes such as “not explicitly addressed,” “listed in proposal, but no details provided,” and “to be determined.” Please be clear and candid.

And here are a couple of questions for vendors who submit proposals:

  • Do you really want the person who is best acquainted with your proposal to be annoyed with you, when he/she meets with the decision-makers at the client organizations to brief them on the comparative merits of the candidates?
  • Would you rather have the chief decision-maker to call you up to say, “we’re seriously considering your proposal – when can we meet to discuss it?” or “we’ve read your proposal, but can’t figure out whether you can address our needs”?

I hope that vendors will think seriously about these questions, and base their future behavior on the answers.

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9 thoughts on “Nonprofits, vendors, and the RFP process

  1. Michael Stein 11/26/2012 at 1:38 pm Reply

    I agree that the RFP process is cumbersome and often mis-used. On the other hand, I have over the years landed the vast majority of my projects this way. So I have some strong feelings about how these documents ought to be written. Several years back I wrote a series of three posts on the RFP process / demo / contract process for NP technology that you’ve now inspired me to dig up and revise… as I recall the gist was that better RFPs would lead to better proposals….

  2. Michelle Murrain 11/26/2012 at 6:08 pm Reply

    It’s a tough one, and it takes A LOT of work on the vendor side (sometimes north of 20 hours). Basically, we never answer RFPs cold (that is, from mailing lists and the like) without some connection to the client, because of how much work it is.

    Frankly, some RFPs (not the ones you help create, I’m sure) are simply awful. Sometimes the client actually has no idea what they are asking for. In general, whether the RFP is awful or not, it’s important to make sure that we understand the real intent, rather than just simply responding to the question as asked, so we ask for a phone conversation before we complete the proposal. I think it can be tempting, when a client asks for something in an RFP that clearly doesn’t make much sense to just skip it, but the best bet is to have a phone conversation.

    One of the hardest things about this (and this has happened a number of times) is when a client has already chosen a vendor, and is just putting out the RFP because some higher power requested/required it. It’s a waste of time for everyone, and it’s surprising to me how often this happens.

  3. thinkdata 11/26/2012 at 6:45 pm Reply

    RFP’s need to be reserved for projects (or subsets) that have little uncertainty. You know exactly what you want and what you expect. If a nonprofit does not have the subject matter expertise to know what they are doing, the RFP document will be vague and lead to responses that cannot be compares.

    Pet peeve: if you lay out a rule (e.g. all questions should be in writing so that all respondents can see the answers, or “no site visits”), then enforce it. To not do so is unethical.

    I advise my clients to use an RFI (request for information) format if the intent is to learn more about a field of interest or if they know they do not yet know enough.

  4. Ed Dodds 11/26/2012 at 10:16 pm Reply

    My wife Deana uses this process at United Cerebral Palsy of Middle Tennessee (and I had just assumed all NPOs did {having come from a tech pro staff background}). Ironically, after the 2010 Nashville flood, the approach came in handy when she was the President of our Home Owners Association and had to prioritize infrastructure under budgeted for 40 years and pushed to the edge by water damage.

  5. Kayza 11/26/2012 at 11:00 pm Reply

    Michelle Murrain, I agree that it’s a real problem when an RFP gets put out by an organization that has its mind made up. Sometimes it’s not hard to see why this is happening, but no matter the reason, it’s not fair to the vendors who are being asked to provide the proposal. It’s also a HUGE waste of time, if what you are after is documentation that you are doing your due diligence. In short, if any organization asked me, I would tell them to think twice before putting out an RFP and step back if it’s not for the purpose of finding the best proposal.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen vendor putting together these proposals do things that really made me want to pull my hair out. Fortunately, I have not had to too many RFPs, but even so I’ve had an experience or two that really had me shaking my head.

    The most egregious incident I had was when we were looking for a vendor to provide us with a new telephone system. I decided that I was not going to request any specific vendor’s system, but to create a functional specification, which turned out not to be that long, but quite detailed. I also specifically mentioned that we were doing a bidding process and informed every interested vendor which New York City agency was providing the funds for the project. Only one vendor requested an in person meeting. In retrospect, I think the reason was because he wanted a chance to name drop and perhaps push me a bit by implying that he had influence in high places. In any case, he spent a fair amount of time telling about how wonderful he is and how many City agencies he and his wife (who I know NOTHING about) had done business with, and how many commissioners etc they are good buddies with. He delivered (in person) a bid that was had a very low price and a number of large holes, all of which he told me we could “deal with later” (“wink, wink”). A few days later, he emailed me to find out the status of the project and I replied that his proposal would not be considered as there were some significant and we had other proposals that did meet all of the requirements. He actually emailed me an indignant blast demanding to know why I had not informed him that I was doing a bidding process and implying that he had “friends in high places” (not his exact words) who he would “talk to” about the matter. Needless to say, he didn’t get the job. And, when, a few years later I got handed a list of bids for companies to provide support for the phone system we wound up purchasing, his company showed up, I marched into our CFO’s office and told her that we were not going to do business with this company no matter how good their bid was. When I explained, she agreed. All she wanted from me was that I send her an email with the story, cc’ed to the ED.

  6. Catherine Settanni 11/27/2012 at 12:01 pm Reply

    I have spent unknown hours responding to RFPs, and I’ve also helped NPO’s craft RFPs as well, so been on both sides of this coin:)
    IMHO, The RFP process entirely favors large firms, and benefits the customer in so many ways–but at the expense of those of us providing services to this sector. Since the margins for doing projects with Non-Profits are already slim, it’s not in our interest to devote time and resources unless we have a real shot at getting the work.
    What I’ve seen all too often is customers lifting our creative ideas and concepts from an RFP, and then doing the project either in-house or hiring a less expensive vendor (freelancers, etc) to do the work. Also, since many customers are required to get several bids, the RFP process is a formality they have to endure, but they’re not really interested in switching vendors– or they have a favorite in mind already.

  7. Kayza 11/27/2012 at 9:11 pm Reply

    Catherine Settani, you are so right about why many organizations do the RFP process. It’s a real problem, because sometimes organizations have very valid reasons for wanting to work an organization they have already identified. On the other hand it’s obviously unfair to ask any firm (especially a small one) to spend significant unpaid time so you can mark something off on your check list.

    That’s one thing I am really, really grateful about for the internet. It used to be that I had to contact vendors and ask them to send me quotes for all sorts of equipment (often for insanely small purchases.) Some funders actually required us to get quote on vendor letterhead to prove that they were genuine. But, they also allowed us to use catalogs in many cases. So, as soon as vendors started putting sites on the web, I started using pricing pulled from those sites instead of calling people. Even when I didn’t have a favorite, I still felt bad, because I knew I was taking time and resources from businesses that were often running on slim margins. But, once I started using the web, I didn’t have to waste someone’s time to put something together for me. This obviously does not work for many types of projects, but where it’s appropriate, it’s really a win for everyone.

  8. Robert Weiner 11/30/2012 at 6:01 pm Reply

    Deborah – As someone who responds to RFPs and creates them, I agree entirely. Like thinkdata, I think they’re most useful when you have a set of unambiguous questions, e.g. they can be answered yes/no/on roadmap/requires customization/requires 3rd party tool, etc. They’re not good for questions that require narrative responses, or questions about how well or how easily a function can be performed.

    On the other hand, RFPs can be the easiest way to narrow a vendor pool from a dozen or more potential solutions to a handful, or to expand the vendor pool to include systems you’ve heard of but aren’t familiar with.

    I try to keep my RFPs short and focus on questions that will differentiate the vendors. And I always ask for some form of written response (often a Request for Information or Qualifications) to gather information about a vendor’s history, staffing, technology, clients, references, and pricing.

  9. As someone who also helps NonProfits select systems (hence open admission of bias!) I think that RFPs have their place. But I think that the, can I call it “traditional”, long list of 250+ tick-this-box type approach is not always the most helpful. Just because a supplier ticks that they can do something doesn’t really show you how, how well or if they really understand the need and benefit. And yes, oh the time it takes for everyone…

    Like Robert, I use RFPs to focus on differentiators, and I often include open questions rather than “tick-this”, because I want to see if/how they understand something or how they approach it. And I also use it to ask for facts such as supplier information and costs. (And I always ask for costs in as structured way as possible so we can compare like-with-like).

    The RFP as a document should be just part of vendor selection. Clearly you can have a software presentation as well for something like CRM systems, but I also advocate “pre-demo” meetings, whereby each short-listed supplier is invited to come in to see the NonProfit after they receive the RFP and before they make the presentation. That gives them a chance to clarify and ask questions to the client, but it also gives the NonProfit the chance to meet the vendor in a different environment and see how they work outside just a sales demo. As such, I ask vendors to bring a staff member to those meetings who the client would end up working with (e.g. project manager, support staff etc), as well as the salesperson of course. (It works – I had one client almost kick one vendor out because they were so poor at communicating on that day!).

    It means the NonProfit has to commit time to this process but if you are going to spend tens of thousands of dollars (or more) then it is surely worth it.

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