Tag Archives: request for proposals

The agony of choice

I recently had both the pleasure and the pain of sitting in with a much-loved nonprofit, as its staff members interviewed several nonprofit technology assistance firms regarding a contract for services.  It was certainly a pleasure to find that my esteemed client organization had more than a few really strong options.

Here are a few thoughts that I took away from that series of interviews:

  • Local is good.  The client organization is all about social responsibility, and it would be good to know that the dollars that they spend on this contract – which is pretty big, by their standards – will go back into the local economy.  On the other hand, there’s always the risk that a great local business can be bought and swallowed up by a faceless mega-corporation.
  • Small is good.  I’d feel much better knowing that the staff of my client organization will be talking to the same small group of specialists at the NTAP’s help desk over time.  It’s not just about the relationships, but also about the intimate knowledge of the client’s infrastructure that the technology assistance firm’s team has in their heads when the phone rings.  A small firm with low turnover can offer that.  On the other hand, there’s always the risk that the small firm will be bought out by a much larger, much more impersonal one.
  • The “soft” stuff is good.  It’s not just about technical prowess.  A good personality, an ability to build relationships, and an eagerness to communicate are all crucial in a technology firm that will be successful in serving my client.
  • Strategic is good.  This wonderful nonprofit really needs it’s nonprofit technology vendors to help it stay aware of important new opportunities and challenges, and to think ahead about the best way to support the mission.  I don’t mean up-selling; I mean actively working in the interests of the client.

(God knows that as a consultant I try to embody these positive qualities myself. If you want to know whether I’m succeeding, don’t ask me.  Ask my clients, or if you are one my clients, please feel free to tell me how I can improve.)

For the client in question, it’s not a matter of desperation stemming from scarcity of available services, but a tough choice.  No matter which firm the nonprofit organization chooses, it will involve risk, and they’ll never know for sure whether they would have been much happier with another choice.

Given the difficulties, the good news is that with the strong options before them, it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll make a disastrous choice.  But that also means that some extremely nice and extremely well-qualified people will be disappointed, because they are all really eager to get the contract, and only one will be selected.  That really hurts.

Fortunately, I’m in a good position as a yenta to nonprofits and foundations; as I learn more about each of these technology support firms, I will keep them in mind, and recommend them when I am asked for referrals.  In the best of all possible worlds, both the beloved clients and the esteemed vendors find the perfect matches; since we haven’t quite arrived there yet, people like me should do our best to help the process whenever we can.

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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