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.