The most important part of the RFP process is the work that goes into preparing to write the RFP. That’s when you articulate your needs, put them in context, resolve any internal differences of opinion, research comparable projects, and set a budget.
At that point the focus shifts to sharing the RFP with one or more service providers. You may choose to work with a provider in whom you have confidence from previous experience. In this case the purpose of the RFP is to frame the project as described above. This can save time and money and enhance the quality of the result, by briefing the service provider on your intentions and expectations before the beginning of the work.
Or, you may use the RFP as a briefing tool with a few service providers that have been recommended to you.
If you decide to use it as part of a competitive process, however, it will be bearing more weight as a stand-alone source of information. In this case the issues discussed in previous posts on Purpose and Structure & Content take on greater importance, along with considerations of process.
For a complex project, an RFP is usually not the best initial communication with prospective service providers. Developing a detailed proposal for a complex project requires significant investment by a service provider. You may not attract the best of them by asking for a lot of work before you have made the effort to learn whether they are the match you’re likely to want. You may be looking for a low bid, regardless of quality, or for a different approach from that taken by the provider. A busy service provider will choose to respond to prospective clients who come to them with more intentionality.
You may wish to start with a Request for Qualifications (RFQ). This will bring you preliminary information from service providers who may be interested in the project, and will give you enough information to narrow the field down to a small number for further consideration.
The best next step is often an interview. What you learn in an interview about approach, attitude, and personal chemistry will be another filter, giving you a second dimension of selectivity. If you interview three to five prospects and emerge with one to three candidates, you will be in a good position to ask your finalists for a detailed proposal, and to get their best effort in describing how they would configure the work, how long the project should take, the allocation of responsibilities, the deliverables, and the costs.
If you decide to solicit competitive proposals—with or without these preliminaries—there are some rules of protocol that will produce better results:
- Be as open as you can with information and any needed clarification, both to attract the best providers and to enable them to give you their best (and most comparable) proposals. Give at least a budget range and/or a very precise scope of services (many good providers simply don’t respond if they would have to guess about the realism of your budget expectations). Reveal the number of providers you are asking for proposals. Mention the amount and kind of work you expect to be able to do in-house (by staff and/.or volunteers).
- Give a date until which you will accept clarification questions from prospective providers, and note that you will share all questions and your answers with all prospective proposers.
- If you have any positions on critical contractual provisions, you may want to share them with prospective proposers to make sure the ground rules are understood by all. And later you should make the RFP an addendum to the contract.