Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mind your RFPs & Qs, Part 1: Purpose

A Request for Proposals (RFP) can be a useful tool for hiring service providers. As someone who has written RFPs and RFQs (Request for Qualifications) for nonprofits, and has responded to others as a consultant, I’d like to offer some thoughts on getting the most out of them.

In this post and two that will follow, I’ll cover the essential features of an RFP, including

Define the project

The fundamental task of an RFP is to define the project you are planning to pursue. This is a crucial step, whether you intend to issue the RFP to multiple suppliers for competitive proposals, or are using it simply to specify your requirements to a firm you’re hiring directly based on successful past experience.

Most projects that involve service providers such as planning or organizational development consultants, web developers, designers, or architects have objectives subject to considerable complexities and nuances. Or they should have, if they are to make the most robust use possible of the time and expense that goes into them.

To assure that the results will encompass the specific range of concerns and opportunities of your organization, the first and most important step in the RFP process is to articulate—and develop internal consensus around—the full requirements and objectives of the project. This first step may seem obvious, but for various reasons, it is often neglected or underdeveloped.

Defining objectives can require a good bit of self-education about the full potential impact of, say, a web presence or a new facility, so that you can be a knowledgeable and self-advocating client. In some situations, when the stakes are high, the knowledge gap is great, and you don’t have a senior staff member or trustee with the experience to guide the development of an effective RFP, it is worth considering having a consultant advise you through crafting the RFP, and perhaps the selection process as a whole. More about that in the third post.

Some prospective clients will ask why they need to know the business of the consultant… isn’t that what they are hiring an expert for in the first place? Yes, but… the service provider doesn’t know your business, your values, your objectives. The best results will be produced by a combination of the right expertise and intimate knowledge of the organization and its goals.

A good designer, for example, will usually be ready to take you down a compelling path. The trick is to make sure that the path is the one you want to be on; you need to establish the direction as fully as you can before hiring a guide. The best design (website, building, strategic plan) emerges in response to the best understanding of the constraints.

Get a sense of the approach

If an RFP is issued to several candidates, one of the objectives will be to see how each one interprets the material provided and approaches the project. Some responses may be boilerplate that doesn’t respond specifically to the needs and objectives the organization has provided. Others may go off on a tangent or perhaps misinterpret the RFP entirely.

The best result is to get responses that give you new insights about what you are trying to accomplish, and/or how to go about it. These are the ones that give you confidence in the success of your selection process.

Minimize the cost

Often an organization looks for a competitive RFP to obtain the lowest possible fee for the work. If a service provider knows that is an important criterion, he or she may well offer a leaner set of services, perhaps with options for extra services that can be provided if desired. It may also be that one of the providers has a lower fee structure than another.

However, there are caveats to consider when it comes to comparing fees in an RFP. I’ll look at that in the next post, on structure and content.