Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mind your RFPs & Qs, Part 2: Structure & Content


The starting point for a good RFP can be a sample of one done for similar kinds of work, with emphasis on “starting point” and “similar”.

Often an organization will use as a template an RFP for very different kinds of work, with requirements that are not germane to the project at hand. This diverts focus from your requirements and objectives, and gives a signal that you’re really not clear about what you’re doing, which can be off-putting to the best service providers you most want to attract—and won't get you what you need.

Some RFPs are structured with lots of detailed questions and requirements for formatting answers. Responses to these RFPs may tell you a lot about how well the proposer pays attention to appropriate instructions and finesses others, but this approach also reduces the ability of responders to show how they structure their thinking. Since it takes extra effort to respond to this kind of RFP, and also sends a signal that you might be difficult to work with, the best providers, who can be selective about their clients, may decline to respond.


RFPs often omit information (e.g. scope of services, deliverables, time frame, budget) that is central both to creating and evaluating responses. Usually this is done with the intention of having the service provider reveal more about how she works or to get him to offer the lowest possible fee. While these intentions are understandable, and even sometimes effective, more often they can be impediments to getting the best results, for several reasons:

  • If you define as much as possible, you assure that the work is focused on your needs and not the accumulated assumptions of the service provider about the needs of others.
  • When multiple variables (scope of services, deliverables, time frame, budget) are left open, a responder has to incorporate guesswork into the proposal. This is a problem for both sides:
    • Proposers will not be able to bring their best judgment to bear on the project as you would like it done or can afford to do it, so the responses may be relevant to your needs.
    • If different proposers make their own independent assumptions, which may or may not be explicit, then proposals may not be comparable, handicapping the selection process.
    • Putting a good proposal together can take a substantial amount of time and effort. Many good providers, who get referrals from previous clients and from other consultants, or direct inquiries based on publications or conference presentations, do not find it worthwhile to invest the resources required to respond to RFPs that do not give sufficient guidance as to scope or budget.


Publically funded projects typically must be advertised and open for any provider to respond to. If that is not required of you, it can be much more effective to limit the distribution to a small number of providers that you have already identified as appropriate matches. The research you do to find your preferred list of providers will be good preparation for being an educated client. And as noted above, many of the best providers do not respond to open RFPs, especially when they are busy and don’t need to spend resources on speculative marketing efforts.

So overall, a more vague and broadly distributed RFP may limit the quality of the responses you’re likely to get.


Often competitive RFPs are thought of as a way to get services at the lowest possible cost. This is most likely to be effective if the other major variables (scope of services and deliverables) can be clearly defined. Otherwise you can compare (initial) price, but not value.

The best course of action if you don’t have any sense of what a project should cost, is to do enough research to give at least a range. Consultants will then be able to suggest a scope of work within that range or give extra options beyond it, or forego the opportunity to respond if the project is not within an appropriate range for them.

In some kinds of work (architecture or exhibit design, for example) professional fees are not the major portion of the budget, so a low fee is less important than the track record of the provider in keeping the whole project within budget.

What to expect

When you issue an RFP to and get proposals from multiple prospects, you will likely see different levels of responsiveness—from cut and paste boilerplate to thoughtful consideration of the issues you face and how to approach them. This will offer you some insights into the way the proposers work, and the clarity and quality of thought and communication.

If you have framed the proposal well, you may get to see thoughtful alternative approaches to the project.