BREAKING NEWS: RFPs are not fun!
After responding to hundreds of RFPs over the years, I can safely say that for the nonprofit leadership that writes them, and the agency team that responds to them ... no one thinks of an RFP as “fun.” But the truth is that they are required by almost all organizations. And some RFP experiences have been better than others — so I’d like to share my thoughts about what makes for a good RFP experience.
1. Don’t focus on creating a level playing field.
The intention is good, but this is an impossibility to create. There will always be prior relationships and knowledge that one player will know that another one won’t. The exercise in creating a “level” playing field only serves to dumb everyone down rather than allowing the best-fit agency to rise to the top. This is done by restricting communications (including in-person visits for agency discovery) during the process, and providing answers to all of the agencies’ questions in an open call or memo. There is only one exception to this — see my next point.
2. Data sets — Make them the same for everyone.
We’re in the direct response donor marketing business. That means data. By providing a complete set of donor and transaction data — the same data set — you can evaluate the analysis and recommendations easily across all responders. And, by the way, get the data set ready in advance, because this can be the most time-consuming part of an agency’s response.
3. Let your responders be creative!
You want a creative and innovative new partner, right? So don’t be over-prescriptive in your questions and requirements. Let the best agency shine as they get to know you, and you get to know them. Provide the basics to all — your own situation analysis, what you’re looking for, and your basic questions. But let the agency ask, on their own initiative, about receiving your data, samples, past performance reports, past budgets, etc. That’s going to demonstrate and tell you more than if you ask them (us) to simply fill the box up with goodies for you.
4. Realistic timelines
Three months, please. I’ve seen more fire drills than I care to remember, and the reality is, even when well-intentioned, the end dates end up moving, because less than two months is usually too short for the nonprofit leadership to review submissions and then make available time blocks for in-person presentations.
5. Consider an RFI.
If you have a list of more than 10 possible agencies, do an RFI first to get basic information about each agency. Then, trim down your RFP recipients to your top five choices to make it easier on your team. After that, decide on no more than three in-person presentations. And here’s another tip that will cut down on your review time: Don’t ask for the same information in the RFI and the RFP!
Yes, the Keep It Simple Smarty-pants rule. The length of an RFP response does not mean quality. Here is a list of the key items you want to learn about your potential agency partner:
- History, ownership, and basic capabilities of the agency.
- Philosophy about donor fundraising marketing.
- Relevant client experience, including examples of work and references.
- The agency’s understanding of your situation based on what you told them, what they find out through discovery, and what their analytics suggest.
- Their strategic and tactical recommendations for achieving your growth goals and measurable objectives, and the cost to you for their services.
- The agency leadership who will serve you, and the agency’s model for service and communications.
7. Navigating the Purchasing Department.
Dare I say it? I must: This is the worst thing that’s ever happened in large institutions because the same questionnaire is used to evaluate providers of cleaning supplies and direct response donor marketing agencies! The best experience I’ve had in this type of case is when the nonprofit leadership has attempted to get to know likely responders prior to initiating the heavily proscribed process through their Purchasing Department.
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