In many ways, consultants have it good. But RFPs are not something most of us like.
We choose the kind of work we do. We choose who we want to work with. That means each client relationship is intentional.
(We also live with uncertainty. Future income is harder to predict than future bills.)
I do miss working day-to-day with other people. But I’m happy with my choice to work differently with nonprofit organizations.
One thing I’m not fond of is an RFP (Request for Proposal). So I’m going to share why I don’t often respond to an RFP. I hope you’ll find it useful.
But first, I want to say I understand RFPs are often required by funders. And that requirement comes from a well-meaning place. However…
Here’s why I don’t care for RFPs
- They are impersonal
- RFPs are time-consuming
- They are prescriptive and restrictive
- RFPs are too often abused
- And they do little to build the relationships that make our communities stronger
RFPs are impersonal
RFPs are like mass mailing. Barely personalized, sent to many different people. Sent hoping you’ll get lucky.
I have my own particular strengths and weaknesses. I might, or might not, have the skills your organization needs. And chances are, you have no idea if I do, either. The RFP is a one-size-fits-all attempt to find a great consultant.
To even get a sense of whether your needs fit my skills, I need to read the whole document and do some research. This brings me to my next problem…
RFPs are time-consuming
For a consultant, time is money. And the time it takes for me to read your RFP, research your organization, and write the proposal is costly.
I’m usually given no sense of how many others have been asked to respond. I have no way to judge whether the time committed is going to be worthwhile.
To be honest, I would much rather have a personal email, asking me to spend time in person or on the phone. We can talk about your organization’s problem and whether I can help. Less time, more good information, and if I’m not right, I may be able to point you to someone who is.
You may not know what you really need
One value in working with a consultant is we have both experience and “outside eyes”. It can be hard to see problems when you’re living with them day-to-day.
An RFP usually includes a diagnosis. But it could be the wrong diagnosis. And then, even if I am the chosen consultant, we risk working on the wrong thing – which leads to poor results.
That’s why I prefer a conversation, to begin with. I may be able to say, “The problem you identify is actually a symptom of a different problem.”
RFPs can be abused
I have in the past responded to an RFP with a detailed proposal. And then learned that the organization used that proposal to shape a job offer, or a consulting contract, to someone else.
That’s not good. It’s not honest, really. And the thing is, I most likely would have been willing to talk with the organization and help them think through what they need – even suggest someone else – if they chose to be honest with me in the first place.
I know funders often require an organization to ask a number of consultants to respond. They do that to ensure that organizations are finding the best people. And to help make the system more equitable.
But the bottom line for consultants is lost time, lost income… and a bad taste in our mouths.
RFPs don’t promote relationships
The process of receiving, studying, and responding to an RFP doesn’t do much to further a relationship. I get a general email, read a general document and write a response. There’s no space built into that process for us to get to know one another.
Instead, you are left making assumptions about me, and I about you – based on a single RFP.
I am happy to talk with you. I might even be able to give you free advice during that conversation that solves some of your problems. While talking, I can get a better sense of your staff, your mission, and how you work. As we get to know one another, we’ll know whether a client-consultant relationship makes sense.
And at worst, we each have a new contact – someone who might be good to know in the future.
Doesn’t that sound more hopeful and sensible?
Suggestions to make the most of an RFP process
I understand that RFPs are probably here to stay – at least for a while. (I can hope, right?)
But if you want to get the best result, let me suggest a few ideas:
Research first, send second.
Don’t expect the proposals to find the best person for your organization to work with. As with a fundraising campaign, the more you know about your audience to begin with, the more successful you’ll be.
Focus on your problem; don’t dictate the solution.
For instance: maybe you’ve sought funding for a consultant because your fundraising program isn’t raising what it needs to raise. There could be many reasons for that. A good consultant can help you identify the real problem.
Ask around for recommendations.
Who have your colleagues worked with? How successful did they feel the process was? Ask consultants you know and have worked with. Who do you think is best at this kind of work?
Talk to potential consultants before sending out the RFP.
If you have limited your list based on conversations, you can then talk with the consultants. If they have a sense that you are seriously considering them, they’ll be more likely to respond.
Then respond individually to anyone who sent a proposal. You don’t like it when a funder doesn’t respond to your proposal. Consultants feel the same way.
Most likely, that conversation will go something like:
“Thank you for responding. We’ve decided to go with Jane.”
“Oh, fabulous! I know her, and she’ll do a great job for you. Let me know if I can be helpful in the future.”
See: Friends. Relationships. The long view. It can work!
Photo by Christa Dodoo on Unsplash
Robin Cabral says
Excellent article, Mary…I feel the exact same way. This needed to be said. Kudos to you for saying it.
Trina Willard says
We have experienced all of these circumstances with RFPs. The abuse element is particularly disheartening. Thanks so much for sharing!
Diane Leonard says
Great post, Mary! This post hits home for our firm’s perspective on replying to RFPs to get new business. If you take the reading of it a step further though and replace the context so it is instead about nonprofits applying to grantmaker’s RFPs, I think the article makes total sense in that way as well. The most important thing to realize is that the RFP will mask the importance of relationship building. Looking forward to sharing this in our network.
Marjorie Fine says
Amen! Excellent points. Thank you. Margie
Terry Graves says
Love your post, Mary. I also have stopped responding to RFPs for many reasons. I frequently use a quote of Blair Enns from Win Without Pitching, “we are not in the proposal writing business”.