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Navigating the RFP process: Finding the right partner starts with you

Not too long ago, I wrote a blog post encouraging nonprofit organizations to skip the RFP process. Written proposal responses take up a lot of time—for everyone involved—and they often leave you with little understanding about the people involved in the work.

I still firmly believe that fast-forwarding to a presentation is the best way to go, but sometimes  organizations may not have a choice. If you have a board-mandated RFP or expectations from procurement, then it’s critical to set up the RFP process correctly to get the most out of it.

Let’s delve into how nonprofits and service providers can both win.

Be clear about what you need

I’ve been a part of many, many proposal responses. The situations that work out best are the ones in which the nonprofit organization is clear about their needs and is willing to collaborate with the agencies that have been selected to participate. Who knows your program better than you?

You may be tempted to create a vague RFP just to see what agencies and vendors have to say. After all, you don’t want them just telling you what you want to hear.

But all that will get you is a lot of generic responses that focus on the agency’s capabilities. You may be able to weed out a few that don’t meet the criteria, but you’ll still be left wondering if they can truly address your needs.

There’s a big difference between these two statements:

  • Describe your process for retention.
  • Using the data provided, explain how you would improve our declining retention rates.

If you're not saying what you want or need, it’s impossible for either party to determine if this is a mutually beneficial opportunity.

Share your data and communication plans

This goes hand in hand with the point above. The more detail you provide about your needs, the better solution you will receive—and this starts with data.

Choosing who wins an RFP without adequate information is like walking into a doctor's office and saying, "I can't share what's wrong or let you run any tests, but tell me my diagnosis."

For fundraising services, we recommend signing a non-disclosure agreement with agencies and sharing the same data sample with all parties involved. This will allow agencies to get a clearer picture of where your organization’s program is and where it needs to go.

Leave enough time for the Q&A stage

Nonprofit fundraising programs are extremely complex—especially in today’s world of constant marketing innovation. It’s rare that an RFP contains all the details necessary to begin writing a proposal response.

That’s why most organizations set up a period in the RFP process for vendors and agencies to ask questions. This is a critical time to clarify any misunderstandings and to gain more context around specific areas of concern.

Unfortunately, the list of questions can be quite lengthy. And the more agencies you invite to the RFP, the more questions you will likely have.

Be sure to leave enough time in your schedule to answer these questions thoughtfully. It’s actually best to have a verbal Q&A session—either with all participants in one call or scheduling time with each one separately.

I’ve come across organizations that spent minimal time on responses and provided either one-line answers or lots of “no response at this time” replies.

During the Q&A stage, the onus is on both parties to be forthright. If you hold back information, it leads to vagueness and ambiguity.

Final thoughts

The RFP process is time-consuming and costly for both you and the agencies and vendors you invite. If done correctly, it can be an opportunity for collaboration and alignment.

As much as you are making the perfect selection to grow your organization, an agency is determining whether they are the right partner for your needs. With a clear understanding of each other, nonprofits and service providers can form lasting partnerships that go beyond the transactional and achieve transformative results.

It’s a match made!


Additional resources:

Dawn Beall

Dawn has more than two decades experience working with top brands and nonprofits to bring their brand to life. She has extensive experience in relationship marketing, events and promotions, helping build strategies that drive connection and engagement.

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