When I first sat down to write this blog post, I considered listing the pros and cons of the request for proposal (RFP) process that I see every day. But then I had an interesting thought—some might call it an epiphany.
What would it look like if we simply ditched RFPs altogether?
Would anyone really miss them? Would it make a big difference in how you choose your future partner?
Think about it. We all spend a LOT of time on these RFPs. But which makes a bigger impact on your final decision—the words in the proposal or the feeling you get from the people in the room?
The nonprofit RFP process today
RFPs have long been the standard in the nonprofit industry when an organization is looking for a new agency or vendor for their fundraising program.
In theory, they give the nonprofit the ability to evaluate each opportunity on a level playing field. RFPs allow you to see fresh ideas and new approaches, and they provide a certain level of accountability for what’s put on paper.
But the reality can be quite different. If your nonprofit organization has been through a recent RFP, then you’ll know what I mean.
First off, it’s a long and involved process over a 2-4 month span that takes up a ton of extra time—something that stressed nonprofit employees have very little of. In fact, nonprofit burnout is so well-known that Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman wrote a book about it: “The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout.”
The RFP process itself can vary greatly by organization, but it typically consists of:
- A formal invitation to participate (typically sent out to as many as 10 agencies)
- The RFP document itself, with a list of goals, services required, background info, proposal format, etc.
- Signing a non-disclosure agreement
- Sharing a file of up to 10 years of transactional data
- A period for questions and answers
- Additional communications between agencies and the organization
- The deadline for the proposal’s submission
- A period for the organization to review the proposals and select finalists (often 3-4 agencies)
- A series of in-person or virtual presentations from the finalists
- A period for the organization to review the presentations
- The final decision on who wins the business
Whew, that’s a lot of work—for both the nonprofit and all the agencies involved.
On top of that, the written documents themselves can be a huge burden to get through. Today’s RFPs have so many required items—questions that must be answered, scenarios that must be addressed, lists of references, clients, samples, etc.—that the written response can easily exceed 50 pages.
Is everyone on the review team really reading all 50 pages from each of the 10 candidates, taking notes, remembering each response and considering every factor involved? Probably not.
So why go through all this trouble?
A future world without RFPs
What if we just skipped to the last three steps in that list above?
The nonprofit selects, let’s say, four agencies (including the incumbent) to come in and pitch their solutions and services. Then, they review the presentations and decide on which one best fits their needs.
Or, if you want to get a little more detailed, the organization could share their transactional data and let each of the four agencies analyze it and determine the best path for long-term growth. Most solutions take at least three years to fully implement anyway, so a one-year direct response plan doesn’t really give you the information you need. Meeting in person first allows you to get to know the people you’ll be working closely with. In a world where we’re losing that personal connection, a 50-page document just doesn’t cut it.
In the presentation, you can ask many of the same questions you would have put into the RFP. An in-person response will make it quite clear who has the experience and the expertise you need—and who doesn’t.
You might be thinking: What if we miss out on a great strategy or idea by cutting down the field of candidates?
But let’s be honest here. Nine times out of 10, the key people involved already kinda know who the finalists will be. You’re simply not going to find a “Cinderella” that no one knew about.
So, let’s build a new nonprofit world without RFPs.
No more going above and beyond to wrestle with 500 pages of written copy. Pick a short list of agencies, invite them to present and dedicate the extra time you save toward your mission.