8 Ways to Craft a Communications RFP Process that Works

As the founder of a 15-year-old marketing firm serving nonprofits and foundations, I’ve probably reviewed over 600 RFPs in my time, all from nonprofits and foundations seeking communications services. And I can tell you, no more than 100 of them were designed well enough to motivate specific and thorough responses from top contenders.

Accuracy, of course, is key. Because if your nonprofit’s RFP doesn’t cover everything you’re looking for, in the way you want it delivered, your organization won’t get what it needs. Trash in, trash out as they say. So put some time and effort into the RFP process.

Here are some guidelines for implementing a RFP process that will motivate high-quality service providers to respond eagerly, thoroughly and accurately:

1. Be realistic…

In the work you’re asking for in a particular timeframe, within a specific budget. If you don’t know what it takes (time- or $-wise), ask colleagues in peer organizations.

2. Be thorough…

In what you include, and format the proposal with care so it’s easy for the recipient to scan and review.

Put the effort into making the proposal easy to digest, just as you would your brochures or website.

3. Cover these areas:

Organizational background (brief), project description, why you’re implementing this project now, goals and objectives, challenges (if you know them), deliverables, timeframe, who to contact with questions.

4. Know what you’re looking for.

Your organization can select the right expert(s) only if you know what you want — personality, skills, style and experience-wise. Don’t use the proposal process to try to figure out what you want. That will backfire, big time.

I recently received an RFP from an organization sending it out for a second round to four communications firms this time (it was released to six firms first time out). When I asked what was missing from the initial set of six proposals, the prospect said she didn’t really know, but that none of the proposals had “hit it on the head.” When I asked what the head was (i.e. what they are looking for, what does the staff team think it takes to make this process work), she couldn’t answer. Believe me, they won’t find the right firm until they do know what they’re looking for.

5. Ask recipients to let you know within a day or two whether they’ll be responding or not.

That way you can send the RFP out to additional marketers if you need to.

6. Give bidders two weeks to respond.

Crafting a proposal is extremely labor intensive if it’s done right. Give firms the opportunity to do it right.

7. Be prepared to answer these questions:

  • How many firms/individuals will be submitting proposals?

I never jump in if a prospect is expecting more than five proposals. That says to me that they are fishing for ideas or may not know what they want until they see it (or not) in a proposal. If that’s the case, I know that we don’t have a good chance of getting the work.

  • What’s your budget range?

Some  prospects are reluctant to  share this information, thinking that the bidders will just mark up the work to that level. Most of the time, believe me, the budget isn’t enough, and knowing the range enables us to define what we can provide for that fee.

  • What are your criteria for selecting a consultant or firm?

I like to know what’s most important to a prospective client, and also get a sense of the culture of the organization. A good fit is crucial.

  • How did you hear about me/us?

It’s the kiss of death if the prospective client tells me she doesn’t remember. Finding me on the Web is a sign that I have to probe more, to ensure she has done her research thoroughly and her findings (on experience, focus, perspective) match her needs.

  • Who is your point person on this project?

It’s difficult to succeed in bringing a project to life when there’s not a single point person. Your point person should run much of the review and approval processes inside your organization; synthesizing (solo or via a group process) what are bound to be divergent opinions.

8. Be aware of the firm or consultant who submits a proposal without asking questions.

Doing so indicates a player who’s not serious about the job or not putting the required time into the proposal development process. The proposal you’ll receive from those who don’t contact you for more information is likely to be generic. Not a good sign!

I’m looking for a sense of connection, as well, when I call a prospect with questions. That’s a critical component of project success, and can’t be assessed until speak we speak few times, even if only by phone.

Readers, follow these guidelines and I promise you a much more successful communications RFP process, and product.

Media Relations Planning–11 Steps to Success

Nonprofit organizations, particularly those on the smaller side, need every advantage they can get. And good media relations planning can a be a significant advantage for your organization.

But relax and breathe a sigh of relief.

Once you buckle down to this media planning process, it’s extremely doable. Depending on the time you can dedicate, the process can be executed in a variety of ways.

For example:

  • If time is extremely tight, allocate two hours weekly to this process. It will take longer but it will get done.
  • If you have a bit more time, spend six hours a week on this process. You’ll be done in two weeks max, assuming you have a colleague or freelancer doing the research for you.

The staff or consultant primarily responsible for media relations should own this process and do the initial strategic thinking. That person, or another team member, can be assigned to research (e.g. to develop your press list).

Here’s How to Start

  • Begin by reviewing this list.
  • Next, dive into the low-hanging fruit (#1-5 below). You should be able to complete these tasks without additional research. Run by colleagues to ensure you are on target.
  • Assign an intern or assistant (you could even hire a virtual assistant for this) for tasks #6 and #7 to start researching key media to follow, and to draft a top ten press list.
  • Take these findings, finalize the press list, and address the balance of the planning tasks (#8-11).
  • Review the draft plan with key colleagues, and revise as needed.

11 Steps to Media Planning Success

1.  Estimate what you can invest in building your media relations program; time and budget.

2.  Set goals.

What are your three main program goals? How can media relations be used to achieve these goals:

  • Build awareness.
  • Shift opinion.
  • Motivate action.

3.  Define realistic objectives, both output and outcome.

  • What do you envision your media work will generate?
  • These objectives serve as the measures you’ll track to evaluate your success.

4.  Identify three or less primary target audiences.

  • Define each group’s connection to each issue or story, what you want them to do, what is important to them, and what they read, watch and listen to.
  • Audience definition shapes your key messages and press list.

5.  Tell your story. Pinpoint the key messages you’re trying to communicate.

  • Try to distill your message into a 25-word (maximum) statement that will get the point across.  Add supporting messages of one to two sentences each, max.
  • Make sure these messages are integrated into all of your communications.
  • Mixed messages are confusing. Consistency ensures that your points are heard and recognized and likely to be repeated.

6.  Build your media database/press list but include no more than 10 to 15 journalists. Identity key media (and that means bloggers and other online writers as well as the traditional media) covering your issues, themes, geographies via these strategies:

  • Capture information on reporters who contact or cover your organization (log conversations and emails with media folks so you have this information).
  • Find related stories via Google news, noting sources and journalist’s names.
  • Exchange media contact lists with your colleague organizations.

7.  Read, watch and listen to these media over a month or so to pinpoint your top-ten press list.

8.  Identify the best way to get journalists to cover your story.

  • Through news releases? Personal visits to reporters? On-air interviews? Each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages.

9.  Craft the timetable.

  • Consider external events, editorial calendars and date-based news hooks.
  • Organize key media outreach efforts chronologically and prioritize, being realistic about what you can accomplish.

10.  Define the work plan, and roles and responsibilities.

  • Remember, everyone on your staff and your external supporters are communicators. Give them what they need to spread the word directly as well as via media contacts.

11.  Track, measure and fine-tune (ongoing, forever).

  • Log all contacts with the media.
  • Make the log easily accessible to all. You never know who might have to field an incoming media call.

Let me know how this process works for you! I’ve used it with client organizations time and time again with strong results.

And please leave a comment below if you have any steps to add to this process, or guidance on those listed here.

3 Proven Ways to Make an Impact When Message Control Is Out of Your Hands

Now that you know what happens when control of your nonprofit’s message passes from your organization to your audiences, you’ve got to do something about it (see They Said What? for details). Here are three strategies that will ensure your organization works this all-voices-have-equal-weight conversation to its advantage:

1.  Start To Monitor All Channels, All the Time

Your nonprofit may have once counted on a clipping service to capture print and broadcast coverage of your organization. But what’s equally – if not more – and comments on your org – on websites, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other channels.

Effective listening will help your org: (hat tip to WeAreMedia.org)

  • Be able to better serve your target audience by knowing what they’re saying to others and to you.
  • Be able to respond to and/or engage critics.
  • Stay on top of the latest development in your area of work.

Here’s how you can automate a process to monitor online coverage – of your org, key leaders and issues, and the issue area in which you work:

>>Set up Google Alerts to alert you – via email – to content on your org and leaders.

In addition, you can use these alerts services for updates on coverage of keywords and phrases in your issue areas, and of partner and competitive organizations. Google Alerts does miss some mentions, but picks up a huge amount of relevant content.

>>Search Twitter every few days to see what’s tweeted about your org and other key terms.

>>Use Technorati – a search engine of blog content – to check for blog coverage of your organization.

Not all blog content is indexed by Google or Yahoo. Technorati is as comprehensive as it gets, at this point.

>>Check your nonprofit on Wikipedia.  If you haven’t already searched for your organization, on the Internet’s open source encyclopedia, do so today. Wikipedia allows users to research a subject and add their own information.

I just researched several nonprofits, and it quickly became apparent that there’s a lot of content here that didn’t come from those organizations. For example, the Sierra Club entry goes into detail on the battle of a reduction into its mission. The article’s accuracy been disputed but the main Sierra Club has not joined the conversation.

Look up your organization, and check back frequently (once every two weeks). If there’s something missing that people should know about, add it. You’ll have the option of registering as a contributor which allows you to remain an anonymous poster.

Wikipedia is a popular place. You can be sure that some prospective donors, volunteers, members and clients are learning about your nonprofit here. Make sure you know what they’re learning.

>>Use Google Reader (Or Use Another RSS Reader) to synthesize content from the blogs (and some websites) that cover your nonprofit or issues regularly.

Who has time to dive into a hundred sites or blogs on a regular basis? Tools like Google Reader enable you to easily read key content from blogs (and more and more websites) that you need to know about.

Once you identify the sources that cover your organization or field, Google Reader synthesizes all the new blog posts and website content on a single web page. You just read it, clip content (for later use) or email it to a colleague.

2.  Build Internal Support For User-Generated Content, Listening, and Active Participation

Once you start to scan, and find what’s out there on your nonprofit, you’ll have some proofs of the importance of nurturing this conversation (it’s going to happen anyway, so you might as well embrace it). It’s likely you’ll need to convince your boss or leadership why to support these conversations, and you have the data to do it.

But your work goes beyond support:

  • Make sure you and your leadership are listening to what you hear. It’s all too easy to dismiss unwelcome comments as unimportant or one person’s opinion. The fact is that, if those comments are online, that opinion is accessible far and wide.
  • Focus your communications on strengthening your nonprofit’s credibility. If your audiences don’t trust your organization, they’ll ignore what you have to say.
  • Evolve your organizational voice to one that’s warmer and more passionate, so that your audiences will develop a more genuine connection with your organization.

3.  Participate, Participate, Participate – After You Develop a “Conversation Policy”

You’ve got to participate in the online conversations that are important – to show you’re listening, to add your perspective and, sometimes, to set the record straight.

It’ll be impossible for your organization to respond to every conversation about it, and a bad use of your time. Even though it can be so difficult not to shoot back a knowledgeable response to a cutting (and uninformed) remark, you want to ensure your response achieves what you want. And you need to ensure that your responses are consistent with your nonprofit’s values and mission.

I suggest that you outline, and train colleagues on:

>> What your organization will respond to:

  • Format wise (blogs, message boards).
  • From which organizations or individuals.
  • On what topics.

>>Who will respond?

  • Many organizations have one person responding, with colleagues alerting her to online “finds.”

>>What to say, in what tone?

>>When to step out of a conversation?

>>Which comments and conversations to report out to colleagues?

When you take these three steps to strengthen your nonprofit’s online presence (beyond your own site), you’ll ensure your org is aware of what’s being said about it, and participates when it makes sense. It’s a no-choice addition to today’s communications to-dos.

Should Your Nonprofit Launch a Blog?

What’s a Blog?

An abbreviation of “weblog,” blogs are websites that take the form of online journals, updated frequently with running commentary on one or many topics.

A blog is the absolutely easiest way to provide regularly updated information to your audiences. Because blog creation process is simpler than website creation or print design and production, blogs enable nonprofits to easily publish a stream of constantly updated, linked content. And search engines love fresh content.

Most blogs are directed towards external audiences and cover alerts, news clips, human interest stories and volunteers. What’s very distinct to blogs in the personal voice in which these stories are told.

Blogs usually feature:

  • Brief entries running one-three paragraphs in length.
  • One or more columns on the page, with new content added to the largest column.
  • Sidebars linking to other blogs, previous posts or other comments.
  • Updates added at the top of the blog, so that entries read in reverse chronological order. This approach makes it easy for readers to find the most recent content.
  • Lots of links within blog entries (to other blogs, websites, and articles in your e-newsletter, as well as audio and video files). Some blog entries also feature photos.
  • Frequent updates, with updating schedules from several times daily to two-three times each week.

Here are a few examples of nonprofit blogs:

  • Citizens League

What: Frequent updates to educate Minnesota’s citizens and motivate action on legislation.

  • Oceana

What: Reports from the field from marine biologists and conservationists around the world on the battle to save the oceans. Readers are invited to participate in the discussion by adding to the blog.

How to Put Blogs to Work for Your Nonprofit Organization

Here’s how you can put blogs to work for your organization.

  • Quickly summarize and point to other articles on the web that are relevant to your audience.
  • Include audiences (or selected audiences) in conversation on critical topics.
  • Invite experts in your field or issue area to contribute as guest bloggers.
  • Get timely information out without tech staff or web designers. You can even do “real-time” reporting from a conference, field visit or legislative session.
  • Cross-promote and re-use all the content you create for your website, print magazines and e-newsletter.

Here’s a nonprofit blog scenario:

An association of healthcare nonprofits uses their blog as a highly efficient means of communicating with its members. The membership staff posts three-five new entries daily, which range from quick announcements on members’ special events to multiple entries about sessions at the association’s recent conference. Using the blog, staff members easily get this info to members in minutes.

How to get audiences to read your organization’s blog

  1. Add your blog headlines to your organization’s home page.
  2. Syndicate your blog via RSS format.

When you syndicate your organization’s blog content (RSS=real simple syndication), readers can use a type of free software called a “news aggregator” to automatically retrieve the latest stories from your nonprofit and thousands of other sites and blogs. The news aggregator pulls your blog right down to your audience’s desktops so they receive blog entries without having to open their web browsers!

NOTE: The BBC has posted a great explanation of RSS.

3. Form a network with colleague organizations to run your blog headlines on their own websites, and vice versa.

Use trackback (a link back to the initial entry on which the current entry comments), commenting on other blogs and re-posting of other blogs’ key stories to strengthen your network and motivate audiences when important issues need attention (e.g. pending legislation).

Readers, I urge you to take a look at the blogs I mention above, and start talking with your colleagues about the blogs they read. Blogging is a vital complementary communications vehicle, and one for which you should know the pros and the cons.

6 Steps to Showcasing Marketing ROI (Case Study)

Q: Help — We’re losing ground fast and we need professional marketing help. How do I get the budget and support to get it?

My organization has been in existence since the 1960s, longer than any other environmental group in the state.

But, like many other nonprofits, we have never been good at marketing ourselves, and therefore don’t have the membership base that we should. Of course, the situation is more dire than ever right now.

As a result, we’re beginning to lose our historical advantage. For example, our state Audubon Society is developing a national audience and now has the funds to market themselves even more effectively. Our state’s Heritage Trust hired a marketing group that has helped them grow exponentially over the last year. And we’re being left behind.

We clearly need professional marketing help. We have a board member with marketing expertise (but, like most board members, he can’t give 100% of his effort to our marketing agenda) and a marketing committee, comprised of directors of communications (my boss), development and membership.

I’m an implementer and do most of our print and online graphic design and Web development and outreach. But I would be even more effective working with a marketing expert who has analyzed our challenges and designed a strategy for me to implement. So we’re doing more than treading water. But, I’m just not that person.

While leadership recognizes our need for professional marketing help, they are not moving forward in that direction. My boss agrees 100% but can’t get anywhere either. In the end, while we are stalled marketing-wise, our competitors are moving forward. Help!

I’ve passed on information on nonprofit marketing specialists and asked these specialists to contact our management too. Nothing has made a difference. I want to be more effective but don’t know how to get here.

I think my creation of a marketing plan would help, but don’t know where to start. What should I do?

— Jessica, Outreach Manager
State Natural Resources Council

A: Jessica, you’re in a challenging situation, and I admire the determination you are bringing to solving it.

The situation you face is a common one. Every nonprofit organization should be proactively marketing itself to develop and strengthen relationships with members, supporters, donors, volunteers and other stakeholders. But doing it right means more than just cranking out the direct mail and updating the Facebook page.

Effective marketing comes from clearly defined goals and objectives, the audiences you need to target to reach them and then the marketing strategies and hands-on tactics that will engage that network and motivate them to act. The process necessitates ongoing conversations with your base to get to know their needs and perspectives, analyzing what competitor and colleague organizations are doing marketing wise.

My recommendations:

1. Stop asking marketing firms to call your decision makers and stop passing on firm materials as well. Just stop right now.

Jessica, your intentions are great but at this point it’s clear that this strategy isn’t going to work. As a matter of fact, it’s likely to drive the decision makers away from funding marketing work. 

2Build understanding of the value of marketing for the Council. And, flip it to showcase what the Council WILL LOSE without it.

It’s all too easy for nonprofit leadership to nix marketing expenditures when they don’t get how vital marketing is to the ongoing health of their organizations. The most common “logic” is that program comes first, then vital support functions like fundraising.

I bet that’s what’s happening at the Council. But, it’s up to you (working with your boss) to build the understanding that there are no program participants without marketing, and limited fundraising if it isn’t done right (prospective donors need to know what the Council is and the value of its work to even consider giving).

Dig out a few concrete case studies that demonstrate the power of marketing on organizational success. Begin by sharing case studies from your counterparts in other state councils, so decision makers can identify with these success stories.

Unwrap the entire marketing process in each case, beginning with the fact that marketing goals are designed to support organizational goals. Explain the drivers of each campaign as well as its execution, and highlight the expertise required to shape and implement it successfully. If possible, have hard data on hand to show return on investment.

Make sure to include case studies from a few competitors—fire up some productive fear by showing non-believers how well organizations competing for the same attention and dollars are marketing. You’ll be less likely to get the hows and whats from the marketing folks in these orgs, but effective end products are a great supplement to the in-depth case studies you’ll gather from other councils.

3.  Come to the table with a clear right-now marketing project in mind.

Work with your boss (you need to be a team on this one) to figure out what needs to be done first and what you need (money, human resources and/or training) to make it happen. Be prepared to distribute a brief written recommendation, with budget figures, a timeline and roles and responsibilities. Whatever the request is, do your homework.

I suggest that you propose something concrete and on a finite timeline (not a marketing plan as a first step). Are you launching a new program? Honoring the Council’s 20th anniversary? Or trying to engage a new group for the first time?

Make sure you and your boss have the skills (or know where to hire them) to succeed. It’s best to pick a project where you’re confident that you can generate results. You want to use this success to motivate confidence and ongoing support and budget for more strategic marketing.

4. As you implement your initial marketing project, keep management and board posted on your progress.

You want them to be comfortable (or at least accepting) with the process (so that they get the budget and timeframe) and maintain their interest in the project. It’s up to you to demonstrate how you can put marketing to work to meet the Council’s goals.

5. Serve as an ongoing marketing mentor to your management and board.

As you and your boss come across great marketing models or ideas that are relevant to Council marketing, share them out (include colleagues here too) with a cover note that frames their value and relevance.

When you participate in marketing training, summarize key content in an email and share it with these folks and/or drip it out in casual conversations. They’ll begin to see you as an expert, while you continue to build their understanding of how marketing is an essential part of doing business.

6. Once you have one or two successful marketing projects under your belt, then it’s time to develop a comprehensive marketing plan, derived from the Council’s goals.

I recommend that you ask other Council marketers to help here or bring in an expert at this point to guide you in creating the plan. This is the critical juncture when experience with multiple nonprofit organizations (or ones just like the council), facing varied marketing challenges is a huge benefit. You have one chance to convince your leadership of the value and process of real marketing. Do it right.

The plan development process itself will raise many questions and issues to be worked through with your management,board members and colleagues. Include everyone in your process to cultivate buy-in and understanding of your focus and efforts.

Tell folks what you’re doing and why right up front (including how your marketing planning work will benefit each one of them), and ask them for their insights as part of your situation analysis. Make sure to keep them posted along the way—ask for feedback as you progress—and ask them (formally) to join your all-org marketing team,  as spokespeople and insight providers.  (Later you’ll want to train them to do so and provide ongoing support.)

At this point, Jessica, you’re ready and set. Now just go!

Let’s get fearless, readers.