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.