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January 20, 2022
Carefully Draft an RFP to Find the Right Vendor
By Chris Peters

Nonprofits that don't have the expertise or resources to meet a pressing need can use a well-crafted request for proposal, which can introduce an organization to vendor-partners and consultants from outside their established networks and ensure that a project is planned well and completed successfully.

A request for proposal—RFP—is a document that describes a project’s needs in a specific area and asks for proposed solution, along with pricing, timing, and other details, from qualified vendors.

Any one of the following three reasons would be sufficient to justify issuing an RFP. Taken together, however, they're a powerful case for paying careful attention to the drafting of RFPs and the evaluation of responses.
  • Finding the vendor best suited to your organization’s needs. Casting a wide net and letting unknown companies compete against familiar ones will increase the likelihood of finding just the right vendor for your current needs.

  • Accountability and good governance. Due to its open nature, the standard RFP process encourages fairness and transparency while minimizing the likelihood of corruption or favoritism.

  • Needs assessment. The process of writing an RFP gives you an opportunity to interview key stakeholders and bridge the gap between the vague aspirations that launch a project and the concrete, measurable requirements that guide it to successful conclusion.
You need an RFP when your policies, your funders' policies, or government regulations require one before you can hire a vendor, consultant, or contractor. If there are no policies or guidelines in place, balance the rationales listed above against the time it takes to write and distribute a good RFP.

RFPs are more frequently issued for complex, highly customized products and services. An example of such a project is a website redesign in which the project likely has numerous requirements and involves several types of expertise.

For simpler products and services, organizations often circulate a request for quotation (RFQ).

An RFQ is shorter and less labor-intensive than an RFP.

Standard Steps

The steps of the RFP process can vary, but you should consider all of these even if you don't implement every single one.
  1. Establish the project's boundaries, such as project budget, deadlines, and certain project features or technical requirements that your colleagues and supervisors have declared non-negotiable.
  2. Identify key stakeholders and advisors. Assign one person to lead the process and a small group of stakeholders that the project leader can interview while drafting the RFP and evaluating the responses.
  3. Talk to stakeholders and define your project needs.
  4. Write the RFP. (See the next steps for details.)
  5. Create a draft of your scoring criteria. Often these criteria are weighted to reflect your priorities. For example, you might rank replies on a scale of 1 to 10 for each criteria, but experience working with nonprofits will count for 30% of the total score, while proximity to your offices counts for 10%.
  6. Circulate the RFP. If you prefer to work with local companies, post a short notification in the classified section of your regional business journals. If it's most important that you work with consultants who have prior experience with nonprofits, post your RFP in nonprofit news outlets.
  7. Review responses. Perform an initial read-through of the responses, paying particular attention to their proposed solution (often included in a section called the statement of work).
  8. Research novel solutions as necessary. When a vendor suggests a solution that you haven't encountered before, don't be too quick to dismiss it. Do your own research, as novel approaches might be better than traditional solutions.
  9. Research the vendors' track records. Ask RFP respondents for references or ask to see examples of their work. As much as possible, these references and samples should relate to projects that match your own in terms of size, budget, and audience. Arrange in-person meetings with the finalists.
  10. Score the responses and select a vendor.
  11. Negotiate and sign a contract. Selecting a vendor doesn't mean you have a binding agreement. The RFP response is a proposal, and you can accept it as-is or use it as a starting point and refine the details during follow-up conversations with the vendor. As you reach agreement on details concerning deadlines and project deliverables, be sure to document them in the contract. Such details are often included in a contract addendum or statement of work.
Information to Include

RFP templates and examples of RFPs written by other organizations are useful starting points when you're not sure how to get going. Nonprofit Guides and TechSoup offer sample RFPs specific to nonprofits. Even though each RFP is unique, most of them contain these seven sections in one form or another:
  1. Organizational background.
  2. Short project description.
  3. Project requirements and project objectives. Because it describes the characteristics that define a successful outcome in your estimation, this is often the lengthiest section of the RFP. For example, if you were writing an RFP for a new website, you might include:
    • Definition of your audience
    • List of required and desired features
    • Notes about any system integration needs
    • Indications of any preferred tools or systems
    • Clarification of whether you are seeking interface design, back-end development, or both (if applicable)

  4. Project budget.
  5. Milestones and deadlines.
  6. Questions and required information. If you give preference to specific types of vendors, such as minority-owned firms or firms with specific experiences, make it clear in this section.
  7. Contact information and deadline for submissions
Republished with permission from the online Learning Center at TechSoup

July 2011
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