Preparing a Request for Proposal PDF Print E-mail

In a career working with nonprofits spanning more than thirty years, we have managed consultant contracts, observed contracts managed (or mismanaged) by others, been contracted as a consultant and project manager, and implemented campaign plans of various size in those contracts. There have been successful outcomes along with frustrating experiences.

A constant in all these instances is the extent to which the contracting organization details its needs and expectations and communicates the same to consultants and potential contractors. The best experiences were realized when the organization prepared a detailed Request for Proposal (RFP) prior to selecting the consultant/contractor, reflecting on the specific services it needs.

A very good primer on working with consultants is the 1996 American Association of Museums Technical Information Service Manual, "Museums and Consultants: Maximizing the Collaboration," edited by Roxana Adams. No matter what the industry, it is still an excellent manual. Although concepts and practices have evolved in recent years, there are still some basic principles any nonprofit or agency should observe in the contractual process.

Overview: Before writing the Request for Proposal, the organization needs to clearly define the problem or need the organization expects the consultant or outside contractor to address. This is a very critical first step. If the organization is not clear about its needs and major internal issues, the contracted consultant or firm is not able to determine if it can meet any need, nor delineate the resources it will be expected to commit, nor can the organization tell if the contractor can fulfill or meet the need.

In doing the preliminary analysis, make sure that you separate the symptoms from the need. In the development of the American Association of Museums "New Visions" facilitated dialogue process, management consultant Will Phillips stated: "Lack of money is never a problem. It is a symptom of a problem. Solve the problem and you solve the money issue." This may be an over-simplification, but even if you are launching a capital campaign for endowment or capital assets, the issue is not the dollars sought -- it is the development  of a fundraising program to fulfill the organization's long-term service goal.

The organization also needs to identify what it specifically expects the consultant to achieve. Understand that the details may be changed in the negotiation process, but if you expect the consultant to prepare specific documents, these should be identified in the RFP.

Be aware of the fee range the organization is able and willing to commit for any contract. Fees are negotiable, but do not choose a consultant and then expect the firm or individual to radically reduce their fees to fulfill the Scope of Work.

Sometimes an organization will limit the Scope of Work required in order to limit the cost of the consultant/contractor. Understand, however, that you may be under-estimating the time and service commitment required to fulfill the Scope of Work, or have unreasonable expectations of the costs for a consultant/contractor.

A well-written RFP allows the organization to compare the potential consultants on criteria that you have set. You will then be able to limit your phone and/or on-site interviews to the top 2-3 consultants that meet those criteria.

An organization should also consider whether or not the project or Scope of Work is large or complicated enough to require a special meeting (or conference call) for which all potential respondents may be present.   If such an event is scheduled, that date and method should be included in the RFP. At least specify a projected timeframe for interviews.

The outline below is general enough to fit almost all situations. For a less critical or complicated project, the   full outline may not be necessary. For a more comprehensive project or need, additional elements may be required. Some RFPs from government agencies often include a long list of mandates based on legislation or regulations.

Suggested Outline for a Request for Proposal:

The RFP should:

1. Identify the institution requesting the proposal: mission, overview, brief history of the agency/organization and timeframe of the need or project.

2. Identify and describe the problem or need that must be solved or satisfied (outlined in a prospective   Scope of Work):

a. Be specific, but be careful not to reveal confidential information.

b. Outline what specific assistance or required activity the consultant/contractor will be expected to perform.

c. State the expected product -- written report, oral report -- and how detailed that product should be.

d. Is this an RFP for a single report or a series of steps -- preliminary report (feasibility and/or marketing study, development audit), process or operations manual, evaluation project, or a continuing consultation?

e. Is travel an expected component of the contract and how much travel is anticipated?

f. Detail critical performance dates or events (specifically those that are already on the organization's calendar). If the consultant is expected to attend already scheduled meetings, those dates should be identified. Other performance dates, such as the expected publication date, legal or legislative deadlines, and other key organizational dates and events, should also be identified.

3. Specify what information the respondent must include:

a. Include a recommended format for the response and how the response may be submitted (email or hard copy) and how many copies are required.

b. Require evidence that the consultant understands the requirements and the product expected.

c. Request what the consultant's specific approach to the problem/need might be, and why the consultant is taking that approach.

d. Request a plan in OUTLINE form and proposed schedule (Note: to request a full campaign plan is unrealistic until the consultant under contract completes a factual "discovery" phase of work).

e. Ask for a client list or qualifications and references.

4. Give a deadline for response and the anticipated start and end date for the project (timeline).

5. Expected fee structure -- capped price (billed time but "may-not-exceed"), fixed-price (flat price contract), or daily rate of performance:

a. If you have a limited budget, be sure to state limits on allowed expenses, and any payment requirements from your organization.

b. List the in-kind resources the organization will commit or the contractor is required to provide: support staff, office space, office equipment, office supplies, postage/shipping.

6. To whom the consultant/contractor will report -- CEO, other project manager, board chair or committee chair:

a. Identify who the respondent may contact for further information and how that contact may be made (telephone, email, hard copy).

b. Identify any other interactions the consultant/contractor will be required to have: board members, volunteers, members, staff, allied organizations, industry or community key opinion leaders, etc.

7. Identify who will evaluate the responses and on what criteria the responses will be evaluated, and state when a decision is likely to be made.

Good luck. If you have other questions, please feel free to contact us.