In 11+ years in association management, I’ve been on both sides of the Request For Proposal process more times than I can count.  My very first Big Task at my very first association Real Job way back in 1997 was to complete an association management software system selection.  Which, of course, included writing an RFP (after I met all the vendors, but that’s another post).  Flash forward to the past few weeks, when I’ve been inundated with RFPs that require responses (looks like everyone’s already focusing on the fall).  I’ve seen the good – the bad – the ugly.  I’ve seen it all.  You name it, I’ve written it, seen it, or responded to it.

I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things along the way.  The MOST IMPORTANT THING I’ve learned is don’t do an RFP unless outside forces (i.e., your boss or board) are conspiring to force you.  If you’re on board with that, you’re done.  Skip the rest of this post and go get yourself a margarita, with my compliments.

Much like a heavily scripted demo, RFPs take a lot of time and energy to write, you invariably forget important elements, and you make it too easy for vendors to make it appear like they fit your organization and needs, whether they actually do or not.

However, if you disregard my warning or can’t opt out and go ahead with an RFP anyway, there are some steps you can take to make the process less painful for everyone involved.

RFP Dos & Don’ts – For the (Potential) Client

  • DO allow vendors a reasonable amount of time to respond.  If you send out an RFP and demand a response in 3 days, non-desperate-for-business vendors are probably going to pass.  That’s not nearly long enough to read and absorb all your information, talk to the internal team who would be involved in your project to get their input, schedule a call with you to confirm that we understand your needs, and write and edit a coherent response.  So the only responses you’re likely to get will be from vendors who aren’t busy.  You know how they always say, “If you want something done, ask a busy person”?  Same thing holds for choosing a vendor.
  • DON’T send out a 50 page RFP.  Give me some background on your organization, the problem you’re looking to solve, key requirements of the solution, your time frame, your decision-making process, your team, and your contact information.  Finito.  If that takes 50 pages to convey, you have bigger problems.  And DO make your proposal easy to read and process.  You love bullet points?  So do I.
  • DON’T forbid vendors to contact you.  You’re just shooting yourself in the foot.  The best vendor/client situation is a partnership that develops into a long-term relationship.  “You aren’t allowed to call me, and if you try to, I’m going to disqualify you,” is a fairly adversarial way to start.  And you’re going to receive lower-quality largely boilerplate proposals as a result.  Or a bunch of proposals that completely miss the point.
  • DO share the questions that one vendor asks with all the vendors who received the RFP.  Just because I didn’t think to ask it doesn’t mean knowing the answer won’t help me create a better response.
  • DO focus on your needs and problems, but allow the vendor to propose the solution.  This will help you evaluate how well the vendor thinks through your problems rather than just parroting your solution back to you.
  • DO your homework.  DON’T send your RFP to 37 vendors.  There’s no way 37 different vendors are even potentially a good fit.  Send it to 4-6 carefully chosen vendors who are REAL candidates.  Yes, that means you need to pre-qualify your vendors.  Yes, that also means you’re actually going to have to talk to people.  But if a given vendor starts pestering you mercilessly, doesn’t that tell you something important about them?  And wouldn’t you rather know that now than six months into a project that’s rapidly going south?
  • DO be realistic about your project time frame.  Maybe that means you have to stand up to your board or take some heat from your boss, but vendors really have done enough of your type of engagement to have a good sense of how long it will take.  If I tell you it’s going to take 4-5 months to do an AMS system selection (depending, as always, on your and the AMS vendors’ staff schedules), I probably know what I’m talking about.  Trying to force it into 3 months only results in a sloppy process and rushed decision making.
  • DO acknowledge the responses you receive.  How else will I know my carefully crafted documents didn’t get stuck in your spam filter?
  • DO be up front about your process and keep your prospective vendors informed.  If you’re running behind in your specified schedule for vendor selection, let them know (that way I don’t start pestering you if the vendor notification deadline comes and goes and I haven’t heard anything from you).  If you chose someone and it wasn’t them, let them know (that way you don’t stay on my weekly tickler list to keep calling to ask about my proposal).  Yes, these can be difficult conversations to have, but we’re all supposed to be grown ups here and this is business.
  • DO try to provide a ballpark budget.  And if you don’t and I ask you about it, DON’T get huffy.  I’m not trying to cheat you – I’m trying to make sure the level of effort I’m proposing matches your expectations.  Sometimes, I’m even trying to figure out whether I should propose at all.  If my normal budget for a particular type of engagement is $100K, and your ballpark is $300K, you’re probably looking for a bigger firm.  If you’ve done your vendor research as advised above, you’ve probably chosen firms that are going to bid in the right ballpark anyway, but this isn’t an attempt to spend every last penny of the budget you’ve allocated.  Really.
  • DON’T just automatically throw out the low bid and the high bid.  Yes, that is a decent rule of thumb, but before you discount those vendors, talk to them and see if there’s a good reason they’re high (you were thinking Y level of effort and they proposed Yx2) or low (they really want your particular organization as a client and are discounting their normal rates).
  • DO make sure your team is lined up in advance.  I don’t have a huge bench of staff just sitting around waiting for your project to go/no go.  I have to schedule my people, too.  And if you’re telling me we’re going to start a huge project on September 1 and you want to move fast and get it done, I’m going to reserve time with all the relevant staff and turn down other work for them.  And if you then on August 31 tell me that, oops, you forgot to check schedules and 3 of your 4 Core Team members are going to be out of the country for the next 3 weeks and then after that, your key internal stakeholders will be fully booked because it’s four weeks from your annual meeting, I’m going to be annoyed.  That is not a good way to launch a partnership.
  • DON’T hide information.  Yes, you want to represent your organization in the best light and you don’t want to air dirty laundry before strangers, but if there are significant internal political considerations or there’s about to be a major re-org, I need to know.  You’re not going to want to put that in the RFP, but it would be a great topic of conversation when I call you to discuss your RFP and your needs.  And DO include baseline information, particularly if the engagement is about more (members, Web site visitors, volunteers, donors) or less (processing time, costs, use of staff resources).
  • DON’T make me jump through dumb hoops.  Don’t tell me what fonts, margins, etc. to use.  If you really need five printed, bound copies of my proposal FedExed to your Executive Committee, fine.  But don’t make me do that just to see if I will.

Got anything good I missed?  Leave it in the comments.

Part two of this article will cover the Do’s and Don’ts for vendors in responding to RFPs.