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How to Write the Best RFP's

Did you know there is an art to writing a good Request for Proposal (RFP)? A well written and informative RFP will generate thoughtful proposal responses to your specs and criteria and will ultimately help guide you in choosing the right vendor for your nonprofit's next project. A poorly written RFP, on the other hand, which doesn’t provide basic information like Project Scope, Objectives, Target Audiences, Timelines, and Budget or asks the wrong questions can turn the RFP process into a nightmare and end up wasting your time.

As Partner of an online communications firm, I receive and read a variety of RFPs weekly. This gives me a unique perspective into how RFPs need to be written to generate competitive bids. The following is my personal guide to writing the best RFPs.

Provide Organizational Background
Educate the vendor on the background and mission of the organization. This should not exceed 1-2 short paragraphs.  

Lay Out The Project Scope
Define the purpose of the project such as a website redesign, an online marketing campaign, etc. This should be followed by a project description which details what you are looking to achieve. For example, if the RFP is for a website redesign, discuss what a successful redesign will accomplish for your nonprofit internally and externally.  

Define The Core Objectives And Any Functional Requirements
It's important to be very specific in this section and list goals and/or requirements. For example, if the RFP is for an online marketing and advertising campaign – discuss any branding and recruitment goals, target markets, etc. Also, inform the vendor if they will be expected to develop the creative from scratch as well manage the ad buys. However, if the RFP is for a website redesign, this section should list functional requirements and key features. All of these items are essential information for vendors to develop a realistic budget, so pay special attention to this section.

Discuss The Target Audiences
Is your nonprofit's target audience comprised of politicos, pro-choice women ages 25 to 40, senior citizens, college students, residents of Oakland, California etc? The more insight you can provide to your target audiences the better.

List A Budget
It's always a good practice to provide vendors a budget framework to work within and list what you expect the budget will cover such as all design and creative, licensing fees, etc. Also, feel free to ask vendors to provide a line item budget. This budget breakdown approach can be helpful to your decision-making process.

Clearly Define Proposal Guidelines And Requirements
Use this section to discuss what the proposal should include like references, a portfolio, staff bios and roles within the organization, etc. Be sure to include deadlines and any specific formats you would like to receive the proposal in.

Outline Vendor Qualifications
Communicate what your nonprofit is looking for in a vendor. For example, for a web development RFP, list any expertise you require for certain content management systems or expertise in programming languages like Python.

Define Contract Terms
If your nonprofit has contract terms, briefly list them. This section should be a summary and not look like a contract.

Evaluation Criteria
Briefly list how proposals will be evaluated.

Contact Information
List your contact information so vendors can contact you if they have any questions.

Good Questions to Ask Vendors In The RFP?

  • What is your process for achieving our objectives? For example, if it was a website redesign RFP you would ask a vendor to outline their Discovery, Development, and Deployment process.
  • Provide 3-4 references that you have done work for that is similar to our nonprofit’s project.
  • Please provide a company profile and list your core competencies.
  • Discuss any vendor relationships you are proposing as part of this proposal.
  • What is your testing and support plan?

While this seems like a lot of information to pack into an RFP, these suggestions are meant to be used as a guideline for any nonprofit’s RFP process. It will also help stakeholders involved in the process focus their priorities and goals and clearly communicate them to perspective vendors.




Reader Comments (4)

You might also be interested in our article "6 steps to writing a better Request for Proposals, a primer": http://blog.confluentforms.com/2009/06/6-steps-to-writing-better-request-for.html

But also consider announcing your finished RFP on the RFP Database at http://www.rfpdb.com so as to get a wide range of proposal submissions!
October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Kutcher
I usually include an overview of the team they will be working with, and the capacity - i.e. who the main point of contact will be through the project, various roles, etc. It can make the project more appealing and provide a framework, as well as outline responsibility expectations.
October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTamera
Hi Allyson,

Thanks for writing this up! It's full of many really helpful points. That being said, I your recommendations fail to address one of the core problems with the RFP process in general for NPO clients - which is that it assumed a higher amount of technical/marketing expertise than many NPOs (particularly local, grassroots groups) have.

For example, you mention that the NPO should identify it's target audience. This can actually be quite hard, and as you know often requires storyboarding and user story creation to clarify. Identifying project scope and key features can also be really challenging - and IMHO, is better served by working with a development/marketing shop that can help guide this conversation early on in the process.

Unfortunately, however, the RFP process generally inhibits this creative process. More importantly, I think that RFP processes bias towards fixed bid proposals that make promises to deliver features that obviously haven't been fully fleshed out.

As a proponent of more of an agile approach to web development, I'd like to see the RFP process flipped on it's head a bit. I think that the purpose of an RFP shouldn't be to compare budgets and the price of features. Rather, it should be a tool to get to know potential development shops, to understand their development/project management process, etc.

Project "discovery" should be a separate phase in the project - once a vendor has been selected.

I'd be curious to hear your comments on this, Allyson. I've found that it's not a particularly easy concept for a lot of NPOs (particularly the idea of "paid discovery"), but my experience project managing 60 or 70 NPO web development projects has been that the most successful projects (and arguably the most cost-effective projects) don't rely on the RFP process to define features and budget in a single document , nor are they used to compare proposed solutions as much as they are used to compare vendors.

Sean Larkin
October 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSean Larkin
@David - Thanks for the resources.

@Tamera - Great suggestions to add.

@Sean - Thanks for your feedback. I will address your points one by one based on my personal experiences working with nonprofits.

Target Audiences: Every nonprofit I have worked with can identify a good chunk of their target audiences. If nonprofits did not have a sense of their target audiences, then they would not really be able to operate, develop and run programs or campaigns, tailor their research. If they didn't know who their target audiences were who would they be advocating their mission to?

Project Scope: Before an RFP is ever written, any organization needs to define what it is that they want to achieve. How can you go through an RFP process not knowing this? What would you ask the vendor to do? Vendors need guidelines to respond to an RFP. They need to understand your objectives, goals, and key features. If organizations don't lay this out in an RFP and take a "we will figure it out along the way" approach it can end up costing the nonprofit a lot of money.

I do a agree with you though that some of this can be quite technical and some nonprofits may not have the in-house expertise, but there are consultants who can come in and do an assessment before the RFP is ever written.

Discovery Phase: I think it's important that vendors lay out their process for going through a Discovery Phase so that clients can get an understanding of how that process will work.

At the end of the day, I think of the RFP almost as a living document. Not everything will be fleshed out. Once a vendor is chosen and they go through the Discovery Phase with the nonprofit, goals, objectives, and key features can be added or changed. This could also impact the final budget if the scope significantly changes during that Discovery Phase.
October 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAllyson Kapin

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