6 Tips for Writing RFPs that Build Amazing Partnerships
There are lots of good guides out there for writing Requests for Proposals (RFPs). We’re writing this guide as a tech partner who has engaged in successful collaborations with many organizations that began with an RFP process.
This guide is for anyone getting ready to write or put out an RFP, but especially for those of you who are seeking a collaborative partner to lead implementation of new technology, offer strategic guidance, or provide technical assistance.
How to set the foundation for good collaboration
Your RFP is the first stone laid in the foundation of a successful project and will set the tone for the entire project that follows. Are you looking for a partner who will be highly attuned to the needs & insights already on your team, supporting your existing direction, or one who brings their own strategy and perspective into the work? Are you conveying trust, clarity, responsiveness, and honesty? Are your expectations reasonable?
Potential applicants will read between the lines of your RFP to make the best inferences about these important questions. Their answers will determine whether they choose to reply to your RFP and what spirit they are able to bring to the work. Demonstrate that you are a good partner! If you communicate energy, vision, clarity, and purpose, a collaboration dynamic that is rooted in mutual respect and support will emerge.
1. DO: Clearly Outline Goals and Requirements for the RFP
The point of your RFP is to find a partner to help you solve a specific problem you are having, overcome an obstacle, or bring about new capacities for your organization. Making that happen starts with being able to say clearly what those organizational goals are as they relate to the RFP and how your proposed solution or body of work will help accomplish that.
Likewise, you’ll want to clearly outline the requirements for the proposed body of work so RFP respondents are able to plan and estimate confidently. We love being able to see requirements in an outlined format with bullet points, lists or tables.
A clear RFP will almost necessarily lead to informed responses by qualified candidates. Including background documentation (e.g. analytics, audience research, information architecture, screenshots of admin pages, etc..) makes response so much easier.
Clear requirements might sound like a no-brainer. But there is more than meets the eye in clearly outlining goals and requirements. Number one is that you want to make sure requirements are realistic. You need to account for the things that are important, but remember there is fast, cheap and good but you can only pick two!
2. DO: Be Aware of (and plan for) the Unknowns
Most projects, especially those involving implementation of technology, have unknowns that you’ll need to account for. Taking the time to think about what those are as a team and including it in RFP documentation can be very effective in building a strong relationship. Give as much structure as is helpful, but also be realistic about what you don’t know yet and highlight what those unknowns are in the RFP.
CoLab begins most projects with a discovery phase to fully flesh out goals, requirements, and the proposed implementation of technology for the project. We recommend that if the direction of the project is not set in stone to include a discovery phase in the work plan and project scope in the RFP to get clear on all the requirements of the project.
3. DO: Be structured where you need to be and flexibile where you can be
Have you thought about other ways of achieving the work that needs to be done? Does something similar already exist that you can use or leverage? If your RFP requires the engineering of a motorcycle, and what you end up needing is a skateboard, both you and your chosen partner could end up frustrated.
You might have a clear deadline for when you need the project to be wrapped, and in those cases it’s good to highlight that up front. Other times, it’s good to note where you have some wiggle room. If you have a rolling deadline, or multiple sources of funding, allow the RFP respondents to offer you some options based on your flexibility. You may open up the floor to an unexpected viable pathway to your central goal for the project that you didn’t even know was possible if your plans aren’t too set in stone and you leave room for innovation!
4. DO: Give a budget (if you can)
The best proposals we write are the ones that are tailored to responding to specific needs of our clients and their projects. In order to be as thoughtful as possible while estimating costs, we love to know what budget thresholds organizations are working with. Is this an ongoing grant funded initiative or a startup founder tapping into limited personal funds?
Getting a sense of the budgetary opportunities and limitations for the core scope or work and additional items gives the respondent what they need to get you closer to meeting your goals in a feasible way. We understand that many organizations and foundations who put out RFPs want competitive bids, but not including a suggested budget in your RFP process runs the risk of bidders ‘playing chicken’ or undercutting what’s required for the project. It’s better to start the project with a realistic and clear budget than to underestimate and run into problems later or constrain the project unnecessarily.
5. DON’T: Use an RFP Process to ‘Shop Around’
An RFP process should help you find a tech partner that will help to carry your project over the finish line. It’s not the place to get a sense of what people charge or get free discovery work. Having early conversations with firms to investigate what a reasonable budget range might be is an important step. By the time you are making an RFP, you should be ready to activate the project (or in some cases, share proposals with funders). An agency that cares about your work is going to put significant time and effort into a proposal. It’s important to respect the energy required to fulfill the requirements of an RFP and only put them out when you are ready to hire.
6. DON’T ask for too much information or respondent energy in the initial phase of the proposal
One key way you show that your RFP is an opportunity for a powerful, impactful collaboration is by showing that you respect the energy and time that it takes to respond to an RFP. If you are asking for documentation, check in to make sure it’s really needed at each stage. Do you need to ask for references in order to draw up a shortlist? How much information about the team members is required for you to evaluate the applicant’s capabilities?
By asking for a focused, clearly intentional subset of possible evidence in your initial phase, and progressively asking for more details as the selection process goes forward, you will attract the busiest and most picky applicants, and earn their respect as a competent and savvy project coordinator.