When thinking about how your organization will adjust to the "new normal," you may need a partner who can help you reimagine your mission and vision and develop a strategy. The partner may be a branding agency, a fundraising consultant, or someone who can assist you in revising your strategic plan. If the services you offer or the way you provide them has changed, it may be even more important to hire an objective outsider who can help you understand and shape your organization's future.
When hiring a consultant, your chances of finding the right partner will be greatly improved if you develop a clear Request for Proposal (RFP). If you don't know exactly what it is you want from a consultant, when you want it, and how much you are willing to pay, take a step back. You need to nail that down and develop a realistic timeline and budget. And that process itself may require some outside help.
Not only will a good RFP attract the right partner, it will also help your team come together around the details of the project.
To that end, every RFP should include:
1. An overview of your organization: Explain your mission, services, history, and structure so that interested consultants understand what you do and can determine whether their agency is a good match. You want to attract an agency that understands your issues and is enthusiastic about your cause, so provide them with accurate information. This doesn't have to become a writing project; use material from your website, brochures, grant proposals, and strategic plan. A few paragraphs should suffice.
2. Need and goals: The RFP should answer the following questions: What do you need and what are you hoping to accomplish with the project? How will your organization be improved as a result?
3. Outcomes: If possible, describe the specific outcomes you hope to achieve and the specific metrics you will use to measure the success of the initiative.
4. Reasons for the RFP: Explain what's specifically precipitating the need for the project at this time and any other relevant information that can provide context. Was the project planned before the pandemic or in response to it? What are the other urgent factors at play? The need to raise more funds? Changes in programs? New leadership and a new direction? A potential merger? The more the consultant knows, the better they will be able to address your specific needs.
5. Description of the project: Provide a full description of the project, including your overall objectives and the specific deliverables you are requesting. If there's a particular process that you want followed, indicate that. The more information you can provide, the better.
6. Audiences: Describe all the different audiences you want to reach with the project and any information youhave about those audiences. This will help the consultant tailor their proposal appropriately.
7. Current and past efforts and results: Describe any previous projects you've undertaken that had similar goals or were targeted to similar audiences. Describe what worked and what didn't. If your project is a fundraising campaign, describe past appeals and their success. It's important to establish a baseline for what your organization has already accomplished.
8. Materials and data you already have: If you have donor or membership databases that can yield insights about your audiences, include that fact in your RFP. If you've sent out surveys recently or gathered data for a strategic plan, let the bidders know. If you have a brand manual or other materials that might be used in the project, specify that. Information you already have may reduce the scope of work and, therefore, the cost.
9. Relevance of project: Describe how the project relates to other initiatives or affects other areas of the organization. For example, you might explain how you hope an organizational branding project will be used as a model for chapters or programs, or how a strategic plan will guide the development of new revenue streams. Providing the larger context so that the consultant can help you achieve the outcomes you want.
10. Parties and process: Describe who will be involved in the project and what your work, review, and approval processes are. Indicate whether a subcommittee will be formed to handle the project, who the day-to-day contact is, what role the board will play, and who has or gives final approval.This can help the consultant to understand the flow and meetings and map out a plan that accommodates your needs.
11. Expectations for working together: Different consultants have different styles. Be clear about your expectations so that you find one likely to work well with your staff and who will fit in with your organization's culture. Explain what it is you are looking for in terms of work process, deliverables and results, methods of communication, and any other aspect of the collaboration that is important to you.
11. Creative expectations: Understanding your expectations for a creative outcome can be difficult, so try to provide asmuch information as possible about it as you can. Mention any guidelines that would berelevant for the project (e.g., a brand style guide). For a branding and marketing project, it's alsovery helpful to provide samples of materials and websites that your team likes. These can give potential partners a better idea of the outcomes you're expecting. If you have specific requirements or requests regarding outcomes, include them in the RFP.
12. Timing: Be realistic about how much time the process will take and the amount of work required. The more research needed upfront, the longer the project will take. You also need to allow time for input and approval from all parties, as well as time for the consultant to do his or her work. Recognize,too, that a "rush" project will affect the process and the fee.
13. Budget: It is essential to let bidders know your budget for the project. Determine your budget based on the value the project will bring to your organization and then find an agency that can deliver what you need within budget. If you ask for bids without specifying a budget, you may get Cadillac bids fora Chevy budget, which wastes both your time and the consultant's. Conversely, if your rebranding requirements and budget are Cadillacs, don't waste your time looking at Chevys.
If you are at a loss about how much a project might cost, spend some time talking with outside firms toget a general idea of possible cost. And ask other nonprofits what they spent on similar projects and what they received in return.
14. Evaluation criteria: Explain the criteria you'll use to evaluate and select a consultant for the project. It takes a lotof time to develop a good proposal, so be fair to the consultants you've engaged. Spell out your top three selection criteria and be specific. Is experience in the nonprofit sector important? Doyou want a partner with specific skills?
15. Evaluation process and timing: On the first page of the RFP, give the due date for the proposal and the name, email, and phone number of the contact person to whom the proposal should be sent. Indicate who will be reviewing the proposals and any subsequent steps, such as in-person presentations. Include the dates on which you will make your decisions for each step. For example:
- Proposals due June 1, as a PDF, emailed to [name, title, and email address].
- Review of proposals by Executive Director and Development Director.
- Selection of three firms by June 15.
- Meetings of Committee with firms from June 15–25.
- Final selection on June 30.
Stick to your schedule. If you can't, let the competing agencies know — they're expecting to hear from you and may be turning down other projects in anticipation of working with your organization.
The RFP is just the beginning
Don't put walls between yourself and those who interested in responding to the RFP. The best firms will wantto speak with you before submitting a proposal, so let them. In fact, be wary of firms that don'tcall or ask questions. If requested, provide access to your leadership as well. These pre-proposal discussions can result in proposals tailored to your needs and are an opportunity for you to get to know the competing firms before you make a commitment to one.
Be sure to let bidders know who else you sent the RFP to so they can decide whether they want to participate and, if they do, can use that information to help highlight what sets them apart from the others.
Some nonprofits ask for all questions to be submitted in writing and then send out the answers to everyone's questions to all bidders under the assumption that it is fair and serves their interests in getting the strongest proposals. In fact, it does the opposite. By giving away one firm's questions, you are essentially eliminating what makes them special — handicapping them. For example, if you put out an RFP for an ad campaign and an agency asks if you are open to using public relations or social media to accomplish your goals, and you let all the bidders know you are, then they will all scramble to add that to their proposal by partnering with other agencies with those skills. You, on the other hand, will have no idea that the agency that asked that question is the only one that is thinking creatively about how to solve your marketing needs.
Finally, be professional. Communicate with the firms during the process so they know where they stand. Let all firms know when you have made your final selection. Some agencies spend a lot of time developing customized proposals, so give them the courtesy of letting them know a decision has been made. Also, let them know why they were not selected. It will help them do a better job next time.
Howard Adam Levy is president of the Red Rooster Group, a brand strategy firm that works with nonprofits, governments, and foundations.