RFPs do you love them? Do you hate them? What makes a great RFP? How to make a compelling narrative in your proposal?
Great question! I’m not sure, so I am merely popping on to ensure that I get the updates from this discussion.
Thanks for asking this question!
Dislike them intensely, rarely bother with them unless I’m really, really, really interested in the project or the organization. The most value I’ve gotten from the RFP process is that when you’re first starting out, responding to them is great practice for sharpening your critical project-planning thought process in a situation that has some real-life pressures, but that has diminishing returns too. I also read through them from time to time as a way of taking a pulse on what kind of opportunities are out in the field, but the great amount of variation among them and the lack of critical concrete details, like budgets, limit their utility in this way too, unless I was prepared to invest time in it as a comprehensive market study project (somebody else, please do this!).
These two articles sum up my thoughts on RFPs perfectly:
There must be a tool that would help facilitate details like budget, scope, real need/perceived need. That could streamline the RFP or rate it in some fashion.
Hm, there are various sources of guidelines and tools out there, but I think the underlying issue is that organizations have other incentives and factors at play behind dysfunctional RFP processes. For one, most of them are used to responding out to other people’s badly-designed processes (e.g., grant proposal systems are usually also pretty terrible), so it’s kind of “do what you know” and the existing standard is weak. There’s also a real and perceived lack of time and resources to think through the process and get the RFP out there, which results in rush jobs and poorly-conceived RFPs, but also a lack of inclination to spend even more time researching how to do the process better and find those tools (even though that would help in the long run!). For things like budgets, there can be a lot of fear in disclosure and misconceptions about why that information is important, or even just confusion and uncertainty about what kind of budget is needed or meaningful. For large and powerful institutions, like federal agencies or major granting organizations, who could be role models since they interact with a lot of other organizations, there’s a lot of organizational inertia and a disinclination to listen to outside voices critiquing internal processes. There’s also just the fact that we’re talking about thousands of organizations across different countries and sectors, operating at different levels and in different contexts, and it’s hard to develop a system that would reach and speak to everyone or even a critical mass of people. Also, there’s the satisficing/“good enough” element–even bad RFPs tend to get in someone who can do something, so the motivation to change stays below threshold.
So in addition to tools, guides, and advice, which exists but isn’t necessarily having a systemic level impact on its own, other things that might be helpful could be:
A) Identifying ideal exemplars of particularly good RFPs and publicizing these widely as game-changing examples (ideally representing a diverse array of situations and sectors and explaining why/how this approach made a difference)
B) Focus on shifting the habits of big players, particularly ones who operate and offer RFPs across lots of different contexts
C) Collective action–organize ourselves and go on strike from responding to any RFPs until their quality is improved in alignment with our demands (okay, okay, this one is probably implausible, I admit!)
I like your observations, @c_camman.
What is one ideal example of a very good RFP? Does the ideal have to reach “game changing” status to be really innovative?
Thanks for sharing my blog post, @c_camman!
I can’t remember where I read this morning, but I read somewhere that a good RFP outlines the client’s anticipated outcomes but allows for collaboration and insight into determining the best plan of action for those outcomes by engaging with the prospective evaluator. What was meant by this was, often the client believes they know what they need, but is inflexible on the process and would rather see responses from perspective evaluators that merely address what the client has outlined.
I find that there’s no real standardized method of writing a RFP, but one way I’ve found to help facilitate discussion around perceived vs actual need is to get on the phone with the client to talk it out. If the client isn’t willing to do this, I don’t bother with the RFP.
Regarding budgets: It’s very weird how RFPs don’t list the budget even though the organization may know what the budget is. As I stated in my blog post that, most people wouldn’t apply for a job position where the annual salary isn’t listed. The last time I spoke with a prospective client who claimed they didn’t know the budget amount, I told them that the budget is needed in order for me to develop the best proposal and timeline that fits into the budget, and I requested the budget amount. Clients that are ready to get started and interested in working with you may be more inclined to get that information to you.
I would be so much more interested in RFPs if we thought of them as and designed them to be good containers for starting a productive and mutually beneficial relationship, as opposed to mechanisms for enacting a complicated transaction of money and service.
In 3 words describe what you want for a RFP that helps the client.
Not sure I understand the request here! Can you clarify?
Let me try.
In three words share what would make a very good RFP.
Example: My three words are; know your needs. Speaking from the organization side. It’s helpful if they have well defined needs.
It’s sort of a thought experiment.
Interesting! To respond to your example, I am actually of a different mind about the importance of “knowing your needs”. It depends on the context you are in and whether your present needs are entirely knowable! I think some of the RFP missteps that get made are people trying to impose too much certainty and definitiveness onto an inherently uncertain situation and getting themselves locked into a fixed position early on that makes them less open and adaptable to new information and unforeseen opportunities. For example, an organization may be operating in a new and unfamiliar territory, whether that’s because they’re pursuing an innovative new strategy in their services or because evaluation is ‘innovative’ in their particular context. They may not have a lot of information and experience to confidently assert what all of their needs are in that situation. In that case, better to know and articulate what needs they can (holding onto that knowledge lightly where it’s not really certain) and then be open to learning about the needs they don’t know they have yet. But, to me, just going by the three words of, “Know your needs”, I would take that as an imperative to be as certain as possible about as many things as possible, and I’m not sure that’s always helpful. There is value in an honest lack of clarity and definition.
I remember having a really powerful conversation with someone about one of her organizational tenets which she believed in strongly, but also found sometimes difficult to uphold and apply in her work. The tenet was, “Communities know what they need”. This was a powerful, value-driven statement for her, but in practice she had to grapple with the fact it did not always seem to be true. “Communities”, made up of diverse and complex people, did not always know (or agree on) what they needed. We talked about this for a while and in the conversation arrived at a few different ideas. One conclusion we drew was that not knowing your own needs does not justify someone else imposing their interpretation of your needs on you–it’s not an either/or situation. The other was that it’s unfair to put the onus on people to always know their own needs. I am just one individual and I don’t always know my own needs at any given time! Sometimes I need guidance and a supportive space to help me figure out my own needs, so I assume a community or a service organization benefits from the same.
So if I were to offer a small sample of words (it’s gonna be more than three though, sorry!), they would probably be, “Know something about your context” and then I would tack on, “And keep an open mind about it.” Oh, and “Ask for help”. Seriously! I think sometimes RFPs read like a very convoluted way of making it sound like you know exactly what you’re doing and you’re not admitting any vulnerability and uncertainty about it, when the easier thing to do would be to say, “We just don’t know. Help?” But also that’s why I prefer conversations to RFPs.
I would love to know what others think!
“We just don’t know. Help?”
I feel a lot of life’s problems get solved when you reach the point to ask yourself and others this question.
You make a really powerful observation about Communities may or may not know what they need.
I wish that for us all.
Really like you and Mosca discussion. “Know something about your context” “And keep an open mind about it.” This is really true. We never know everything, and this is something procurement people need to understand. I understand that there is a scope that governs us, but if we have all the answers, no need to seek others advise.
Is fulfilling an RFP? Consulting? Advising? Leading? Or being a good teammate about knowing the answers to being willing to discover, evaluate and, deeply understand the organization/community?