To RFP or Not to RFP?

By: Jeff Waddle

Many consultants say they no longer respond to traditional RFPs. A less formal search—or more targeted, thoughtful RFPs—may help you find the best partner for your project.

Issuing a request for proposal (RFP) sounds simple enough. List your objectives, deadline, and vendor information requirements, send it out to a list of prospects you've identified, and watch spot-on proposals come streaming in, right?

Not likely, say consultants who serve the association community, many of whom have become so frustrated with the RFP process that they rarely, if ever, respond to them.

So what are the keys to a successful RFP—one that attracts the type of proposals you seek from the best and brightest service providers—and what common mistakes doom them to failure? To get the best results, you need to do thoughtful prep work and make smart choices about prospective partners before the RFP even goes out the door.

Narrow the Field

Sending RFPs to too many vendors is one common mistake consultants say they see associations make. Consultants often view these "shotgun" RFPs as a smokescreen to get price comparisons for service providers or to justify a vendor decision that's already been made, or as a "fishing expedition" for new ideas free of charge, when the association does not actually plan to use a consultant's services.

Regardless of actual intention, many consultants see these RFPs as a waste of time.

"Many of the best vendors will walk away from [an RFP] if they find out it's going out to such a large group," says Rick Johnston, CAE, senior web strategist at Ironworks Consulting. "Even if they think they are the best, their chances are just too small to warrant the level of effort that goes into a proposal."

Johnston reports that during a roundtable discussion on RFPs that he moderated at ASAE's 2010 Technology Conference & Expo, the 20 association managers who participated came to a consensus that RFPs should be issued to no more than four to six vendors. Additionally, an association should tell vendors why they were chosen to receive the RFP and provide information on the full process and criteria for selection.

If the association finds narrowing the prospect list to be a challenge, the group suggested sending out a brief request for information (RFI) or call for capabilities before issuing the RFP. "A request for information is a good way to narrow the field by examining vendors' expertise and experience relevant to your project. Ask them to explain their approach and methodology," says Johnston.

"If you send out an RFP to 20 practitioners, are you really going to fairly evaluate all 20 of those responses? Probably not," says Susanne Connors Bowman, co-owner of The Haefer Group, Ltd. Bowman, who spent 16 years on staff at AARP before opening her membership marketing consulting firm 15 years ago, believes many RFPs are issued as a matter of course because the association requires it for certain levels of expenditures.

Be Less Formal

Overly formal RFPs, adds Bowman, often fail to get to the heart of the issue. "It's better to select a few people you're serious about and have interactive conversations, because one thing that an RFP can't possibly cover is how well you're going to be able to communicate with this person," she says. "I want to know what your business problem is, and traditional RFPs I've answered don't necessarily help me understand that. It's why I prefer to work on a less formal basis."

Property Lines

Associations that want top consultants to seriously consider their RFPs should take care to ensure they don't appear to be angling for the consultant's intellectual property. Whether or not this perception is accurate, nothing will prompt consultants to hit their delete buttons faster.

"We see an awful lot of RFPs that really feel like they're the basis for a do-it-yourself project," says Cate Bower, IOM, FASAE, CAE, president of Cate Bower Communications. "They want us to tell them in great detail what questions we'd ask and to design the details of the process. Then you know that's going to be used by someone on staff to try to make it work. That happens a lot more than I like to admit."

"I create a lot of intellectual property relative to articles and books and proprietary research projects we've conducted, so I'm very sensitive to that," says Amy Showalter, principal of the Showalter Group, of exposing her expertise and ideas in an RFP. "I'm happy to tell people what they'll learn from those things, but I'm certainly not going into great detail about how we arrived at our findings or the logistics or mechanics of that. People have to remember there are people who paid for those services, and it's not fair to them to just give it away." —Jeff Waddle

Cate Bower, IOM, FASAE, CAE, agrees that communicating with vendors before considering a formal RFP can make all the difference in getting good proposals. She was especially impressed by one association executive who distributed a brief RFI-type letter describing his organization's culture, challenges, and desired results.

"Then he asked for a two-page letter, not a proposal, not a 'here's a step-by-step of how we would do it,' but send me a letter telling me why you feel you'd be a good fit, what your approach is, and how you would move forward," says Bower, president of a strategic planning and governance consulting firm that bears her name. "He then culled the responses he got down to three and did a phone interview with each of those finalists to talk more about the approach they would take, and then he asked for a written proposal."

"I'd love it if organizations could figure out how to ask me questions that would enable me to write a quick two-page letter that's clear and says, 'Here's what's important to me in doing a project like this.' That kind of thing I would respond to, because it wouldn't take that long and it would keep me in the running," says Jamie Notter, vice president, consulting, for Management Solutions Plus, which provides full-service management to 10 associations.

Notter suggests that rather than a lengthy, formal RFP, association executives should consider a brief conversation with a small, targeted list. "Tell me what you're dealing with in five minutes and then I can think about it and give you a sense of my approach, but spending two weeks putting together an RFP, I won't do that anymore," says Notter, who previously was an executive director of three associations.

Management Solutions Plus President Beth Palys, FASAE, CAE, believes that the best way to pare down a prospect list to a workable number is to rely on your professional network. "We prequalify people and we ask for referrals from people we know and trust, and we send [RFPs] directly to the people that have been recommended to us," says Palys. "The RFPs we get that come from recommendations are the most meaningful and the ones that we will, of course, respond to."

"The more robust your network, the less you need an RFP because you can put a little flag out that you're looking for someone who works in this area, and you'll get enough response from people who know and understand you and therefore give you a more intelligent recommendation," says Notter.

"I definitely rely on referrals and talking to folks about who they use," says Amy Lestition, CAE, executive director of Association Media & Publishing. "They might not be on the list the company provides you for references, which is always good because you know whoever is on that reference list is going to give rave reviews."

Share Information

Palys says her AMC tries to give vendors budget guidelines and a fully defined scope of work when issuing RFPs. "I think that the more information you can share, the more likely you're going to find a better fit on both sides," she says. "I think there's frequently a resistance or reluctance to divulge too much information, but the more transparent and honest and detail-oriented someone can be, the better."

Bower strongly agrees with sharing a budget during the RFP process. "It's like going to an architect and saying, 'I want you to design me a house, but I'm not going to tell you how much money I can spend and how many rooms I want, but design something for me and then I'll tell you if it's what I want or not,'" she says.

Knowing at least a general budget range can help consultants tailor a proposal that more accurately reflects the project's breadth and expected outcomes.

"If you're putting out RFPs, give each one thoughtful consideration, because it's not an off-the-shelf thing. It takes time to put one together," says Amy Showalter, principal of the Showalter Group, a grassroots and PAC influence consulting firm. A consultant since 1999, Showalter has seen many associations make the mistake of focusing too much on the projects or process and too little on the desired results.

"A big red flag is when they can't articulate the outcomes. If I could see more results enumerated in RFPs, then that would be a big move forward," she says.

Details, Details

What information should you include in your RFP?

"As the idiom goes, the devil is in the details," says Amy Lotz, CAE, executive director of the Association Foundation Group. "Take the time to be very clear about what your association is looking for and your expectations. The more detailed, the better."

One way associations can ensure that RFPs have clear objectives is to seek input from all parties affected by the project within your own organization first, says Lestition. She issued RFPs for website development related to a rebranding her association recently undertook.

"I think so many times [there was a lack of communication], especially back in the day when you thought of a website as just in the IT department. IT wasn't talking to the other departments in terms of what they needed, then chose a vendor, and then the vendor didn't have the capabilities that the other departments wanted. So, it's really important to break down that silo and to do that research upfront, because that's only going to make your RFP stronger," she says.

When evaluating RFPs or vetting vendors, Lestition believes it's important to speak with the team who will actually work on your project, not just the person making the sales presentation.

"You need to interview who's going to be working on your account and taking you through the process to make sure they understand what you're looking for. Sometimes the salesperson says, 'Yes, we can do that,' but it doesn't get passed on to the right people," she says.

Similarly, consultants say they need to be sure they're talking to the right people at the association. "Ethically, I have a responsibility to talk to the person whose budget and reputation is on the line for that project and to make sure the objectives and outcomes outlined in the RFP are the objectives of the person signing the check," says Showalter.

Whatever your final decision, the consultants who didn't win your business appreciate knowing why.

"I always feel like those are learning experiences," Showalter says. "You've got to have chemistry and a philosophical fit with an organization, and sometimes there's not a fit and that's OK. It's very helpful and it puts you at ease to know it was just a chemistry thing, and maybe it was a good thing it didn't work out."

Jeff Waddle is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer. Email: [email protected]