Requests for proposals (RFPs) can be an effective way for funders to encourage potential partners to think through their projects in advance and to instill a healthy sense of competition among different organizations in a sector. Not all RFPs and RFP processes are created equally, however. To make sure your RFP yields strong proposals from high-quality applicants, it is important to invest the time and effort up front to draft a clear RFP and design a thoughtful RFP process. Arabella Advisors has created RFPs for a wide range of clients, and through these engagements we have identified four top considerations and best practices that can help you find the right partners to achieve your goals:
You don’t need to spell out—or even know—everything. An RFP that articulates the vision behind the project and any “must-haves” but doesn’t detail a specific approach, prompts thoughtful proposals that both align with the project’s goals and reflect the applicants’ know-how. It’s important to include some detail—such as your requirements regarding the implementation timeline or decision to fund only 501(c)3 organizations—to make sure you receive viable proposals, but remember that your applicants are the experts on the “how.” The organizations submitting proposals may be able to suggest effective or promising approaches that are new to you, and you don’t want the RFP to limit their ideas.
Adjust to your audience. Achieving an appropriate tone and level of formality—one that is familiar to applicants and common in their field—and using the field’s lingo correctly, can help attract the right applicants. For a client project in the higher education sector, we recognized that our audience was used to an academic, formal voice and that business or conversational tones were less likely to yield proposals from the organizations we were interested in engaging. While moving away from your standard voice may not be appropriate for your organization, you can still adjust the formality of your RFP in other ways, for example, through the number and types of supplementary materials you request.
Be prepared to answer questions. Applicants are bound to have questions as they prepare their proposals, and there are multiple ways to address them. Holding one-on-one calls with applicants provides opportunities to fully talk through their inquiries, but may not always be possible, due to time constraints or concerns about fairness. In those cases, we’ve found that establishing a single, easily accessible location to share general information and a single point of contact for more specific questions serves as an efficient way to manage applicant inquiries. We typically share information that is relevant to all potential applicants via a website, FAQ document, conference call, or email distribution list to ensure fairness across applicants. For specific questions, we designate a single team member to gather applicant questions, compile responses from the client and the Arabella team, and then share them with the relevant applicants.
Reflect on the process and the proposals you received to capture both immediate and future benefits. We all know that taking a moment to reflect on the proposals we receive can help us design an even stronger process for the next time around. We’ve found that it can also inform how we manage the grantees or contractors we’ve just selected. For example, you may find that as a group, your applicants have weak or incomplete evaluation plans. This information might prompt you to provide grantees with extra guidance on evaluation. Reflecting can also help you benefit from the best the field has to offer. For instance, you may find that while one proposal is strongest overall, another includes a smart, innovative approach that you can store away for future consideration.
What have you found in your RFP development processes that would be helpful for others to know as they embark on similar work? Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section below.
Ginger Elsea is a director with an extensive background in international development and social impact consulting. She provides strategy, evaluation, and implementation consulting services to a variety of institutional and family clients. She tweets from @gingerelsea.
Helen Goldberg conducts in-depth research and analysis in support of family, institutional, and corporate clients. Her work includes philanthropic strategies and evaluations in the areas of international development, advocacy, education, and the environment.