Six Principles For Developing a Nonprofit Request for Proposal Process
I started Facilitation & Process, LLC back in early 2009 with a commitment to offering nonprofit, government and philanthropic clients in the Northwest a different consulting experience. My consultant practice began after a 20 plus years of managing in the nonprofit and management sector. Being on the other side of the table, over the years, I hired and managed my share of good, mediocre, and even lousy consultants. In developing the business plan for my consulting practice, I also heard repeatedly from nonprofit organizations that they were tired of the same old ideas, stereotypes and assumptions that were packaged (or re-packaged) with promises of catalytic change or offering pathways to solid ground. As these comments mirrored my own experience, I set out to create a consulting model that was more intentional, customized, tailored, and myopically focused on my client’s needs and desired outcomes.
Early in my consulting practice, when I was much more prolific as a blogger, I wrote about the principles of hiring a facilitator/consultant, the cost of hiring a facilitator, assessing the cost of facilitators, and a year later, added a fourth perspective about facilitator archetypes. While I have never updated these articles since I wrote them, Google tells me that they remain among the most popular of my 100 posted articles. Nonprofits still need help thinking about hiring consultants. Now, almost five years later, I want to devote one more article to the collection that describes the when, why and how of creating a formal competitive proposal or solicitation for a nonprofit consultant. In my mind there are six principles for developing a nonprofit proposal process and I want to briefly overview them here.
Principle 1: Done Correctly is the Non-negotiable Early in my career, I was taught a project management axiom that has served me well over the years. “Fast, Cheap, Done Correctly. Choose any two.” In other words, if “done correctly” is the non-negotiable variable in the process then speed will often come at the expense of cheap, while conversely, focusing on cheap may sacrifice speed. Let me share an illustration. Say you are a micro-scale farmer and produced five tons of tomatoes on your farm that you want to get to the market in pristine condition. A bicycle and trailer will be a cheap way to get your produce to the market but this choice clearly rules out speed. On the other hand, using a pick-up truck, while a more efficient and speedy way to achieve the same task, sacrifices the concept of cheap. However, in this illustration, “done correctly,” might even preclude the cheap alternative of a bike and trailer, as such a method might compromise the quality of the delivered product.
So when a nonprofit leader starts to talk to a consultant about providing services, rather than focusing on the cost and speed, the conversation should start with how do you deliver quality? Yet, in my experience over five years, virtually every potential client inquiring about my services starts the conversation with “what would it cost?” or “what is your hourly rate?” Agreeing with “done correctly” as the starting point changes the nature of how a nonprofit agency approaches consulting services. Rather than starting with cost, smart nonprofit leaders start with the quality and deliverables, which leads to Principle 2.
Principle 2: Define the Scope of Services In thinking about hiring a nonprofit consultant, it is important to clearly identify the scope of work. Finding a consultant to facilitate a meeting or team-building retreat are tasks that fall at one end of the spectrum. Simple projects do not need to be overthought. If the scope is simple, don’t perseverate. A word of mouth referral from a colleague along with a couple of reference checks might be all the due diligence that than organization needs to conduct in order to run a great meeting. However, when there is more at stake that running a great meeting, the need for assessing qualifications and conducting due diligence process increases. Finding a consultant to lead or support nonprofit strategic planning, to assist a board through a period of growth, or reinvent an organization’s business model, are all examples of tasks requiring a more sophisticated scope of services. If you start asking yourself questions like:
• Do we have the expertise to manage this process?
• Do we already know how to define the strategic approach?
• Are we looking for the consultant to be a content expert, a coach, a process facilitator?
• What are the time constraints of the board and staff?
• What budget are we willing to dedicate to this project?
• What steps do we think we need to move through to produce the end result?
• What specific products or deliverables do we expect to have at the end of the project?
Based on processing these questions one can quickly define the why, who, what, when, how and how much of the proposal that outlines the project scope. These answers also frame the parameters of a request for proposal.
Principle 3: Write a Manageable Request for Proposal Once you decide on a scope of work the next step in the process is to create a request for proposal. In essence a request for proposal can be as simple as 2-5 pages and will generally include providing the background of your agency and the need for the project and project deliverables , and asking prospective consultants to provide: a) how they would approach the scope of work sought including parameters such as timeline, who is involved, scope of involvement, and deliverables and milestones to be met, d) a clear and accurate cost proposal, c) a statement of consultant experience and qualifications, & d) client examples and reference projects similar to your agency’s needs.
When asking consultants to respond to each of the categories use page limits wisely. Requesting that consultants limit proposals to an overall page length helps both you and consultant firms. I have been asked to write proposals as brief as two pages and at the other end of the spectrum, had unlimited freedom to write as many pages as I wanted. In my experience, a 5-page limit is quite constraining in trying to develop enough detail to truly represent a strategy approach and unlimited pages can result in excessively detailed responses. An ideal limit for a request for proposal response might fall in the range of 8-10 pages, excluding appendices.
Finally, when thinking about proposals, it is always useful to ask for the resume of the primary consultant on the project as an appendix. It is typical for large firms to bid a senior consultant (and include his/her resume) even though a junior consultant will manage 80-90% of the work. Having the resume of the person doing most of the work on the contract will allow you to weigh the consultant’s experience appropriately. If the consultant doing most of the work is fresh out of college or has only two-years of career experience is an important fact that strengthens the transparency of the consultant’s proposal.
Principle 4: Decide on an Open or Closed Solicitation With a Request for Proposal in hand, the next principle is to decide if you want an open or closed proposal process. An open proposal process publishes your request on your website, social media channels, and/or posts the notice to an email list like CNRG and/or Idealist. The advantage to an open proposal process is that you have the broadest input from the field of consultants. The disadvantage of an open proposal process is that you have the broadest input from the field of consultants. Consider this recent acknowledgement I received in response to a submitted open proposal. “Thanks so much for your interest in working with us on our Strategic Planning process in 2014. We received about 15 proposals.” Broad input means more work for reviewers.
The alternative to an open proposal process is to develop an invite only list. This differentiation approach narrows your response invite list to a few select firms. An invite list can be created asking your professional network for recommendations, spending an hour or two screening nonprofit consultant websites, and/or reviewing the consultant directory of the Willamette Valley Development Officers or Nonprofit Network of Southwest Washington. Creating a list of consultants might include the simple criteria that someone recommends the firm, or may be more sophisticated such as assessing the amount meaningful content on the consultant’s websites, determining how active the firm is in the professional community, ensuring the firm’s client list that is diverse, displays evidence of community involvement. A closed proposal process allows you to narrow your focus to 3-5 likely candidates to lead your process.
Principle 5: Act with a Sense of Urgency & Objectivity Once you create an RFP process, implement the process according to a tight timeline (no more that four weeks) and use objective criteria to evaluate proposals. (Click for a sample evaluation rubric). It is my opinion that scoring proposals should be the first step. It is always preferable to interview the top 2-3 candidates to explore the proposal further, ask follow up questions. and look for core consistency between the writing and the in-person presentation. Sometimes great writers can be mediocre consultants and the in person interview can give you a sense of cultural fit. Building in a two-step evaluation process can strengthen your due diligence.
Principle 6: Don’t confuse a Proposal with a Contract Finally, don’t confuse the proposal process with the contracting process. Once your nonprofit agency decides on which consultant to work with, it is important to develop a formal contract with the consulting firm. This transition period from proposal to contract refines the proposal ideas into a clear set of deliverables and timeline. Further is establishes the clear boundaries between the agency and consultant and is used to manage the relationship in a way that protects all parties.
In summary, I hoped to convey the importance of creating a framework for creating apples to apples comparison when seeking a nonprofit consultant for complex projects. True evaluation of a nonprofit consultant, involves assessing a consultant’s experience, hourly rate, in the context of the the complexity of the task with a clearly defined project approach and scope of work. Smart Nonprofit leaders recognize this and go through the due diligence of an RFP when seeking consultant.
As always, your thoughts are welcome.
Photo Credit: Startup Stock Photos