For nonprofit executives, requesting proposals for professional services can be a bit like writing and monitoring an on-line dating profile. If you don't capture your organization's needs and values with succinctness and specificity, you may find yourself facing a choice between the wrong suitors. And when it comes to audit and tax needs, taking yourself out of the dating pool is not an option—you must ultimately choose one fish in the sea. When embarking on the RFP process, leaders should strive to get off on the right foot and carefully position their organizations to find the best fit. Below are several tips to help you do so.
Cast a wide net and keep an open mind. Don't go with default choices year after year. There is a lot of churn in the marketplace; service capacities may have changed and talent may have relocated. Tap into board members, employees, and contacts in your professional network to assess the landscape and decide which firms should be a part of your proposal process. Much will be determined by the size of your organization and the resources you have in place to review bids, but more important than the number of firms you reach out to is the quality and diversity of those you look at. There are many smaller firms with boutique nonprofit practices that might be a better fit for you than a large national organization. Similarly, your needs may be too complex for a small, local firm. Be sure to consider comparable work done on behalf of organizations similar to yours, but don't make that your only consideration. Adaptability, broad nonprofit sector knowledge, and a diverse client base can be as attractive as a demonstrated history of providing a niche service to a subset of organizations.
Be creative in asserting your unique needs and values. With time at a premium, the inclination to share resources—and RFP questions—with other nonprofits is understandable. Fight the tendency to view finding a service provider as a "checklist" item. Thoroughly assess your needs and goals and ask your team to craft fresh questions that will inspire fresh answers. Otherwise, you may receive a series of cookie-cutter bids that are rote, boring to read, and don't address service issues that are of specific importance to your organization. For your benefit and theirs, ensure that each question is distinct and clear, and avoid items that are repetitive or could needlessly lead to the inclusion of identical information in several places. Along with questions about core competencies and experience, include open-ended, soft questions ("What makes your firm different?" "Why are you seeking this engagement?" "What challenges have you faced when serving nonprofit entities and how did you address them?"). You will elicit responses that run the gamut from generic to thoughtful—and gain insight on whose approach most closely dovetails with your needs.
Ask the service provider to address whether they look for more than just business from nonprofits. The most important consideration is always whether or not a firm has the resources in place to do the work. But when you are facing a choice between several that have demonstrated that competency, a good point of differentiation is how they serve as a resource to the nonprofit sector. Do its leaders serve on boards? Is there a spirit of volunteerism among employees? Do they donate time and energy to various causes? Do they publish articles, attend events, speak at tradeshows, and serve as a professional resource to nonprofit leaders? Their overall focus beyond being compensated for their services says a lot about their values and their potential commitment to your organization.
Remember, in the RFP process, it is important for nonprofit professionals to take the time to devise the right questions and determine the right approach. It is a worthwhile investment, one that will enable you to size up those competing for your business more effectively and lay the groundwork for a successful relationship.
Scott F. Kramer, Friedman LLP
© 2009, Friedman LLP
Scott F. Kramer is a communications professional, writer, and editor at Friedman LLP, accountants and advisors, who has helped organizations in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors develop content and engage key audiences.