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Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.
Laura L Bush, Ph.D.
and Content Strategist
A Request for Proposal (RFP) is a common way nonprofit organizations invite bids for products and services. Any RFP includes a specific list of requirements that all responding vendors must address. In theory, an RFP’s intention is to filter vendors for quality and ensure competitive pricing.
Unfortunately, when it comes to technology-related RFPs, nonprofit organizations often write inadequate proposals that waste time and money for the nonprofit and the responding vendors. Two problems create ineffective RFPs: first, although well-intentioned, RFPs often demonstrate unrealistic expectations about the time and cost for executing on digital products or services; second, nonprofits often solicit technology they don’t need because they don’t know the right questions to ask.
Problem 1: Doing Ineffective Research and Setting Unrealistic Expectations
Instead of backing into their proposal-writing process by doing effective research and setting realistic expectations for time and costs, nonprofit organizations often say, “We have this much money and want to finish the project in this much time. We want the technology to [fill in the blank], and we need to work within our meager budget with as quick a turnaround as possible.”
Unrealistic requests such as these are similar to a prospective home buyer saying, “I’m strapped for cash with only $600 per month to spend on a mortgage, but I’d like to buy a home in Paradise Valley, designed by a custom architect and built by a custom home builder within three months.” While this analogy may seem far-fetched, as an agency that provides digital services solely for nonprofit organizations, we too often encounter the problem of unrealistic (and overly optimistic) RFPs from nonprofit organizations hoping to get sophisticated websites or marketing solutions for nearly nothing--and within a short period of time.
Time and money problems usually mean an organization hasn’t sought input from digital specialists during the planning stages, so the plan and budget aren’t based in reality. If you do issue an RFP, you should not assume all proposals you get back will be similar in scope, so that all you have to do is compare price tags. Expertise and time cost money. As with any product or service, you get what you pay for. A $5,000 website cannot look or act like a $25,000 website. Nonprofits must realize that no matter how worthy their cause, they cannot have fast, cheap, AND high quality all at once -- it’s just not realistic.
Problem 2: Asking the Wrong Questions
Commonly, the RFP writing process goes like this. You know your organization needs a new website. Someone on your board forms a committee of professionals with the best of intentions. They spend weeks (sometimes months) honing the RFP. They believe they’re putting the organization’s needs first by planning and controlling the boundaries of the project and the process (i.e. the budget). Unfortunately, this cart-before-the-horse process rarely accounts for what the organization actually needs because committee members don’t know current digital strategies well enough to ask the right questions for building a sound technology and marketing plan.
In fact, as marketing specialists, we can tell that 90 percent of RFPs we read were developed by people who don’t know the right questions to ask because they don’t understand current technologies. RFPs like these also often make requests in a limiting way, which we could provide, but 9 times out of 10, we know it’s not the plan we’d recommend.
So What’s a Better Solution to Writing RFPs?
Given that RFPs for technology and marketing services often waste time, effort, and money, you might be wondering, what could be an alternative solution? At Highway Twenty, we advise nonprofits to first find the right partner.
We believe, for example, that the moment an organization needs a new website, rather than write an RFP, nonprofit professionals should spend their time identifying and interviewing several web and marketing agencies. Once you begin interviewing, a nonprofit should relax and allow the agency to guide the process. After all, they’re the experts. Let them do the heavy lifting.
After a nonprofit approaches Highway Twenty, we ask questions about their mission, goals, timeline, overall strategy, challenges, capacity, and budget. From there, we can recommend solutions that address their strategic plan, make sense for their organization, and are guided by their goals, objectives, and budget. While disclosing a budget might not be something nonprofits typically do (or even something they think they should do), sharing this information with an agency will reduce the likelihood of both sides spending significant time and resources randomly guessing about what’s actually possible or not.
Ensure Agencies You Interview Know the Nonprofit Sector
Nonprofits should also look for a partner who’s done work similar to what they’re requesting. Look for a partner who understands your business, not just their business. If you’re a restaurant or a law firm, for instance, it makes sense to hire an agency with experience promoting and marketing restaurants or law firms. Similarly, Highway Twenty specializes in marketing and promoting nonprofit organizations.
The technology and marketing needs of cause-oriented organizations are very different from the needs of for-profit organizations. We recommend identifying specialists who can demonstrate current knowledge and experience working with nonprofits on CRM software and donor management databases, cause-related marketing, and cloud-based applications for online giving, peer-to-peer fundraising, and client tracking.
Your ROI and Funding Technology
Hiring experienced technology, marketing, and nonprofit specialists can also help a charitable organization better understand what the return on their investment in technology can actually be, both socially and financially. Well-informed professionals who work in the nonprofit sector will also know better -- and care more -- about how to help you seek additional funding for your digital project.
Laura L. Bush, Ph.D., directs strategic communications and content development for all clients at Highway Twenty, an agency that provides marketing, communications, and technology services solely for nonprofit organizations and other third sector clients. In May 2000, Laura earned her Ph.D. in English from Arizona State University. She is also the former Manager of Curriculum Design and Innovation at the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Innovation.