8 Actionable steps for any nonprofit RFP
An RFP, or a request for proposals, is a process disguised as a document. While an RFP may look like a regular document with a list of things to do and brainstorm, an effective one breaks down a project (usually a big one) into parts and set out dates and milestones to get that project done.
Nonprofits are not alone in using the RFP—here at Prosal, I’ve spent the last two years talking to people in finance, health care, and municipalities about RFPs. They have been some of the most insightful years in learning how RFPs are used and why most people dislike or even despise them.
I’m not exaggerating: while organizations and their RFPs vary widely across industries, almost everyone has a distaste for RFPs, and usually for the same reasons. Whether it’s finding the right candidates, having to wrangle their department to “get on board” with the details, or just spending so much time running the entire process, everyone agreed: RFPs can be a pain.
The good news is that they don’t have to be, and it doesn’t take much to improve your experience. All you need to make an RFP and your project better is to create a little transparency and allow for self-qualification. These eight steps are simple yet powerful ways to save time in the long run and hire a better partner for your nonprofit.
1. State the problem
A great first step in any RFP is to focus on the problem or need. Talk about the thing that brought you here in the first place. Is there a person or a team dealing with a problem you’d like solved? Did you secure new funding for a project you care about? Starting with the problem or need offers context for why you’re issuing this RFP.
2. Don’t skip the budget
I’m putting this one near the top because I see it overlooked too often. How much do you have to spend? Contrary to popular practice, you get a much better deal and save time by including the budget. About half of the 100+ consultants I’ve interviewed this year alone say they will skip an RFP if it doesn’t share an available budget—including one helps you make sure you’re capturing the attention of all the potential knowledge and partnership that’s out there!
3. Share your ideal outcome
What does the world look like if your problem doesn’t exist? Talking about your ideal outcome helps you and the reader better understand your goals and how you measure success if this project goes according to plan.
4. Outline your ideal process
Like your ideal outcome, outline the best version of how this process can look. This includes what you want to see in proposals as well as a reasonable timeline: When do you want to receive, evaluate, and decide on a proposal? When do you want to start and finish the project? This may sound similar to the last item, but it’s more actionable and your organization should be prepared to carry this one out.
5. Welcome meetings with the point of contact
Including a point of contact is an essential RFP requirement, but the hard part is meeting with candidates before they submit. While it is an investment in time, it also allows you to better understand who is behind the proposal. The reverse is also true: by meeting with you, candidates also get a better picture of who is behind the RFP. Like budget, almost half of the consultants I’ve spoken to will not respond to an RFP if they can’t schedule a meeting before submitting a proposal. This added humanity is one of my top tips for finding a partner.
Pro tip: add a free Calendly or Doodle scheduling link to save time and avoid back-and-forth emails.
6. Note any incumbency
This one is less intuitive, but calling out a freelancer or firm that has been or is eligible to continue working with you does two things. First, it adds a layer of refreshing transparency that can help your RFP stand out from the crowd. Second, it allows potential respondents to appreciate what you liked or didn’t like in a prior approach and will help them submit a better proposal.
7. Call out your values and DEI journey
Better outcomes begin with intentionality. This tip is for everyone, but especially for organizations that identify as progressive. Include your organizational DEI statement or briefly discuss how this project intersects with your values, including how diversity and inclusion factor into your mission. Something simple but genuine like “Candidates from all backgrounds are encouraged to apply” can ensure that your organization comes across as authentic.
8. Share the RFP outside your network
Finally, get views on that awesome RFP! You don’t have to turn it into a cattle call, but think of a few places where candidates you don’t know might be able and willing to work with you. Ask friends, share on listservs and with affinity groups, or post it on Prosal to reach consultants around the U.S. (disclaimer: I am a co-founder of Prosal.)
RFPs are more than just a process—they’re tools agencies and consultants use to qualify or disqualify themselves from a project. When mission-driven organizations follow these eight steps, they can build great RFPs that help readers quickly determine if a project is or isn’t a fit for them. In the end, this process makes it easier for the right people to reach and work with your organization on projects that help you power your purpose.