Navigating the nonprofit RFP process

February 22, 2023 | Maureen Wallbeoff
Navigating the nonprofit RFP process: what it is and how to make it work for you
from our friend Maureen Wallbeoff

Lisa pinged me the other day—she’s the development director for a social justice organization. She asked for some advice around her (bumpy) request for proposals (RFP) process at her nonprofit. Her board had approved the budget for a new CRM and asked her to follow this process to find the right software.

When I asked her to describe the problem, here’s what she said:

  • I’ve never done this before, and I feel like I’m making it up as I go along.
  • The CRM providers have questions that I can’t answer.
  • I thought we’d be done with the selection process in a month, but it’s month four with no end in sight.

Lisa was losing confidence in herself—but the RFP process she was using was the real cause of her problems. It took just 30 minutes to run through a better way to manage her CRM procurement process and identify key details to include. A properly run RFP process shouldn’t be something you’re doing just because you “have to.” It’s a great opportunity to get everyone inside your organization on the same page about your requirements, goals, and timeline. Once you’re in sync, it’s easier to communicate your needs to prospective vendors, and that can greatly increase the likelihood that you’ll find just the right fit for your needs. By understanding what goes into an RFP and including the right details, organizations can keep (or get) their RFP process on the right track.

What is a nonprofit RFP?

Requests for Proposals, or RFPs, are often used to conduct the search for potential strategic, digital, and/or technology vendors. An RFP has two main jobs: to solicit bids from qualified companies to provide software and services, and to provide enough information about your needs and process to get proposals from the right potential vendors. At a bare minimum, the RFP should include:

  • A description of your organization and your work,
  • Why your nonprofit is issuing the RFP,
  • The project requirements along with the software and services you need, and
  • Your proposal submission, review, follow up, and selection process.

As I told Lisa, you’re responsible for crafting a clear vision of your project, articulating why it’s a priority, and defining your requirements. Because there are usually lots of unknowns at this stage, documenting these things can raise more questions than answers, and it’s common to feel like you don’t have enough concrete information to do a good job of writing it all up. Take your time and do a thorough internal assessment of your needs before assembling your RFP document.

How to write an RFP for a nonprofit

This might surprise you, but including too many details in an RFP document isn’t always helpful! You need to include enough information to give prospective vendors a good picture of your organization’s mission and requirements, without putting in so many extra detail that it overwhelms the reader. I recommend organizations include these four key pieces of information.

1. Your non-negotiables

This one might seem obvious, but make sure to include your must-haves! Granular functionality requirements are very helpful to include. If you know that the new CRM must be able to connect with your accounting system, call it out in the RFP. And if you absolutely need to be moved into new software by a specific date, that needs to be made clear, too. This will help your bidders save time by giving you their best pitches the first time around.

2. Your budget (please share it!)

The RFP process is, by nature, a competitive bidding process. This is not a time to maintain secrecy about your budget. I know that it can feel risky to share this information, but one of the RFP’s jobs is to get bids in your price range—after all, it’s no fun to get responses that are well over what you’re able to invest, especially given that you have to stick to your project timeline. A good software vendor will respect that number and can often offer up creative ways to get you what you need.

3. Your proposal format (be flexible!)

Your vendors probably have their own proposal format that communicates their expertise, their understanding of your needs, the services they recommend, the timeline, and the budget. Forcing these pros to follow a specific formula may not allow them to easily present their strengths. If you want to compare apples to apples between vendors, include a list in your RFP of the information that all bidders must include.

4. Your evaluation criteria and selection timeline

Your RFP also needs to cover the process you’ll use to review proposals and select a vendor. Has your team made internal decisions about what happens once proposals has been submitted? Have you set deadlines for the next steps? Now is the time to nail down the process and include those details in the RFP. Be realistic about how long it will take your team to review proposals and identify the company that has won your business. If you’re off schedule by the time you issue the RFP, you may be sending signals that your organization has a hard time meeting deadlines, but planning out and sticking to your timeline can help you start off any working relationships with vendors on the right foot.

Giving it another go

Lisa felt much better once she understood what was missing in her own RFP process. She left our conversation ready to regroup with her team to confirm their requirements, follow an efficient evaluation and selection plan, and continue building relationships with her prospective CRM partners—all essential steps to take for any organization navigating an RFP in order to get a little boost from technology and really power their purpose.

Planning to publish your own RFP for nonprofit software and need some guidance? Grab this free guide and get easy, actionable tips to make sure you’re using the right RFP process.