The Ultimate Nonprofit RFP Guide + Template

October 21, 2019 | Grace Duginski
The Ultimate Nonprofit RFP Guide + Template

Think of your Request for Proposals (RFP), like an invitation to submit a grant proposal. In a perfect world, how would you like to send your ideas to a funder? Even if you aren’t sure what constitutes a positive proposal experience, you probably know what a challenging proposal submission process looks like.

Now that you’re on the other side of the metaphorical equation, you can make things as simple (or as complicated) as you’d like for your bidders. Here are some best practices to keep in mind in order to get great bids, carry out your projects, and support your organization in fulfilling its mission.

If you’re ready to go straight to filling out the template, download it here!

Download: RFP Template

Before ever submitting an RFP, do some internal planning and identify your “why”.

Show that you’re serious about this project.

In the early stages of the decision-making process, ask yourselves if your organization really needs an outside company to do this project, or if it can be done in-house. There can be obvious benefits to outsourcing work – it saves staff time and energy by tapping into others’ expertise – but this doesn’t mean your staff will be 100 percent recused from the project. It will still need to be managed by someone in the know, and you’ll be responsible for communication about your organization’s history, brand, and needs, to make sure that their project is cohesive with the rest of your operations.

As you move through the preparation stages, recognize that soliciting bids for an RFP isn’t a decision-making exercise for the project itself. When you publish an RFP, the time to explore the possibility of doing the project has passed. When you submit one, you should already have firmly decided that this project will go forward. This will prevent wasting both your time and the time of your bidders.

One way to effectively interrogate your own need for an RFP is to see if it helps you meet a SMART goal – a goal that’s specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. (Otherwise, why undertake the project in the first place? How will you know if it’s working?)

If you’ve decided an RFP is the best way to carry out your project, don’t submit your RFP to tons of companies – do some research on who your best options might be and make a list of five to ten initial candidates. Consider holding introductory phone calls with some in order to discover whether your project is a good fit for their capacity, and narrow your pool of bidders from there before actually sending out your RFP.

(And, when you do send that RFP to your now-smaller pool, don’t forget to BCC all recipients.)

Plan out your timeline before releasing an RFP.

You’ll want to make sure your internal and external deadlines make sense. Here’s a checklist of questions to guide your timeline decisions:

  1. Are you giving a company enough time to respond to your RFP?
    What’s a realistic deadline for bidders to look at your proposal, evaluate whether you’re a good fit for them, create a pitch, and send it to you?
  2. Does your RFP’s total timeline make sense?
    For example: redesigning a website is highly unlikely to take place in one short month. Researching average project timelines will be helpful here.
  3. Does the time of year have any effect on your schedule?
    If you can help it, you probably don’t want to interrupt your own giving season web traffic to redesign your online donation page. Be sure to take into account any known staff PTO – it won’t make sense to schedule deadlines for critical parts of your project while the project owner and/or manager are out for two weeks!
  4. How much time will you need for project discussion between your organization and the winning bidder?
    Leave more than one day for asking and answering questions.
  5. How much time will you need for your internal approval process?
    Leave more than one day (ideally, at least a week) for seeking and obtaining Board and/or C-suite approval, if that’s something you’ll need to obtain before the project actually begins.
  6. How much time will you need for testing?
    If it’s a tech project, consider this a message from your future self: please leave time for rigorous testing!

Internally, make sure there is agreement on who will own and manage this project.

This will likely come up when you first decide whether you’ll undertake the project in-house or with an external partner, but if you do decide to submit an RFP and proceed to the research phase, you should identify the staff person/s who will own and project-manage the bid you eventually accept. Assessing your capacity should help you make an informed decision about pursuing a project in the first place – if you’ve had so much turnover lately that staffing the project will be difficult or impossible, this may not be a good time to undertake the project.

If you are clear that you have the staff capacity to guide the project to completion, be explicit about internal roles: decide who will be the final decisionmaker about which company’s bid you’ll accept and who will be responsible for communicating with the company fulfilling your RFP. All parties involved in the management of the project should review the bids on your RFP in order to offer their unique perspectives.

When writing the RDP, be direct and ask for what you want.

Include your budget. This one might seem like a no-brainer, but in some spheres an unhelpful tradition of secrecy around naming a budget range for an RFP still lingers. Here are just a few compelling reasons to buck this pattern and name your budget:

  1. Some companies will refuse to bid on an RFP with no budget, and with good reason –they can’t possibly pitch a specific proposal at the appropriate scale with no concept of what you can afford. This kind of guessing game will discourage good fits from bidding on a project, so don’t limit yourself like this.
  2. Budget transparency is especially important if you’re a nonprofit. Your organization is likely constrained by budget in ways for-profit companies aren’t, and not every company may be geared toward your resource level. Being up front here will save you time by helping eliminate dead-end options from your list right away.
  3. Leaving the budget out won’t actually get you a good deal. Those who are coy about an RFP’s budget often think it’s a tactic to try to get more bang for your buck, but imagine your would-be partner realizing much later that they can’t do your project for the budget you have. Being forced to return to square one wastes your already-limited resources, and has strong potential to burn a professional bridge (and, remember, your pool of potential partners may already be limited to begin with).
  4. It helps you start your working relationship off on a good foot. Being open about what you can afford right from the start will help create trust with your project partner, which will mean a more harmonious working relationship from start to finish.

Don’t sweat the small stuff (yet). Now isn’t the time to try spelling out the minutiae you want, like bits of copy, color schemes, or fonts. An RFP is a big-picture document, and those details will need to come later since they can change a lot over the course of a project. You might think you’re being helpful by supplying them at the start, but companies tempted to respond to your RFP may actually see it as a sign of micromanagement or unrealistic expectations.

Don’t confuse RFPs (Requests for Proposals) with RFQs (Requests for Quotes). One letter can change so much. An RFQ, or a request for quote, is an ask for a price only. This is for when you’ve already got the project mapped out and aren’t asking for a partner to help you develop it further – you just need someone to execute it. An RFP, or a request for proposal, encompasses both a price quote and assistance developing and carrying out a project. With an RFP, you receive much richer information and can tap into the expertise of your partner and benefit from their guidance. Although an RFQ is less work upfront, it may actually lead to more of it down the line since an RFP allows bidders to share their knowledge from the start. Do some deep thinking about what you need; if you need more help than an RFQ provides, choose accordingly.

Be upfront about any specific difficulties you anticipate with the project. Once again, this is a way to build trust with your bidders. Are you dealing with custom-built coding or anything else that might require additional attention? Being clear about the scope of the project will give you the most accurate idea of who can realistically take it on. Communicating about potential roadblocks from the beginning can save you time in the long run – trying to hide things you think will scare off potential partners could still come back later and destroy all the preliminary work you’ve done together.

Use our No-Fuss Nonprofit RFP Template to get an idea of the format and layout that you’ll want!

Make it easier to respond to your RFP with these DOs and DON’Ts

DON’T ask for multiple copies of bids.
DO accept only one copy – using the printer is an equal opportunity activity!

DON’T require that organizations submit a bid in hard copy. This is a huge turn-off for many potential partners because it reeks of inflexibility and outdated expectations – especially for tech projects.
DO accept digital submissions (because yes, they are probably judging you if you ask them to spend money on paper, ink, and other printing costs in order to send you a bid!)

DON’T accept bids in only one format.
DO accept multiple digital formats (securely uploaded to Dropbox, Google Drive, or another file-sharing service; an in-house submission page; or, if you must, emailed as a password-protected attachment).

DON’T institute overly tedious style guidelines or unrealistic word/character counts.
DO provide sufficient space for each section, tailoring it as appropriate.
DO set clear word or character count limitations.

If you have your own online form you want bidders to fill out:
DO provide embedded, live-counting character or word counts so they don’t have to check their work in a Word document.
DO allow bidders to save their work and return to it later.
DO send bidders an automatic email confirmation once they’ve submitted their bid.
DO offer flexibility with bid submission style guidelines (e.g., don’t require bids in Garamond if any plain serif font will do).

DON’T create an overly-complex multi-step bid submission system.
DO remember that companies are evaluating you just as much as you’re evaluating them, and if your bidding process is overly complicated, you risk alienating potentially good partners.
DO craft your bid submission process to be as simple as possible with as few steps as possible.

DON’T request several hours of original creative work as a proposal.
DO keep the bid requirements concise to avoid asking candidates for too heavy a lift without any commitment from you.

DON’T treat the RFP like you’re a supervisor putting up a job posting.
DO write from the perspective of partnership – you’re trying to bring together your specific expertise and theirs.
DO write your RFP like an ad for an exciting project – boring project write-ups will repel good matches.

DON’T ask solely yes-or-no questions.
DO inform your own decision-making by asking open-ended questions like, “tell me about how you’ve solved a similar problem before”.

Making a Decision: More DOs and DON’Ts

So you’ve written up your RFP, vetted possible companies to work with, sent it out to a handful of good prospects, and collected their responses. Next, it’s time to choose the bid that works best for you. A few things to keep in mind:

DON’T accept a bid from a company that’s disorganized, frantic, or listless in their interest. Prevailing wisdom says companies should only bid on a project if they’re passionate about it and have the capacity to take it on. if you get the impression that a bidder isn’t ready, listen to your gut.
DO make sure you’re accepting a bid from a company with the necessary staff and bandwidth to see your project through. If in your research you find a bidder has a lot of turnover, consider the odds that your organization may end up losing the team you were working with (and with them, valuable institutional knowledge about your project).
DO research a company’s online presence and thought leadership as you make your decision, especially if this is for a web design project.

Finally, don’t be afraid to get wonky.

According to NTEN, you should negotiate very granular contract details once you’ve successfully submitted your RFP, found a company to work with, and are writing out your agreement. This isn’t meant to be adversarial; it’s actually meant to ensure that both of you understand very clearly how you’re going to work together and prevent misunderstandings in the future.

As you hammer out the fine print, here are just some of the questions NTEN believes you should consider:

  1. What happens to customer data if a vendor goes out of business?
    Do the company’s negotiated terms apply to subcontractors, such as if the vendor’s service uses Amazon as a storage platform?
  2. Who is responsible when something breaks?
    The way the project is being built, is your organization able to do any repair work on your own? Or are you obligated to refer fixes to the company?
  3. Who benefits from automatic renewals?
    Do you want to sign a contract that renews automatically? Would you prefer to only renew for shorter periods after the initial contract term?
  4. Who will have jurisdiction over remedies?
    This, NTEN argues, should ideally be your home state. You could also agree that your winning bidder’s home state, if different from yours, could govern remedies; however, you should aim to keep things on your home turf.

As usual, your general counsel will have more insight and you of course shouldn’t sign any contracts without their eyes crossing it.


Now that you’re ready to go – download our No-Fuss Nonprofit RFP Template to start your successful RFP Process!

Download: RFP Template