The RFP (Request For Proposal) process used by non-profit organizations has got to stop. It is inefficient and ineffective. There is no way it is in the best interests of your organization. Furthermore, there is no one in my global network of excellent consultants willing to participate and I’m sure we are not the only ones opting out.
Let’s start with the inefficiency
The “best” RFPs are thoughtful and thorough, and obviously the product of a tremendous amount of work. Not only do these RFPs take numerous hours to prepare, they are almost always a joint effort involving a committee. That means that you likely lost weeks, if not months, in delays in addition to the many hours of labor.
Those same RFPs inevitably instruct consultants to also invest a tremendous amount of work. Why ask 8-10 people to collectively invest 8-10 days developing 8-10 plans when you only intend to execute one?
And all of this work takes place before meeting, talking, asking and answering questions, or otherwise determining suitability. If you want to hire a writer, it might make sense to focus on writing samples. But that makes no sense if you need someone to facilitate a process, solve problems, and build consensus!
Suitability goes both ways of course. The best consultants also want to get to know you, and your committee where appropriate, to determine whether they think there is a good match.
What about effectiveness?
Aside from this huge time investment by lots of people, this terribly inefficient process isn’t even effective.
Why? Because RFPs inevitably ask for lots of details about what the consultants would do, how, when, with whom, and for how many nickels for this, that, and the other thing.
Now there are only two ways for a consultant to fulfill such detailed requirements:
- Provide a comprehensive plan that looks nice, but is largely fiction, or
- Respond with a standard one-size-fits-all program, that doesn’t necessarily fit you!
In either case, you will be stuck with a contractual plan conceived with insufficient information and written with the goal of:
- Satisfying the RFP — not necessarily accomplishing what you most need
- Justifying the fee
- Protecting the consultant from the many risks inherent in premature planning
In both cases, you will also get SWOT simply because you probably asked for it. Most people do. But not because it is appropriate. (SWOT, by the way, is a totally simplistic tool that is rarely the best choice. Its popularity is based entirely on the fact that it is memorable, easy to use, and gives people a good feeling when they dump their collective brains into four quadrants.)
Why am I so sure the consultants have insufficient information? Because:
- No one from outside the organization can know what you really need sight unseen.
- No one from inside the organization knows what you really need either.
No one from outside the organization can know what you really need until they get inside and start talking with you and your people. Sure they can lead you down a merry path, follow a shrink-wrapped program, and dazzle you with cool processes like SWOT, but it won’t be the shortest path to achieving your objectives. The best consultants will adjust their plans once they get inside and learn, assuming you found a really good consultant willing to participate in the machinations of selling you a detailed program based on insufficient information. The others will just plow along using their favorite processes and cheerfully and continuously sell you on its benefits. You, of course, will eventually be sold because how else can you justify the money you spent.”
No one from inside the organization knows what you really need either. There are two parts to knowing what you need. The first is knowing what you would like to accomplish. These are your objectives. The second is knowing how to get there. This is the process and methods. Some Executive Directors and Board chairs are very clear about their objectives. Almost none are clear about how to get there. If they were, they would do it.
But there are also plenty of Executive Directors and Board chairs who aren’t clear about their objectives. No shame in that. It can be very hard to see where things stand and what you need when you are so close to it. For example, I’ve worked with dozens of non-profits on “strategic planning.” At least that’s what they asked for. Some actually needed a strategic plan! Nonetheless, a large percentage needed something quite different from their expectations, things rarely, if ever, seen in an RFP:
- A new Executive Director
- A new Board
- Better governance and management practices
- An understanding as to why they are never able to execute their strategic plans
- A whole new business model
- A major paradigm shift regarding the value they provide and for whom
- A move toward being a membership organization
- A move away from being a membership organization
- A merger or partnership
- The recognition of their obsolescence
I could go on. But imagine how sad it would be if you spent big dollars tweaking your mission, vision, and priorities when what you really needed was one of the above.
So, if you are thinking about writing an RFP, let me tell you what you really need:
- A few well-stated objectives (not methods, deliverables, or instructions)
- A consultant who sits down with you, asks good questions, and clearly wants to ensure mutual agreement on objectives, scope, current state, critical success factors, and expectations up front, and throughout the project.
- A consultant who is clearly determined to achieve those objectives and be there for you no matter what skeletons, dysfunctions, fears, or power struggles jump out of the closet once the project begins.
- A flat fee that:
- Ensures the consultant is motivated to be fast and efficient (not motivated by hourly fees that reward the opposite)
- Protects you from escalating fees as surprises emerge.
- Represents a good ROI (return-on-investment) for your organization.
- Clear accountabilities for both parties so there are no unpleasant surprises or dropped balls.
- A commitment by the consultant to devote as much time as needed to achieve the objectives within the agreed timeframes.
- A consultant who promises to refund up to 100% of the fee should he or she fail to deliver as agreed and promised both at the beginning and during the project.
- A consultant who will challenge your assumptions, even your RFP process!
This consultant will be driven by results, not by misguided and premature plans or contractual caveats. This consultant will be a true partner in your success. This is what you need.
This article first appeared on Forbes, November 5th, 2017.