The Alternative to RFPs
by Hildy Gottlieb

© ReSolve, Inc. 2009

You are about to embark on a major project - a board development initiative, a fund development plan, a strategic planning session, a capital campaign.

You are not an expert in these areas, so you decide to find a consultant to help. Your board suggests creating a Request for Proposals - an RFP - to have consultants bid on the work. In that way, you will be able to compare all their ideas and approaches, and get the best price.

Before you head down this path, think again. There are many reasons why RFPs are not only ineffective, but downright self-defeating for the work you are trying to do.

RFPs Are Self-Defeating for Your Organization
There are several reasons RFPs will not get your organization what you need..

Doctor, Give Me The Following
Picture a phone call to your doctor: “I have chest pain. I need you to run the following tests and prescribe the following treatments. I need you to tell me what that will cost and how long it will take, because I want to shop around.”

Silly? Of course. We consult a doctor for the experience, wisdom and expertise we do not have.

Seeking a consultant via RFP means your staff / board will be telling the “doctor” - the consultant - precisely what treatments you want. An RFP will therefore not get you what your organization really needs; it will only get you what you think you need.

(Note: Many consultants choose not to respond to RFPs for precisely this reason. They know how often groups need something different than they are requesting!)

Leveling the Playing Field
RFPs are most commonly used in government work. It is therefore important to understand why that is so. It is not only to get the best price, but more importantly, to take the politics out of the decision-making process, to create a level playing field.

In a government setting, where it is important to prevent political cronyism, such fairness matters. However, for your organization, where you might be seeking a mentor for the leaders of your organization, or a guide to bring your fundraising to the next level - that level playing field is irrelevant. If what you are seeking is someone to help you excel, an RFP is not suited for that.

The Consultant / Client Relationship
Because most consulting engagements have to do with human interaction (teaching and learning, facilitating, helping, guiding, planning), one of the most critical factor in determining the success of your consulting engagement will be the relationship itself - the fit.

Unfortunately for building strong relationships, the RFP process is by its nature an adversarial one. The client is assumed to hold all the control, asking a pool of suitors to compete for the right to work for the organization. To fully understand the depth of this adversarial relationship, picture writing a grant proposal for a funder you feel is asking you to jump through hoop after hoop.

That is what consultants feel like when responding to an RFP. The difference between a consulting relationship and a grant, however, is that the work you will want that consultant to do is highly interpersonal. Starting that relationship on an adversarial and defensive note is not a great way to ensure success!

Getting All Those Good Ideas!
We have heard more than one organization state that they like RFPs because they get all those good ideas, and don’t have to hire all those organizations. They choose one consultant, but gain all that additional wisdom for free!

I know once you see that in writing you can see what’s wrong with that picture. Even just typing it makes my fingers hurt! Sadly, though, this is a very common practice. And it is not only harmful to the consultant, but to everyone involved, because the degree of impact we can have in our community is directly related to the degree to which we walk the talk of our values.

Lastly, Low Bid Is No Way to Find a Great Teacher
Or a great doctor. Or a great counselor. Or a great confidant. Or a great consultant.

RFPs Are Self-Defeating for Your Community
In addition to RFPs being self-defeating for your organization, RFPs are also self-defeating for the very reason your organization exists - to make your community a better place to live.

Lack of Focus on Outcomes
RFPs rarely emphasize outcomes. Instead, RFPs tend to provide a list of tasks to be done or deliverables such as a plan, a workbook, a training. What RFPs fail to mention is the difference the organization wants all those tasks and deliverables to make, and for whom.

The best definition of a successful outcome we have seen an RFP aim for is “develop a sustainable program that will allow X number of people to receive service each year. Show how you will measure results.” And of course the RFP had already shown how to measure results - how many people go through the program, and perhaps whether those individuals thought the program helped them.

If organizations are to focus their work on the difference they want that work to make in the community, it would be very difficult to craft an RFP to accomplish that.

People in the Community Benefit Sector complain almost incessantly about competition. And yet RFPs, like grants, are all about competing for a scarce resource - in this case, a consulting gig. If we want to foster a spirit of cooperation in our sector, RFPs go directly counter to that.

 Use It Today

The Alternative to RFPs
If RFPs are self-defeating, what can an organization do instead? The following is just one scenario. We are sure once you start thinking in this way, you will develop others.

  #1: Host a “Craft the Project” Session: Invite all the consultants on your list to meet together to help you craft the Scope of Work for your project. Have all those smart people work alongside your organization’s board and staff to aim the Scope of Work towards accomplishing the outcomes you are hoping to achieve. Offer to pay a stipend for their participation, to encourage them to see this as a job where they will be expected to share their wisdom and experience (rather than simply attending an informational meeting).

 #2: From there, work with that group of consultants to determine the best way to choose the consultant (or team of consultants) to work with. Depending on the type of work to be done, the group may determine that it is best to have you interview individual consultants who were part of that initial team. (Clearly those are consultants who have already shown an interest, and you will have had the opportunity to get a sense of their skills and the potential fit with your organization.)

On the other hand, there may be projects for which it makes sense to have the entire group stay together as the consulting team. The group can then decide how that can work in practice.

The more you can remove competition from the work you have ahead, the more you will remove the adversarial nature of hiring a consultant. From there you will be sure to have all the best minds at the table, all working with you and with each other to aim your work at the best possible outcome - making a significant difference in your community.


Find great case studies of cooperative efforts such as this in The Pollyanna Principles

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