Getting the Right Help Starts with an Effective RFP

Getting the Right Help Starts with an Effective RFP

March 29, 2012 by jga_admin

by Melanie Norton

I have been asked to share some wisdom about working with philanthropic consultants with a group of students from Indiana University. Although this subject covers a variety of topics, creating an effective request for proposal (RFP) for consulting services is one area that certainly merits attention.

There is a wealth of information on the web about creating an effective RFP, and the tips and techniques can be narrowed to a very narrow topic depending on the nature of your business. Despite the very technical requirements of some RFPs – think IT services, for example – there are some basic tips that ring true no matter what your profession.

Who are you? An effective RFP gives the reader a good sense of who is requesting the proposal in a complete yet succinct manner. Think elevator speech here…what can you tell someone about your organization in a limited amount of time (or space)? The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently published an article and videos on effective elevator speeches that may help you narrow it down.

What do you need help with? In other words, what is the issue you are trying to solve as it relates to your basic mission? The scope of the project and specific areas of desired assistance are very important here. Be as detailed as possible and think through your request thoroughly. The more detailed you are with your request, the more accurate and complete your responding parties will be.

What is your timeline? This is an important aspect of an RFP for consulting services (and arguably any service). Providers need a realistic assessment of your time requirements in order to assess their own capacity to serve. The more lead time you can give a firm, the more likely you are to get a thorough response and a desirable outcome.

What is your budget? Although you may not wish to share your budget outright in an RFP, it is important to make certain the range with which you are dealing is in the ballpark. We’ve had potential clients do it both ways, and there are some advantages to sharing your budget. In rare circumstances, the budget is a non-starter (something I ran into when hiring employees many years ago – and establishing the parameters up front saves a lot of time). In other cases, sharing your budget allows the service provider to frame their response in a realistic and reasonable way. If you think the budget might be a question, make a phone call. This is a smart practice anyway (if not prohibited by your organization or purchasing guidelines).

What are the deliverables? At risk of sounding like a broken record, it is important to be as specific as possible when outlining the deliverables you are seeking. This sets you AND the service provider up for the best possible outcome. In the case of consulting services, both parties are best served when the relationship is viewed as a partnership. Valuing transparency and authenticity with expectations is key, and JGA places a high value on “fit” with our clients.

What qualifications are you seeking? It is very appropriate to ask for information about the person or persons who will be working with you during the tenure of the relationship in addition to seeking information about the company itself. Asking specific questions up front avoids the circumstance of meeting one person or team during the “sales pitch” and ending up with an entirely different team when it comes to doing the work. And, don’t forget to check references! Including evaluation criteria is also helpful.

One final tip I might offer is to limit your RFP to the information you really need. This saves you time when weeding through responses and allows you to focus on the most relevant information. The Foundation Center ( is one of many who offer a resource listing to consider when creating an effective RFP. And, don’t forget to provide your contact information for questions and follow up. A little research can go a long way in making the RFP process painless and productive.