It's a fact of life at most organizations that we often see a pressing need and simultaneously recognize that we don't have the expertise or resources to meet the need internally. In such cases, how do we decide which outside organization to hire or partner with? The dominant response to this question for the past several decades has been the Request for Proposal, or RFP. An RFP is a document that describes a project's needs in a particular area and asks for proposed solutions (along with pricing, timing, and other details) from qualified vendors. When they're well crafted, RFPs can introduce an organization to high-quality vendor-partners and consultants from outside their established networks and ensure that a project is completed as planned.
Any one of the three reasons below would be sufficient to justify issuing an RFP, but taken together they're a powerful case for paying careful attention to the drafting of RFPs and the evaluation of responses.
First and foremost, you need an RFP when your policies, your funders' policies, or government regulations require one. If there are no policies or guidelines in place, balance the rationales listed above against the time it takes to write and distribute a good RFP. Also, be sure to use common sense — for example, issuing a procurement document for the purchase of pencils and other office supplies is unnecessary. RFPs are more frequently issued for complex, highly customized products and services. An example of such a project is a website redesign in which the project likely has numerous requirements and involves several types of expertise. For simpler products and services, organizations often circulate a Request for Quotations (RFQ). An RFQ is shorter and less labor-intensive than an RFP — for example, developing a small widget for your website that allows it to integrate with another system (such as a donor management system or CRM database) is a project with a fairly small, well-defined scope. You and your colleagues may be able to accurately estimate the number of hours required based on past experience.
The steps of the RFP process can vary, but you should consider all of these even if you don't implement every single one.
RFP templates and examples written by other organizations are rough guides at best, but they're useful starting points when you're not sure how to get going. Entrepreneur's sample website RFP and Free Management Library's generic RFP template are two of many such templates. Nonprofit guides have some sample RFPs more specific to the nonprofit context. Even though each RFP is unique, most of them contain the following seven sections in one form or another.
As mentioned above, creating scoring criteria while drafting your RFP will save you time in the long run. As you discuss project requirements, ask your colleagues which features and requirements should receive the highest priority and use this input to craft a list of scoring criteria. Then assign a 1 to 10 value to each vendor's response and adjust those scores according to the weight you've given. For example, if you rate a vendor's SQL Server expertise as a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10 and you've given that criteria a 30 percent weighting, you should assign this vendor 21 points. Ask more than one person to participate in scoring the responses. Average the scores of all team members for each vendor's response. Award the contract to the vendor with the highest average score.
These articles contain useful ideas about the types of questions to ask vendors:
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