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The ultimate nonprofit RFP guide: 5 tips for success

November 02, 2020
Two women work at a shared workspace covered in papers and a laptop while they discuss how they will streamline their request for proposal (RFP) process.

A nonprofit request for proposals (RFP) is a document that describes your nonprofit organization’s needs regarding a specific project and asks companies to provide their potential solutions. Most nonprofits looking for professional services like website development or fundraising consulting will need to create an RFP first, allowing them to gather bids from companies that want to work on the project.

You can think of your RFP similarly to an invitation to submit a grant proposal as you figure out what to require of the companies who send you their proposals. In a perfect world, how would you prefer to send your ideas to a funder? Focus on the elements that make the submission process easier, and frame the requirements based on what information you most need to know.

To help you get started, this guide will cover some best practices to keep in mind in order to get better bids, carry out your projects, and support your organization in fulfilling its purpose.

1. Plan internally before submitting an RFP

It’s important to complete any internal planning for your project before you send out your RFP to ensure you have a concrete budget, timeline, and goals for the project. To make sure your organization is prepared to take on the project and request bids, discuss the answers to the following questions as a team:

  • Will the project go forward?  Prior to publishing your RFP, your nonprofit team should firmly decide that this project can realistically move forward. Evaluate your available budget, the staff members you have on deck, and support from board members before dedicating time and effort to an RFP.
  • Does our organization need outside help? Determine whether your organization needs an outside company to do this project or if it can be done in-house. There are obvious benefits to outsourcing work, such as saving your staff’s time while tapping into others’ expertise. But keep in mind that your staff will still need to manage the project and ensure you have room in your budget to outsource.
  • How will the project help our organization meet its goals? Take a look at your nonprofit’s SMART goals (goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based) and pinpoint specific ways that the project will help you complete them to inform your RFP content.

Once you’ve determined that the project is viable, in need of outside help, and goal-oriented, you can dive into the actual RFP creation process.

2. Decide who will manage the project

If you decide to submit an RFP and proceed to the research phase of your project, it’s important to assemble a team of staff members to write your proposal, manage bids, and eventually oversee the companies you work with. To find the right team members, take the following steps:

  1. Consider any other projects your staff might be busy with as well as upcoming projects that could require their attention. 
  2. Choose a person or team that can easily balance the project’s needs with their existing workload. 
  3. Select staff with the proper experience and expertise to oversee the process—ideally those with strong communication skills and substantial knowledge about the project and its goals.

Next, assign specific internal roles, such as who will make the final decision about which proposal to accept and who will be in charge of communicating with the company fulfilling the RFP. However, all parties involved in managing the project should review the bids on your RFP and offer their unique perspectives and opinions.

3. Draft a direct, concise RFP document

Nonprofit RFPs should be big-picture documents since small, specific project details are subject to change as you work with bidders. Rather than spelling out every minor element of the project, focus on key information such as:

  • The project’s scope to ensure you choose a partner who has the capacity and skill set to take it on. For example, if you’re hiring a web designer, specify whether the company who fulfills the RFP would need experience working with custom-built coding or a specific website hosting platform.
  • Any challenges you anticipate, as open communication from the beginning of your relationship will allow you to save time and build trust between your nonprofit and the partner company.
  • Your budget to help companies pitch their proposals at the appropriate scale for what your organization can afford.

Generally speaking, the more transparent you can be in your RFP about the most important aspects of your project, the better bids you’ll receive, so keep this in mind as you write.

4. Create internal and external project timelines

Make sure your internal and external deadlines make sense, both for your team and for the companies making bids. Here is a checklist of questions to guide your timeline decisions:

  • Are you giving companies enough time to respond to your RFP?Remember that companies need to look at your proposal, evaluate whether you’re a good fit for them, create a pitch, and send it to you. Make sure you give them enough time (typically a few months) to do so and clearly communicate the deadline.
  • Does your total project timeline make sense? Research average timelines for the type of project you’re working on to get a general sense of how long it will take. If you have connections with other nonprofits who’ve completed similar projects, you could also ask them about their project’s timeline.
  • Does the time of year have any effect on your schedule? Take your organizational holidays and staff vacation time into consideration to ensure the individuals managing your project internally have enough time to complete assigned tasks while they’re in the office. Also, consider your nonprofit’s overall goals to ensure your project is strategically timed around other events and campaigns.
  • How much time will you need for project discussion between your organization and the partner company? Both your organization and the company you choose to work with will likely have important questions for each other. Leave more than one day for asking and answering those questions in case any points need additional research and follow-up communications.
  • How much time will you need for your internal approval process? You’ll likely need to obtain approval from leaders at your organization before the project actually begins. Allocate at least a week to obtain board and C-suite approval.
  • How much time will you need for testing? Some projects, especially tech projects, require extensive testing and revisions. Remember to build time into your schedule for this process, as well as navigating any other challenges that come up.

Building a realistic timeline that accounts for the time between communications, answering questions, and unforeseen obstacles can keep your project and all of its moving pieces on track. A well-designed timeline can also improve relationships with the company you’re working with, letting them know your expectations early in the process.

5. Make a final decision

Once you’ve written your RFP, vetted possible companies to work with, sent it out to a handful of prospects, and collected their responses, you’re finally ready to make your decision. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Accept bids from companies that are organized and interested. The most effective bids show that a company is passionate about your project and has the capacity to take it on, so make sure the partner you choose meets both criteria.
  • Research the company’s online presence. Reference any thought leadership the company has contributed as you make your decision as well as previous examples of their work in the nonprofit sector. Look for indicators of the company’s values as well, ensuring that they align with your nonprofit’s purpose.

Landing on a final company to work with is a big decision, and the one you choose can strongly influence your project’s outcome. Ideally, you should partner with a company that is excited to work with you, capable of completing the project, and interested in your nonprofit’s purpose.

A final note about RFP

After you choose the perfect company to help you complete your project, outline a detailed, specific contract with them to clearly communicate how you’ll work together. Facilitating a strong, professional relationship with the company from the start will ensure that both parties are satisfied with the end result.

Ready to create an RFP for your nonprofit? Download our Nonprofit RFP Template to get started!

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