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Navigating the nonprofit request for proposal process

November 11, 2021
This team of nonprofit staff is working through funding cuts to keep their nonprofit running.

Big nonprofit projects like finding a new CRM or hiring a consultant require time, resources, and information. Learning everything you need to requires sending out a request for proposal (RFP). For nonprofits composing their first RFP, using the right process and including the necessary details is essential for completing this useful document successfully. 

A properly run RFP process is a great opportunity to get everyone inside your organization on the same page about your project’s requirements, goals, and timeline. By syncing up with your entire team, it will be easier to communicate your nonprofit organization’s needs to prospective vendors, increasing the likelihood that you’ll find the right fit. By understanding what goes into an RFP and including the right details, organizations can keep their RFP process on the right track.

What is a nonprofit RFP?

Requests for proposals, or RFPs, are often used to conduct the search for vendors that provide nonprofits with strategic, digital, and/or technological services. An RFP has two main jobs: to solicit bids from qualified companies that provide software and services and to provide enough information about your needs and process to get proposals from potential vendors. 

At a bare minimum, the RFP should include:

  • A description of your organization and your work
  • The reason your nonprofit is issuing the RFP
  • The project requirements along with the software and services you need
  • Information about your proposal submission, review, follow-up, and selection process

Essentially, your RFP should craft a clear vision of your project, articulate why it’s a priority, and define its requirements. 

Because there are usually lots of unknowns at this stage, you might end up raising just as many questions as answers. It’s normal to feel like you need more information to create a clear RFP. Ensure you provide as much information as you can by taking your time and doing a thorough internal assessment of your needs before assembling your RFP document.

How to write an RFP for a nonprofit

Your RFP should include enough information to give prospective vendors a strong picture of your organization’s purpose and your project’s requirements, without overwhelming them with too many details. Specifically, organizations should include these four key pieces of information:

1. Your non-negotiables

Include your baseline must-haves upfront to ensure you and your potential vendors are on the same page. Doing so saves both your organization and bidders time by allowing them to give their best, most applicable pitches the first time around.

Granular functionality requirements are helpful to include. For example, if your new CRM needs to be able to integrate with your accounting system, call it out in the RFP. Or, maybe you need to move into a new software system by a specific date. The more information you can give potential vendors about your priorities, the better. 

2. Your budget

The RFP process is, by nature, a competitive bidding process. Be open about your budget, knowing that one of your RFP’s jobs is to get bids in your price range. A good software vendor will respect that number and can often offer up creative ways to get you what you need.

3. Your proposal format 

Your RFP can invite vendors to respond in a specific way, but overall, you can learn the most about each bidder by allowing them to respond flexibly. Your top candidates have experience responding to RFPs, and many of them have their own proposal format that communicates their expertise, understanding of your needs, services, proposed timeline, and budget. 

By providing freedom in how vendors respond, you can allow each bidder to more easily present their strengths and represent their work accurately. If you want to compare specifics between vendors, include a list in your RFP of the information that all bidders must include.

4. Your evaluation criteria and selection timeline

Your RFP needs to cover the process you’ll use to review proposals and select a vendor. Has your team made internal decisions about what happens once proposals have been submitted? Have you set deadlines for the next steps? Now is the time to nail down the process and include those details in the RFP. 

Be realistic about how long it will take your team to review proposals and identify the company that has won your business. Additionally, demonstrating to vendors during this initial phase that your nonprofit is able to set and meet deadlines will increase their confidence that you will be a reliable client, starting off your working relationships on the right foot.

Start drafting your RFP

To get your RFP ready, meet with your team to confirm requirements, follow an efficient evaluation and selection plan, and continue building relationships with prospective vendors. These essential steps will lead you to the right partner and can potentially be the beginning of a long-term, positive working relationship.


    Donor Engagement
  • Nonprofits