When RFP Stands for Real Flawed Process

RFP’s are a way of life in the public sector, and I get that.

When it is truly a transparent process, there is an opportunity for the vendors to access additional information or clarification to what has been put into the RFP document, and there is an opportunity for debrief of an unsuccessful submission. It’s fair ball.

When however, the “fix” is in and the government or NGO agency is simply being publically compliant, it becomes a waste of time and talent. No different than a job posting that was only undertaken to adhere to a clause in the HR manual. They had a bead on the person they wanted a long time ago.

In another life, I use to watch as advertising agencies competed for Agency of Record status with major companies, spending $25,000-$50,000 – even $100,000 plus – in an effort to win an account. One day some of these national businesses woke up and realized they would not get the best agencies/talent submitting because the risk versus return was dubious. This was particularly true of some very talented boutique houses that didn’t have the book of business that could sustain large investments in business development with no return. So, industry evolved to where the smart companies qualified specific agencies, then requested them to submit WITH the understanding they would be compensated in part for their costs in doing so. The result was bigger and better ideas put on the table and a better selection and fit in the chosen partner.

What I see happening with RFP’s in the not-for-profit sector is a somewhat disturbing, yet familiar trend. Documents poorly written, leading to submissions which may be off the mark, leading to selections which don’t, in the end, provide the right solutions, leading to a waste of everyone’s time and money, which most not-for-profits I know can’t afford. Of course, there is still the carry over issue from the public sector in that the fix may be in, but in this case it might be because some major donor or influential board member has a relationship they want turned into a vendor contract. Added to the complexity of the problem is that budgets are set aside which are often too low to get the job done well and agencies misusing grant money, either not matching funds as required or funneling some of the financial support into areas for which it was not intended.

As a mentor of mine once said, “You’ve done an eloquent job of stating the problem Mark, but what’s the solution?” Here is what I propose. First of all, if you are going to sole source anyway, don’t play the game. However, if you legitimately need help and don’t know where to look, ask foundation and support agencies for names of potential vendors and ask those to submit their qualifications ONLY, not respond with a full blown proposal. That is not onerous on the potential vendors as they have that marketing material pre-prepared in most cases anyway, backed up by a professional website that outlines their service offering. Then select three firms or independent consultants whom you would invite to present. If they accept and do so within a specific time frame, have an honorarium cheque for $500 – $1,000 (depending on the size of the project) ready to present at the conclusion of the presentation. This is all with the understanding that whatever ideas or solutions are presented can be used by the NFP, irrespective of who is selected to follow through with the work. This totally changes the dynamics. First of all, no one would believe the “fix” was in if a NFP was prepared to cut a cheque for your effort.

Secondly, presentations instead of submissions will bring forth more useful ideas through open discussion. As it is now, vendors play their own game of trying to write a winning proposal without giving too much away in case they don’t get the work. NFP’s we’ve worked with are staffed with special people doing special things in our community. Speaking as the head of one vendor firm, we WANT to help and usually spend several hours in excess of what we budget to ensure satisfaction and success.

As the not-for-profit world evolves into the not-for-profit with a social-enterprise-on-the-side world, good business sense needs to win the day over old habits and outdated policies. Get creative and you will be rewarded with creativity. You’ll get the best advice the market has to offer and take on much less risk that you’ve made a poor selection.

Mark Olson
Managing Partner & Principal

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