How to write a great RFP [Spoiler: Don’t]

I’m just going to come right out and say it: RFPs are terrible. 

You (person tasked with writing them and reviewing responses) know it. I (person tasked with reading them and responding) know it. RFPs (Request for Proposal, for those of you lucky enough not to know what this acronym means), are cumbersome, time consuming, and — in my opinion — an ineffective way to evaluate the most important aspects of a partner relationship.

So why do we keep writing and reviewing and reading and responding? 

I am always glad to hear from organizations interested in having us bid on a project. You think we might be a good fit for you? That’s great news! I would love to learn more about your organization and what you’re trying to do and figure out how Software for Good can help you get there. We know how important it is for you to find the right partner for a development project, because it’s equally important for us to find the right clients.

But then you hand me a 50-page document full of legal terminology and deadlines and forms and only one paragraph of real, helpful information about your project. With no mention of budget. And a tight deadline. And oh, can you do some spec work while you’re at it?


RFP-issuing organizations, I have some bad news for you: Instead of enthusiam over a potential opportunity, your RFP is most likely being met with frustration and reservation. Not to mention a host of questions: Do we actually have a shot at this? Is this project worth the amount of effort it requires to complete the RFP? And, most importantly, is this giant pile of confusing paperwork indicitive of the type of partnership we’ll have if we land this work?

Maybe not. But that lengthy, formulaic response you’re requesting might scare off a potential partner who would be an excellent fit for your needs. In fact, there are many agencies who refuse to respond to RFPs, and we’ve certainly considered it ourselves.

To be fair, I know a number of companies have no choice but to issue an RFP — many educational and civic organizations are legally required to compare bids. But for those of you who aren’t, here are four tips for finding the right agency without issuing an RFP:

Seek partners, not vendors
Many RFPs refer to development firms as “vendors.” While not technically wrong — we are, after all, selling a service — we always strive for partnership with our clients. To us, this means collaboration, mutual respect, and clients who hire us for our technical expertise, not our ability to crank out an application faster and cheaper than anyone else. A development partner will advise you, challenge your ideas when necessary, and work alongside you to achieve a successful end result. A vendor will do the minimum required to collect payment, even if what you’ve asked them to build isn’t in your best interest. Seek partners who have the insight and expertise to make your own ideas even better.

Make business personal
Open your door. Pick up your phone. Schedule a Google Hangout. Find a way to connect personally with the partners you’re considering before you ask them to submit a proposal. The role of chemistry in an agency/organization relationship is sorely undervalued in the RFP process. A quick meet and greet or phone call can be just as important to gauging the potential success of a relationship as a proposal. Our (your + my) time is valuable. We no more want to spend time crafting a proposal for a project we have no chance of getting than you want to spend time coming up with a way to diplomatically reject it. That’s a lot of work for two organizations without chemistry. Instead, let’s agree to shake hands and part amicably before anyone gets too invested.

Create space for new or different approaches
One of the most common reasons I’ve heard for issuing an RFP is the ability to easily compare agencies, proposed solutions, and cost. “If everyone answers the same questions in the same format, we can better evaluate them against one another.” Well, that’s a real creativity killer. We often struggle with how to best explain our approach or convey our ideas within the confines of an RFP format. Assuming that critical thinking and creative problem solving are integral to the success of your application, why not give your prospective partners the chance to show you what they’ve got? Try asking for proposals in whatever format an agency chooses vs. requiring them to respond in an Excel template. Not only will this give them the freedom to propose a custom solution, it gives you the opportunity to evaluate their creativity and clarity. The agency you choose should be in a league of its own — no comparisons needed.

Bring money to the table
Don’t be afraid to tell prospective partners your budget. When an RFP offers an opportunity for questions, we always ask for a budget (and rarely get one). But witholding that information is a disservice to everyone involved. A reputable development agency is not going to say “yep, it will take that exact amount!” in an effort to milk you for all you’re worth. Most likely, they will come back and say one of three things:

1. We can’t build what you’re asking for that budget, but we’d like to refer you to another agency that may be able to work within that range.
2. We think this is a much bigger project than what you’ve budgeted, but here’s what we can do for you with the amount you have earmarked for this effort.
3. Your budget is generous, and we think this can be developed for less. But we’ve provided a list of extra features you may want to consider if you have the funds available.

Being up front about your budget puts everyone in a better position — you’re not stuck reviewing proposals that come nowhere near what you’ve budgeted, and agencies aren’t investing significant effort into a proposal that has no chance of being accepted. Of course, you may not have a budget or any idea how much development will cost. If that’s the case, ask! Even if all the agency can do is throw out a “most of our projects start at $X” answer, that gives you a point of reference. If it’s too high, speak up. This probably isn’t the right partner for you, and that’s okay.

For some organizations, RFPs are and will continue to be the defacto method of partner selection. But for those of us with the freedom to opt out — well, let’s ditch the pages and pages of RFP busy work and focus on getting to know each other. Who we are and what we do doesn’t fit neatly into a spreadsheet. And if it did, would you really want to work with us?

Give your prospective partners the chance to wow you, and the right one will.