When should I issue an RFP?

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Should you issue a request for proposal (RFP) for the services you’re looking for? 

The short answer, if you’re spending significant money, is YES. Many organizations have policies that require that and guide how an RFP should be conducted. As you conduct an RFP process, keep it simple and make sure the work related to a RFP will result in a good decision being made. Both your team and your soon-to-be agency will develop a stronger relationship built on trust if you accomplish these things efficiently. 

Start from a place of respect. As someone who has worked with sales teams on more than 100 RFPs, respect is paramount. Good sales professionals are excited to win your business. When you ask them to bid on an RFP, it’s not uncommon for them to spend hundreds of hours (and tens of thousands of dollars) to provide you with thoughtful, high-quality responses. Of course, sales professionals want to earn your business, but please, don’t let this desire lead your team to make a vendor do unnecessary or low-value work. If you run a vendor through the wringer and then select them as your agency, you’ll end up starting the relationship off with low trust. And, even if you don’t hire that vendor you ran through the wringer, your industry is smaller than you think and word will get around. Vendors who are invited to bid on RFPs in the future may decide not to bid if your organization gets the reputation for asking for endless budget revisions or cumbersome spec work.

What do you want to get from issuing and grading an RFP? Hopefully, you’ve defined your business requirements well and know what you’re trying to achieve. Here are the things you want to learn about your prospective agency through the issuance of an RFP:

What to learn about your new agency:

  • Business Expertise: Can they solve business problems for the kinds organizations like yours? They should be able to show you similar organizations for whom they’ve done similar work. Ask for case studies or references from their past clients to gain insights into their track record. You’ll want to make sure the people assigned to your organizations’ account have the expertise in dealing with similar challenges. Ask “What if” questions and see how the ones assigned to your case handle the answers. They likely have experience in this field, so ask them what they did in a previous situation like the one you’re describing.
  • Competence: Does the agency have sufficient ability in the areas you need help? Are they able to help you achieve success with their competence in other areas? For instance, if you’re hiring them to help with your direct mail and email fundraising, can they help you with digital advertising next year? Some key areas to consider their competence over include:
    • Fundraising Campaigns Experience in planning and executing successful fundraising campaigns through direct mail and email fundraising, peer-to-peer fundraising, donor cultivation strategies, and leveraging technology platforms for online giving, etc.
    • Digital Marketing The agency’s digital marketing capabilities, including website development and optimization, search engine optimization SEO), social media marketing, content creation, and digital advertising.
    • Branding and Messaging The agency’s ability to develop a strong brand identity for your organization by creating impactful messaging, storytelling, graphic design, and brand consistency across various communication channels.
    • Public Relations and Media Outreach The agency’s experience in public relations, media outreach, and crisis communication. They should be capable of developing media strategies, crafting diversified content, organizing media events, and securing media placements to amplify your organization’s reach and impact.
    • Data Analysis The agency uses data-driven decision-making and can quantify the impact they expect to make with your organization (as well as the impact they’ve already made for others).
  • Problem Solving: Many RFPs ask prospective vendors to perform some spec work. Spec work can range from developing a sample budget to presenting creative ideas for your campaigns. By requesting spec work, you gain insight into the agency’s approach, quality of work, and ability to meet your specific requirements. It’s important to balance the need for spec work with respect for the agency’s time and expertise. Be mindful of the scope and complexity of the tasks you assign to ensure it’s fair and reasonable within the selection process.
  • Team Fit: Are the individuals who will work on your account a good fit for your organization? Chemistry and collaboration are crucial for a successful partnership. It’ not uncommon for organizations to request an opportunity to meet the agency’s team members who will be involved in your projects and gauge their understanding of your organization’s mission and values. Assess their communication skills, responsiveness, and willingness to listen and adapt to your specific needs. A strong team fit ensures a smoother working relationship, effective collaboration, and better overall results.
  • Costs: What will it cost you to get the work done and how will the costs/payments be structured? Can you project your costs through the first year and into the next? Determine whether they charge on a project basis, hourly rates, or have retainer arrangements. Request a breakdown of costs and payment schedules to help you project your expenses not only for the immediate project, but also for the long term. What variables will end up costing you more or less? For example, inquire about additional fees for rush projects, revisions or scope of changes.

Make the RFP process as efficient as possible: I’m sure others will offer different ideas than these, but this is how I would run an RFP process efficiently. Please, don’t forget, this process will require a ton from you, your team, and the executives you ultimately answer to. So, as you think through this process, consider the following steps:

  • Start with an RFI (or, request for information): This preliminary step allows you to gather information and insights from potential agencies before getting to the detailed RFP stage. Through the RFI process you can evaluate the agency’s responsiveness, build relationships with potential agencies and save time and resources by narrowing down the list of potential agencies for the subsequent RFP stage.
  • Ask a Small Number to Complete the RFP:
    • Focus on Quality over Quantity: Rather than soliciting proposals from a large pool of agencies, select a few forces to consider. By carefully pre-qualifying agencies based on their expertise, track record, and alignment with your requirements, you can narrow down the pool to those most likely to deliver desired results.
    • More Thorough Evaluation: With a smaller number of proposals to review, you can dedicate more thoughtful time to those involved in the RFP process. This facilitates more in-depth evaluation, enabling you to analyze the proposed strategies, methodologies, and approaches in greater detail.
    • Efficient Resource Allocation: Reviewing and evaluating RFP responses can be resource intensive, requiring significant time from your eval team. By limiting the number of proposals, you allow your team to dedicate ample time and attention to each submission.
    • Better Engagement with Agencies: With time for comprehensive evaluations, you can now engage in meaningful discussions with your shortlisted agencies. You can seek clarification on proposals and see how this back-and-forth exchange can help you gauge the agencies’ responsiveness, flexibility, and willingness to collaborate.
  • Minimize the Spec Work:
    • Respect Agency’s Time and Effort: While spec work can provide valuable insights into an agency’s capabilities, it’s essential to balance the need for information with respect for the agency’s time and resources.
    • Focus on Qualifications and Experience: Instead of relying heavily on spec work, prioritize evaluating an agency’s qualifications and experience through their submitted proposals. Assess their understanding of your organization’s needs, their strategic approach, their case studies of similar projects and references from past clients.
    • Interactive Presentations or Interviews: By inviting the shortlisted agencies to present their proposals and strategies directly to your evaluation team, you open the door for those agencies to truly showcase their expertise. Make sure to get their response to specific questions and engage in meaningful discussions. These interactive sessions should provide a deeper understanding of an agency’s capabilities and how they align with your organization’s goals.

What should I avoid?

By now, you should have a pretty solid understanding of what not to do. To be more specific avoid:

  • Casting your net too widely. If your net is too wide, you probably don’t know what you want yet. 
  • Asking too many detailed questions without providing enough information for someone to answer them.
  • Getting too specific (“Tell me about a time you helped a [insert real specific organization] solve a problem like [insert very strange problem]”)
  • Asking for lots of spec work


This is the beginning of a partnership. If you’re really aiming to find an agency that will work with you and not just for you, keep this in mind. You don’t want to get through the wedding with them sore about how you forced them to the altar.

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