If you’ve recently sent Prosper Strategies a request for proposal for nonprofit marketing or brand work, you’ve probably heard us say something along the lines of “Thanks for reaching out, but we don’t typically respond to RFPs.”
Yes, we understand that RFPs are the norm (or at least they used to be) in the nonprofit sector, and that some boards even require them. However, we believe there is a better way to select and engage with a strategic marketing and communications partner where conversations replace proposals.
Arduous documentation, writing and reading on both the client’s side and the agency’s can be replaced with candor, honesty and rapport building to determine if the fit is right for both of our organizations. Then, while other agencies are spending time prettying up their proposals, we’ll be thinking strategically and providing clarity on how we’d work together to achieve your goals. The outcome is almost always higher quality work and a better return on your investment.
Many of you understand this and might secretly sense the ineffectiveness of the RFP process too. Have no fear, this post will help you see a better way to select a partner for strategic marketing work in the future. Others of you have likely never considered selecting a partner through any method other than an RFP (because “that’s how it’s always been done”), or are held to conducting one by your board or organizational bureaucracy. This post is for you, too.
But first, we’d like to make one thing clear.
Though we don’t believe the RFP process is the best way to explore a working relationship with a firm like ours, sending us one is in no way a mark against your organization in our book. If you’ve perused our site, jive with our thinking, value our nonprofit expertise, and have invited us to participate, we appreciate that greatly. We also appreciate all the work you’ve put into preparing an RFP and thinking through your goals and requirements. If that sounds like you, we would actually love to learn more about your project, tell you a little bit about us, and see if it might make sense for us to continue exploring working together. The next steps we propose just might be a little bit different than the ones you outline in your RFP, but if you think you might be open to that, we should chat.
This said, if you’ve gone to the trouble of creating and distributing an RFP, we feel we owe you some reasoning behind why we may not respond and information on what we might do instead. This can be especially helpful if you’re on board with a slightly different approach to exploring a working relationship, and want to get others on your organization up to speed as to why we’re taking a different tact.
Rigid processes are an ineffective way to shape strategic work.
Most RFPs have rigid requirements that are totally misaligned with the way strategic work gets planned and successfully completed. A short introductory conversation followed by a written response that checks off a long list of RFP requirements is rarely the best way to shape a strategic project or engagement where high-level thinking is key (the type of work we do).
So what’s a better way? Our best projects are shaped through several in-depth conversations with a potential client like you, where we can probe deeply into your needs and goals, possibly using some of our proprietary diagnostic tools. Those conversations typically set us up to come back to you with a variety of options for how we might work with your organization, which we can continue to shape together. Over the course of our discussions, we’ll also often show you case studies on similar work we’ve done for other nonprofits and explain how this experience applies to your project. Ideally, everyone involved in making this decision will be involved in every step of this process. Of course, along the way, we’ll still be answering all the questions raised in your RFP (and then some).
Your time is valuable.
We might not know one another yet, but if you’re like most of the talented nonprofit people we work with, you have big, audacious goals and a long list of priorities to pursue en route to achieving your mission. Spending hours reading long RFP responses (that often don’t even answer all your questions) takes you away from more important, impactful work you could be doing. By not responding, we’re giving you one less book you have to read.
Our time is valuable, too.
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of an RFP, you’ll know that most of them request participants to understand each nonprofit’s unique RFP process, format, logistics, and more importantly, the pitfalls that have to be avoided to not get disqualified immediately during the process. This can take hours. While some agencies may be staring at the phone waiting for it to ring, that’s (humbly) not us. We are normally very busy and would rather spend our time working on client projects and having substantive discussions with organizations like yours. When you become our client, you’ll appreciate the deliberate decisions we make about how we spend our time.
RFPs inspire marketing malpractice.
You’re potentially about to invest a lot of money into your strategic marketing partner. This investment could impact the direction of your organization for years to come. We believe a marketing partner should be accountable for the results of a project. Accountability is only fair and reasonable when, like a good doctor, an agency is allowed to properly diagnose the problem before prescribing solutions. The RFP process can make it exceedingly difficult for qualified agencies to bring their discovery process and expertise to your project. It often forces those that choose to participate to blindly diagnose solutions, costs, and estimates without a full understanding of what challenges may be at play. Hence, marketing malpractice.
Free work isn’t fair work (or a fair representation of our best work).
We have a hard and fast rule that we don’t work for free. Doing so would devalue our strategic process and the project you’re actually thinking of paying us for. Some (but not all) RFPs ask for spec work and free ideas, and would force us to prescribe solutions before we can employ the full process required to arrive at outcomes and deliverables. Instead of showing you spec work that doesn’t employ the full power of our approach, we’ll share case studies with you that explain how our process will be applied to our work (and bonus: they come with real results).
We’re not a commodity shop.
We sell marketing strategy and implementation that makes a mission impact, not isolated tactics and deliverables. If you’re looking to simply check the proverbial box, an RFP may be the right approach, and there are tons of freelancers and chop shops that are happy to give you the same product they have given to all of their clients for years. These are the same tools and approaches that have made many nonprofits look, sound, and act exactly alike. If this sounds like what you’re looking for, we’re definitely not the right fit. But if you endeavor to be different and innovative and you’re looking for a guide to pull back the curtain on ideas that can help your organization grow beyond what you ever thought possible, we should definitely chat.
Forced budgets aren’t a responsible way to spend your money.
Your RFP might present a set budget, and those who respond will likely right size their work to fit it. But is that actually the approach you need? Could less budget produce similar results? Do you actually need to consider spending more to get the results you are telling your board and other supporters to expect?
By engaging in substantive discussions rather than force fitting something to fit into your budget, we can come up with different, scalable options for how we might work together and help you understand how scaling up or scaling down might impact results. Know we’ll always tell you if we can’t work effectively within your budget range, and we won’t waste your time if that’s the case.
If your RFP doesn’t have a set budget, you might ask agencies to come up with their own budgets within their written responses. This can also result in problems like…
Problem 1: “Surprise!” An agency grossly underprices your project to be the lowest bidder. This will inevitably lead to excessive corner cutting during the project or an onslaught of change orders and scope increases after you’re engaged. You were expecting that, right?
Problem 2: “We overpaid for padding.” An agency grossly overprices the project with enough padding for the truckload of unknowns that live in every RFP and never really get answered during Q&A sessions. Here, some innovative ideas might have a chance to make it into the project, but you’ll either be paying way more than you should OR they’ll be quickly disqualified.
Problem 3: “We all lose.” An agency tries its best to be honest and shoot you straight about costs only to later find out the unknowns were a lot larger than anticipated. If the scope can’t be increased, the project is gutted of valuable components, or the agency takes a hit, both of which result in poor working relationships.
RFPs stifle vision.
The gift of every strategic marketing firm is its “vision,” the ability to see around corners and create something innovative and fresh that solves real challenges. And, like true artists, no two firms will ever see your project the same way or deliver that same product. RFPs stifle your prospective partner’s vision, handcuff your project’s potential impact, and encourage mediocrity. They are simply a race against the clock to check all your boxes in an attempt to create an easier apples-to-apples comparison of pieces that have nothing to do with what your project could be.
Your hands might be tied. Ours are not.
We fully understand that you may be required to solicit proposals. It’s not your fault and we aren’t going to write you off as a result. We just know there is a better way. If your hands are tied, we would strongly recommend taking a small step forward with us. Let us help you properly gather the requirements and build the diagnostic materials for your RFP that actually make sense to agencies. Then you can start a procurement process that will be backed by research and data that provides a common ground for qualified participants and more easily allows your team to compare apples-to-apples. And if that’s not an option, consider using your RFP as a summary of project requirements, but allow agencies to respond in the way that best suits their approach and work style, and most importantly, engage in deep, substantive conversation along the way. Any progress we can make toward a world without RFPs is good progress.
Have more questions about selecting a marketing partner without an RFP? We’d love to chat.