Why We Won’t Respond to Your Nonprofit’s Strategic Planning RFP

You may be familiar with our article, Why We May Not Respond to Your Nonprofit’s RFP. I want to address this topic specifically as it relates to strategic planning request for proposals. In many ways, we feel even more passionately that the RFP process is not the best way to identify the right consultant or facilitator for nonprofit strategic planning. Here, I’m sharing more about why, along with another approach you might consider.

Let’s define a request for proposal before diving in: A request for proposal (RFP) is a business document that announces a project, describes it, and solicits bids from qualified contractors to complete it (definition Investopedia).

But first, you’re likely reading this because you might have a nonprofit strategic planning RFP you’d like to send us – please DO! 

In fact, we highly value the process teams go through to create an RFP and often find our initial conversations with those that develop them are much more fruitful as a result. Why? Because in writing a RFP, you’ve started to build the necessary internal alignment about what you’re looking to accomplish with your strategic planning process. In effect, you’re already getting warmed up for the work you’re about to embark on, and while you may have created a strategic plan before, you most certainly have some new folks in the room this time around. 

I currently serve as a board chair at a nonprofit that recently hired an amazing board consultant. Believe it or not, I insisted on working with the executive committee and our CEO to create an RFP to ensure we were all on the same page when it came to our expectations for the work. Once the RFP was developed, we shared it with potential consultants and asked that they respond in the way they saw fit (read: not necessarily in writing). WHY? The sale is the sample. Try before you buy. We wanted to see how the potential consultants would navigate us through the process. And I highly suggest your nonprofit does the same! 

Back to why once you send us the RFP, we will not respond, at least not in the traditional way.

What is the traditional way, and why are we against it?

You send us a bunch of requirements, maybe offer to have a short call with us, and then ask us for our written responses, which usually include an outline of our approach, an introduction to our team, a budget/cost structure and case studies (hint: almost all of this is on our website, the Nonprofit Impact System, Who We Are, Success Stories). 

This laundry list of requirements and one-way stream of information delivery (us –> you) doesn’t get to the heart of what is important when it comes to strategy development: People! We feel so strongly that people should be central to the nonprofit strategy process that we’ve developed an entire philosophy about that is central to our work: Shared Power Strategy. This philosophy holds that the power to shape a nonprofit’s strategy must be shared with all its diverse stakeholders, from staff, to the board, beneficiaries, donors, funders and community members. And to get it right, you need to think about and begin involving your nonprofit’s stakeholders before you choose a consultant, not after. That simply cannot be done with a written proposal alone.

The process of searching for and selecting a strategic planning consultant or facilitator in and of itself will start to raise critical questions about how your nonprofit’s various stakeholder groups will be involved in the strategic planning process, like:

What role will the board play in strategic planning sessions?
Do we have a board committee that will help?
Which staff members need to be involved?
How will we get input from people who use our programs and services?
Who else do we need to hear from? Donors? Community partners?
How will we all work together on this?
Joe really wants to expand our programs, but Sally wants to commit to a place-based strategy, how will we navigate that dynamic?
Staff feels stretched to the limit, can we really add more to their plates?
How can we create a balanced process where decisions get made and everyone feels heard?

Is Prosper Strategies the best strategic planning partner to help you navigate these dynamics? A written proposal response surely isn’t going to reveal the answer. Getting to the bottom of big, strategic questions like these requires in-depth, strategic conversations early on, in the sales process. And those conversations are critical to ensuring a productive and equitable strategic planning process.

Getting to the bottom of big, strategic questions requires in-depth, strategic conversations early on, in the sales process. Click To Tweet

If I haven’t convinced you already that written proposals aren’t the best way to solicit responses to your strategic planning RFP, here are a few more things to consider:

Strategic planning is messy by nature

You’re striving toward change. Meaningful change is often uncomfortable. There is no one size fits all approach. Even before we enter an engagement, we need the opportunity to understand your nonprofit, its challenges and opportunities, where you are today and where you’re looking to go. It’s this information that allows us to assess if we might be the right strategic planning firm to support you in getting there. At the same time, you’ll also be making a similar assessment, in essence sampling what we’ll be like to work with. This cannot be accomplished with a RFP and written response alone.

We don’t know what we don’t know.

While it’s important to have internal alignment regarding expectations, the strategy process requires everyone involved (consultants included) to maintain flexibility in order for the process to come together in the way that is best suited to your nonprofit. Often, things come up during strategy development that no one could have foreseen at the outset. How will we know, through the rigidity of the written word, whether or not we can ebb and flow together?  It would be like hiring a staff member based on their resume without ever speaking to them (or if you’re generous, after a 30 minute phone call). 

A consultant’s job is not to have all the answers, it’s to ask the right questions.

Does a proposal response adequately demonstrate our ability to ask the right questions, of the right people, at the right times? You’re correct, it does not. 

So what is the alternative to the written response to the RFP? What will we do instead?

The answer is quite simple actually. It’s a few conversations. The first is a “getting to know you” conversation (it’s our first date). What’s your mission? At a high-level, what are your goals? Where are you in the process of hiring a consultant or facilitator? What is your timeline and your budget? What does your decision making process look like for hiring a consultant, and who needs to be involved?

If we both determine there might be a fit during our first conversation, then we have a second conversation to go deeper, ask more detailed questions that will help us shape our approach, and build internal alignment about what this work could look like. This is typically the conversation where we take a deep dive into how your stakeholders will be involved in the strategic planning process as well. In this next conversation, it’s critical that you include everyone who will play a role in making a decision about which consultant you’ll work with. If anyone is left out of the process, we risk recommending an approach that does not adequately respond to the priorities of the group.

Finally, if we’re still jiving after the second conversation, we have a final conversation to discuss concrete ways we might work together. In this third conversation, we’ll walk you through actual client case studies and examples to show you how we’ve helped other nonprofits like yours navigate similar challenges. This helps everyone become really clear about the process and what to expect. Then, we’ll show you how our approach to strategic planning could look for your organization at three different budget levels. Remember: we’ve already discussed budget in our first conversation, so we know we’re aligned overall, but showing you different budget options can help you make decisions about where to invest and where to save. Finally, we’ll have a collaborative discussion and further shape our approach based on your feedback. This ensures the process we’re about to embark on is perfectly suited to the unique dynamics of your organization. By the time we get to this conversation, you should have no doubt whether we’re the right fit for your organization.

I’ll conclude this by saying we’re not for everyone.

Our approach works for many nonprofits, but not for all, and that is okay. If your board developed a procurement process that there’s no straying from, we get it! However, if you’re interested in sharing your RFP or just starting the conversation, we’d welcome it. We can always help you navigate next steps from there.

Next time your organization is preparing to issue an RFP for strategic planning, consider asking for responses that come in the form of collaborative conversations with your nonprofit’s stakeholders, not written proposals. Remember, the sale is the sample, and a strategic, inclusive planning process simply cannot be sampled without in-depth discussions with your nonprofit’s stakeholders.