In the Trenches: The RFP Process
Selecting a fundraising agency to build your donor or membership program can be a tough decision, with many factors to consider. It makes sense, then, to prepare a Request for Proposal that gives responding agencies the proper information and asks the right questions.
The RFP can sometimes be the official “first date” for most agency/nonprofit organization relationships. It sets the tone for the partnership and provides a road map for future success.
It doesn’t matter what you call it — Request for Proposal, Request for Quote or Request for Pricing — what’s critical is the strategic planning that goes into the document’s development. All too often, an agency wins an account only to find itself being replaced a year later.
An RFP has the singular mission of finding an agency that will best meet a nonprofit organization’s needs and marketing objectives, but it can vary greatly in terms of size and content. Some are brief and concise, while others require extensive documentation. RFPs can be created for specific projects or programs, or for multiple campaigns or multiple media channels. Sometimes an RFP will require strategy, tactics and projections for the long term (several years out).
While each RFP is unique, there are straightforward guidelines that will help you prepare a document for effectively matching your needs with agency offerings. Here are some tips:
1. Ask the right questions. While you’re looking for an agency to support you, it’s the people that work at the agency with whom you’ll be dealing on a daily basis. There has to be a synergy in overall philosophy, personality and work style for both parties to be productive and successful.
Ask questions that will offer insight into these important relationship-building traits. Recently, one major-market public television station asked our agency a series of open-ended questions about the state of the public TV industry. Clearly, the intent was to see if responding agencies understood public television’s challenges in addition to gauging competence in direct marketing.
In order to transform an objective “wish list” into reality, start from the end result and work in. What is it that you wish to accomplish? And what is most important to you in getting there? Communicate what you want by asking strategic questions. For example, if agency size is important, ask the agency to not only tell you how many employees it has (in-house and freelance), but also how the staff will be organized to serve your organization after a contract is signed. You’ll protect yourself from being awed by a great presentation made by an agency that lacks commitment or resources after you say “yes.”
2. Offer a realistic timeframe. Competent fundraising agencies, given the time, will dig into their pool of research and experience to provide you with keen insights on potential new strategies. And in our world where contributions actually dropped 1.2 percent in FY03, realistic observations are worth a whole lot more than hollow promises. There are cases where time is at a premium, of course, but when you can, offer a month or more. Any less and the agency might have trouble providing creative assessments and competitive quotes.
3. Provide accurate, complete information. You’ve heard the expression, “garbage in/garbage out.” The more data you provide to the agency, the better its response. Include such details as:
- the reason for your agency search (change, new ideas, etc.);
- current challenges (a drop in contributors, acquisition and retention costs, a stalled major gift program, etc.);
- specifics regarding existing and past programs (types of media used, overall income generated, response rates and the extent to which you use premiums);
- organizational background, history and mission;
- samples of current materials and an explanation of what worked and what didn’t;
- description of current processes (strategic planning, creative, production, database systems, etc.);
- comprehensive outline of services for which you’re looking and why;
- budgeting guidelines;
- clear instructions (documents required, deadlines, where to send the response, contact name for questions, etc.); and
- description of the review and feedback process (How long will it take? Will a presentation be required for stage two?).
4. Ask for comprehensive short-term plans. Most likely an agency will not be adequately equipped to provide extended-term plans (five-plus years), but a one- to two-year plan may be much more feasible, depending on the information you provide. The more meaningful the data you supply, such as current membership rate, profile of top donors and lifetime value to your organization, the better equipped an agency will be to meet your current and near-term needs. But don’t judge the response by the estimated net income or number of new donors generated. Rather, look at the process by which the agency came to its conclusions and recommendations.
A word about spec creative. Be mindful that providing spec creative costs an agency time and money. Consider requesting creative in a second phase after you have eliminated those you no longer are considering. In the first phase, request a variety of examples of past work to get a feel for the agency’s concepts and ideas, communication style and relevance to your particular mission. Requesting spec work after this phase indicates to the agency that you are seriously considering it.
5. Keep the lines of communication open. Do your part to keep all parties informed, and encourage agencies to call you with questions. If one agency has a question, share it with the other agencies whom you have invited to submit a proposal, as they are all likely to have the same concern. Remember that agencies will call you to determine if your organization would be a good fit for them. My agency has invested many hours researching and crafting responses to RFPs, ranging from “vague” to really “buttoned-down.” Frankly, there is a tendency to work extra hard on a proposal for someone to whom you have actually spoken.
And finally, let agencies know why they did — or did not — make it to the next phase. We’ve often learned more about how to improve our fundraising services from frank discussions with organizations that didn’t choose us, than continuing on with a seemingly happy client that does not provide feedback.
6. Select a registered agency. Your fundraising agency should feel the same responsibility for good stewardship as you do. Be sure you choose one that adheres to the code of ethics published by The Association of Direct Response Fund Raising Counsel, The Direct Marketing Association and the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Issues of donor privacy, contracts and accountability are too important to involve those who do not understand them. And make sure that your fundraising counsel is registered in every state that requires it.
You’ll find that the amount of time, effort and preparation you dedicate to the proposal process will be in direct proportion to the quality of responses you’ll receive. In other words, the more work you put in on the front end, the better prepared your organization will be to select — with confidence — the right partner to meet its needs.
Tom Hurley is president of the not-for-profit division of DMW, a full-service direct-response advertising agency with offices in Wayne, PA; St. Louis, MO; and Plymouth, MA. “In the Trenches” provides practical techniques designed to help fundraisers make the most of every marketing dollar. E-mail Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org.