How to Get a Better Yield From Your RFP Process

If finding a good partner or vendor feels like finding a needle in a haystack, maybe your RFP process needs a reboot. Here are a few tips for finding the perfect fit for your association’s needs.

Associations are always on the hunt for partners and vendors, and traditionally one of the ways they find them is by sending out a RFP.

“This is a personal observation from 40 years in association work and consulting since 1991,” said Cate Bower, FASAE, CAE, founding partner emeritus at Cygnet Strategy, LLC. “I think many association executives feel they must rely on an RFP because they start from a position of distrust from the people they’re ultimately going to partner with.”

It’s as if associations think that by spelling out the specifics and details in an RFP, they won’t be overcharged and will ultimately get the best deal.

But Bower said that associations shortchange themselves when they do it this way because the best work is done when the consultant and the client work as partners. “When that is done, magic can happen,” she said.

According to Bower, it only happens when you start from the beginning to design the processes that are needed to solve the real issues. “More often than not, what we see reflected in RFPs are a list of symptoms but not a diagnosis of the systemic problem,” she said. “I can treat the symptoms all I want, but if I don’t get to the heart of the issue, nothing is going to change.”


With that in mind, here are a few steps you might want to incorporate into your RFP process in order to find the best vendor or consultant for your next project:

Narrow your pool of consultants. If you haven’t worked with a consultant before and don’t yet have a relationship with a trusted partner, your first step in finding one should be talking to your colleagues. For instance, if you want to undertake a governance transformation, Bower suggests reaching out to colleague who’ve done something similar to begin identifying a core list of possible partners. “Use the ASAE network or whatever other professional networks you have to identify your first cut,” Bower said.

Ask for an RFI. After you’ve narrowed your pool of potential partners to two or three, your next step is asking them to compete a request for information, rather than a request for proposal. “It can be as simple as, ‘Tell me a little about yourself and the work you’ve done, and who I should talk to [in order] to know about what kind of partner you’d be,’” Bower said.

One of the most effective RFIs that Bower ever encountered came from the Colorado Medical Society, which asked her to write a letter that was less than two pages to tell the group about herself and the philosophy she uses in working with clients. What CMA got from that “was a sense of who I was, who our company was, and the general kind of approach,” she said.

Bring the potential consultant in for a day. Bower recommends buying a day of a potential partner’s time to sit down and figure out not only if your association is a good culture fit for him or her but also to determine if their solutions to your challenges, their costs, and overall philosophies are a fit with your organization.

Cygnet does these daylong meetings with potential association and nonprofit clients—at much reduced rates than they would charge for regular consulting work—and they also present them with a summary of the meeting after the fact. This summary included what the outcome world be, the steps the organization needs to take, and the cost of hiring Cygnet. “They were free to take that document—they obviously had to take out our costs and some of our proprietary info—but they were free to use that as an RFP with other people,” Bower said.

According to her, adding these few steps can make a big difference in finding a successful partner and help to really think through and customize the work that will be done. What are some steps you’ve taken to improve your RFP process? Please leave your comments below.

(ribkhan/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Emily Bratcher

By Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is a Contributing Editor for Associations Now. MORE

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