The Winning Bid: Do's and Don'ts for RFPs

At last month’s American Alliance of Museums 2015 annual meeting in Atlanta, I sat in on a facilitated conversation organized by my colleagues in The Museum Group. About 30 people gathered to address the sometimes discordant dance between clients and vendors in the Request for Proposals (RFP) process. The purpose of the discussion was not to “whine” about unfriendly or exploitive practices, as our host, museum content developer Carol Bossert, instructed the group, but rather identify best practices that benefit all parties. Carol was joined by exhibit designer and fabricator Paul Orselli and project manager Barbara Punt, who each added depth and perspective to the discussion.

Informed by the TMG conversation, the below Do’s and Don’ts are meant as a helpful guide to cultural organizations issuing RFPs to ensure a fair and equitable process based on mutual respect and trust between client and vendor. —AB

Let’s say you’re a new manager who has determined that your organization is in need of outside services – such as master planning or brand development or direct mail implementation – that your in-house team doesn’t have the time nor expertise to handle. And let’s say you’ve also determined that the best way to solicit such services is through an RFP process, but you’ve never actually administered one before. What now?

Start by asking your colleagues for some sample RFPs to acquaint yourself with how they’re written and what they contain. Here’s a good example and a good template. And then allow sufficient time to think through your needs, craft a solid request and run a fair process. Here’s how: 

Do This

  • Clearly define the scope of work for the requested services, the need or challenge to be addressed, and the anticipated end result. Provide substantive background information on your organization, programs and strategic direction so that vendors have the necessary data to respond appropriately and specifically to your stated goals.
  • Establish realistic budgetary parameters and convey this information in the RFP. This can be provided as a set or not-to-exceed number, or a budget range, and may require doing some preliminary homework to learn what the requested services typically cost. Why are budget guidelines important? Because they signify to vendors that this is a genuine project and you’re not just seeking free advice (see below), and they offer a sense of project scale (i.e., $30K vs. $300K) and institutional capacity, all of which is helpful to vendors in crafting a suitable response.
  • Outline the RFP process in detail, set a realistic time frame, summarize the deadlines and then maintain the schedule. A typical timeline includes the following: RFP release date, Q&A deadline, submittals deadline, proposal review period and telephone interviews, finalists notification, finalists interviews, vendor selection notification, and contract start and end dates.
  • Identify the information you will need to assess a vendor’s proposal – for example, the firm’s qualifications and past experience, methodology and deliverables, background on the project team, the cost and breakdown of fees, subcontractor arrangements, projected timeline, sample past projects, references, etc. – and outline all of this in the RFP.
  • Articulate in the RFP the objective criteria by which respondents will be evaluated – i.e., the overall quality of the proposal, firm credentials and expertise, price, vendor’s geographic location, and whatever else is important to you. Recognize that there is subjective criteria, too, such as how well the firm communicates and interacts with all of your representatives, the rapport you develop in the recruitment process, and peer references. Then consistently and fairly apply the same assessment measures to each proposal.
  • Consider a two-phased process, beginning with the submittal of credentials through a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), followed by an RFP provided to a select group of vendors that you have narrowed to no more than five bidders. This truncated process makes it easy to weed out unqualified firms and focus in-depth attention on the handful that can deliver what you need. For a sample RFQ, visit here.
  • Create and implement a marketing plan to distribute your RFP, determining in advance if your process is open to all or if you intend to approach a predetermined list of qualified firms identified through peer networking and outreach. If open to all, establish a page on your website to promote and share information about the RFP process, and use traditional and social media marketing channels to promote the opportunity. If proceeding with a select group of vendors, communicate your intent via email.
  • Allow a time-limited Q&A period for vendors to pose questions regarding the RFP, then respond thoughtfully and honestly to each. Post both the questions and answers for all potential responders on the RFP webpage or distribute via email to those on your selected list.
  • Be open to original, creative responses that may not take the form of a written proposal. Depending on the services requested, this could even be a review criterion. In the TMG conversation, someone mentioned an inventive proposal submitted in the form of a short documentary video, which was rejected by the selection committee because of its "unorthodox" presentation.
  • Organize a two-phased interview process. Ask a member of the selection committee to conduct initial telephone interviews with the responding vendors, and then invite the finalists for an on-site meeting with the committee. For each, prepare in advance a protocol of questions that all vendors will be asked, but be flexible enough to allow genuine conversation to develop. Be sure to ask the vendors why they want to work on your project and what they offer that sets them apart from their peers.
  • Allow for finalist interviews that are longer than one hour in order to solicit in-depth information about a vendor, the firm’s working methods and past projects. Request in advance short bios of the vendor’s personnel who will actually be doing the work on your project and require them to be present for the on-site interview. (This is helpful because sometimes a firm’s principals who make the pitch are not the same ones who deliver the services.)
  • As an RFP reviewer, take your role seriously. Familiarize yourself with the evaluation criteria, read and make notes on all of the proposals in advance and come to meetings prepared to discuss them with intelligence and forethought. Once the finalists’ selection process has concluded and a vendor has been chosen, require and check references, as you would with any potential new hire. Then be timely in contacting the other firms who submitted proposals and politely tell them their services were declined, and why, if they inquire.

Act with integrity, trust, respect and especially kindness throughout the RFP process.

And Don’t Do This

  • Do not ever issue an RFP if you are merely fishing for free ideas. This is unethical. Acknowledge that it takes time, effort and money on the part of vendors to respond to RFPs and they are generously sharing their expertise in the hopes of working with you. Respect the process.
  • Do not circulate or share the contents of any vendor’s proposal beyond the selection committee. Treat each proposal confidentially and as a work product owned by the responding vendor and use the submittal only to determine whether or not you will hire that vendor. (This does not apply, however, if you are a government entity and all of your activities are required to be public.)
  • Avoid overly legalistic and formal language in the RFP because this can inadvertently communicate an antagonist stance on your part to working with outside contractors. The letter of agreement that you will subsequently sign with the vendor you hire will have legalese enough for everyone!
  • Do not request multiple printed copies of the response submittals. Accept and circulate only digital proposals, as this will convey the value of sustainability that your organization presumably upholds.

Now Get Started!

Two final takeaways from the TMG discussion: Act with integrity, trust, respect and especially kindness throughout the RFP process. And treat your vendors like partners rather than contractors. This will only well serve everyone in the end. 

For further insights from Carol, Paul and Barbara on this subject, visit the ExhibiTricks blog.