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Write the Perfect RFP

The very term “RFP” strikes fear into the heart of association professionals and industry  partners, for two very different reasons. Association professionals often dislike creating RFPs because they aren’t sure what to include, what questions to ask, and who to send it to. Industry partners fear responding to a poorly written RFP where critical information is omitted.

Here are some keys to a successful RFP:

  • Communicate what business issue you hope to address or solve with the solution you’re requesting. For example, if you’re looking for a new association management software system, what business need prompted you to search for a new one? Are you hoping to have better integration with your website? Do you need to provide quicker turnaround on product orders? What need are you trying to fill?
  • Identify the “must-haves” in the RFP. You may choose to communicate this to the vendor or keep it for internal viewing only, but be sure to identify what you must have from any vendor you select, prior to sending the RFP.  Identifying must-haves will help you weed out those vendors that are not a good match. But remember, if everything is a priority, nothing is. If everything is a must-have, you’re asking for a custom solution (whether it’s printing or software development), which will likely cost you much more. Once you’ve identified your must-haves, when you score your RFP, be sure to weight these items so that their score is higher relative to the “nice-to-haves.”
  • Allow for a reasonable time for response from the vendors. In the off-the-shelf software world, two weeks is plenty of time. But if you’re asking for a completely custom project that requires scoping and pricing for multiple pieces, give the vendor more time to respond.
  • Understand what you’re basing your selection criteria on, and communicate that to the vendor. If you have a budget range, put it in the RFP. If you’re basing your decision primarily on price, say so. If there are other criteria, let them know what it is, so the vendors can tailor their response to your needs.
  • Provide a brief background on your association, including overall budget, staff size, type of membership, and scope of organization. This is important to the vendor so they have a sense of whether you’re the right fit for them. Remember, just like you want a good vendor, vendors want a good customer.
  • Provide a timeline for the process. When will you be making site visits or seeing demos or meeting with the vendors? When will the selection be made? What other milestones are there within the project that the vendor should know about?

Along with the key elements identified above, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Don’t send your RFP to more than five vendors. Many are under the mistaken belief that by casting a wider net, you’ll have a better catch. But if you send your RFP to 30 vendors and receive 25 responses, what is the likelihood that all 25 responses will be closely scrutinized? Instead, do some homework in advance of sending the RFP, and identify the four or five vendors that can best fulfill your business need.
  • If a vendor provides assistance with creating your RFP, they should NOT be allowed to respond to the RFP or bid on the project.
  • State in your RFP that all responses to the RFP will be included the final contract with the vendor.
  • Finally, be aware that an RFP may not be the appropriate vehicle for selecting certain services. I’m a consultant, so take this for what it’s worth, but hiring consultants is one an example of a service that should not be selected via the RFP process. RFPs are ideal for making apple-to-apple comparisons of commodity services, like printing, hotels, and office cleaning services. But why would you use an RFP to choose your strategic planning consultant?

When properly designed and applied, an RFP can provide you with the information you need to help you make the right decision about which vendor you will use.

This article originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Associations Now, published by ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership. Reprinted with permission.

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