5 Reasons Why an RFI is Better Than an RFP – For Everyone

12/11/2016 9:37 AM | Ed Graziano (Administrator)

By: Bonnie Massa, Massa & Company, Inc.
Non-profit organizations who are interested in securing a product or service frequently distribute a request for proposal (RFP). In response, potential consultants spend hours of non-billable time putting together a proposal, submitting it, and then sitting back and waiting for a response. Experience has taught me that this is an incredibly counterproductive approach that wastes the valuable time of organizations and consultants alike, especially if the work or project an organization purchases is infrequent or never been purchased before.

An RFP requires potential consultants to provide a description of their deliverables, timelines for completing them, and an estimate of the costs involved. This is akin to doing business at a drive-in window. The organization creates an “order” for exactly what they believe they need, forcing the consultant to take the “order” and create a proposal without knowing the circumstances that led to the need for consultants to be summoned. Fine for burgers but bad for business! An RFP obliges consultants to develop all of these items without affording them the opportunity to get to know the people, problems, and culture that are all part of understanding why the organization is looking for a consultant to begin with. On top of that, a poorly-conceived or poorly-written RFP will inevitably solicit fewer proposals, and/or proposals that are off the mark. In these cases, everyone has wasted their time. Lose – lose!

RFIs, on the other hand, collect information about the potential consultant’s background, abilities, and experience – in other words, with a focus on the consultant’s skills! The organization uses this information to decide whether to consider them for an upcoming project. By focusing on the most important element of a consultant-organization relationship – the extent to which they “fit” with one another – an RFI demonstrates the organization’s desire to find the right consultant and the organization’s respect for the consultant’s time and resources by requesting only the basic information needed to move forward with the process. Win – win! Why not use this “free” consulting time to talk to two or three consultants and ask them questions that help the organization sharpen its own knowledge and sense of what is needed?

Here are five reasons why the RFI is a better tool for the organization and the consultant:

  • RFIs incorporate important intangibles. They allow both sides to meet on paper and in person to discuss the project. Getting to know one another, seeing if their styles fit, and ensuring that the consultant “gets” the organization’s need is more productive than just answering a series of questions. It isn’t always about the lowest bid. Folks who can communicate well and respect one another will get better results!
  • RFIs encourage the consultant to share their expertise through an open dialogue. They naturally allow the organization and potential consultant to meet more than once. In general, organizations tell their story more adeptly in person than on paper. And consultants get the chance to ask questions and hear information that leads to a more targeted proposal. The consultant, as the expert on the products and services involved, may have additional ideas on how to approach the project —versus just complying with what’s dictated in an RFP.
  • RFPs are time-sucks and they cheat both sides. In some cases, consultants practically complete the work in creating the proposal. In my area —Analytics—the discovery needed to develop an estimate can take a lot of time, and I am not willing to give that away. I am an experienced professional and should be compensated for the initial work necessary to get a project started. In addition, the organization and I learn a lot in the “paid” discovery process about what is needed—and the RFP cheats us out of this.
  • RFIs demonstrate goodwill from the organization. When organizations use an RFI, consultants can be assured they are taken seriously because they actually get to meet with the organization. This reduces the chance of the consultant being used as the “third proposal needed” from an RFP—so the organization can hire the firm they already plan to. And even in those situations, the RFI process doesn’t take as much of the supplier’s time as responding to an RFP.
  • RFIs are faster, cheaper, and better. Consultants generally can respond more quickly to an RFI, since they can tap existing documents that describe their products, services and clients. They also are happy to meet a potential client. An RFP is a different story. A consultant usually can’t drop everything and devote their time to writing a proposal. If I am given less than two weeks to do one, I don’t bother. A short deadline often is a sign that the organization hasn’t a clue what it takes to respond to an RFP. So how reasonable can I expect them to be about project timelines?

What I am describing, without actual examples to protect the guilty, is that RFPs don’t work for most organizations or consultants so let’s use a better tool! If you’re a non-profit leader whose goal is to find a partner who can help you reach your goals, then it’s important to share information and really learn if this is a good fit.

If you’re a consultant, seriously consider whether it is worth your time to answer some rote questions that may not be on target. Next time you get an RFP – ask for a meeting with the organization. If they are unwilling to meet with you to learn about your expertise and your personal style before committing to a relationship, what have you learned about the organization and what it will be like to work for them?

Bonnie Massa is President of Massa & Company, Inc. and Vice-President of Member Services and Development for Association of Consultants to Nonprofits.

ACN offers an RFP template on its web site to assist organizations with finding a consultant among its members. If you agree with Bonnie that an RFI is a better tool – let us hear from you below and we will offer an RFI tool on the web site.

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