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RFPs Are the Worst: Better Ways to Find the Right Nonprofit Consultant

RFPs Are the Worst:  Better  Ways to Find the Right Nonprofit Consultant

In the nonprofit consulting world, RFPs probably just seem like a way of life. If you want to find someone great to work with on a challenge your nonprofit is facing, you’ve got to cast a wide net to find the best option out there, right?

Not so fast. While RFPs may help you find some consultants you didn’t know about before, they’re not actually the best way to find consultants that are the right fit for you. But, there is a better way—that’s easier on nonprofits and consultants—for getting the help you need. 

RFPs are the Worst - Here's a Better Way to Find the Right Nonprofit Consultant for You
Your RFPs are Turning Great Consultants Off 

The traditional RFP process has a laundry list of issues that are probably causing you to lose out on the best consultants—and the best solutions to the problem you’re struggling with. Here’s the gist of why RFPs aren’t ideal for either party:

They're too prescriptive. So often, RFPs either identify the wrong problem or ask for a solution that is too specific. Let’s say you’ve noticed that your board isn’t fundraising so you put out an RFP for a one-day fundraising training. That might not even be what you need to solve the problem! In fact, you might not even have the problem right—the fact that they’re not fundraising could be a symptom of a deeper issue. A good consultant will help you suss through that, using their expertise and outside perspective to help you find what’s really going on, and the best path forward. You don’t want to limit their creative and strategic thinking by handing them an RFP with too many restrictions.

They require a lot of free work. Some RFPs are simple, asking a bit about the consultant’s process, their background, etc. But more often than not, they essentially ask how a consultant would tackle the entire project. Not only can this be challenging to do without actually talking to your team, it amounts to hours and hours of free work for the consultant. Even worse, many companies will put out an RFP as “due diligence” even though they already know who they want to work with, or take a consultant’s ideas from an RFP and find a cheaper option to implement them. Veteran consultants have been burned by this enough to be wary of an RFP that asks for too much.

They're impersonal. Perhaps the biggest problem is how impersonal the RFP process is. Finding a consultant should be like hiring an employee—you want to find the right fit on both sides, and that involves having a conversation. The overly-structured RFP process often prevents you from truly getting to know the consultant you’re considering, and vice versa, so you can be sure this is the right partnership.

All in all, this means RFPs probably aren’t actually helping you cast a wider net in finding a consultant. Sure, the RFP itself may get beyond your core network, but you’ll only hear back from people who have the capacity and desire to respond. Many veteran consultants flat out refuse to respond to RFPs, so you’ve already lost some truly talented folks. Of the rest, you’re likely only getting responses from those who already know you and want to work with you, or from large firms that have staff for helping with RFPs. That leaves out a whole lot of very skilled, in-demand consultants that you’ll never know about unless you change your ways. 

A Better Option than the RFP

This isn’t to say that RFPs are all bad. In fact, they usually do a really good job of clearly outlining the baseline and the boundaries for a project: giving insight into the organization (the problem at hand, helpful background information, etc.) and then explaining the box that a consultant would have to work in (budget, timelines, etc.). 

Clarify the problem and your resources. When exploring a better way to find great consultants, start there. Get really clear about what challenge you’re facing, and what you’re willing to invest in both time and money to find a solution. We’ve laid out precisely what to think through in our five questions to answer before you call a consultant.

Call for a conversation. Instead of putting this information into a formal request for proposals, send out a simple call for conversations. Maybe this means looking in a directory like Nonprofit.ist to search for consultants with a specific expertise. You can email a few that catch your eye with a general description, then set up a call to learn more about each other. Maybe you put a short description of what you’re looking for on LinkedIn and invite people to reach out with a bit about their background if they think they’re a fit—you can set up calls with those that pique your interest.

Start small. If you feel like you can’t escape the RFP process just yet, it’s okay. Make a non-traditional RFP that keeps it short and sweet, requiring a simple response to determine who you want to talk to and to start the conversation

Whatever method you’re comfortable with, the goal is to get to the conversation stage as quickly as possible. It’s like online dating—you can get stuck messaging each other forever, or you can meet up and very quickly determine if you have a connection. Once you get on the phone with a potential consultant, you can learn about their approach, get an overview of how they might tackle the problem at hand, and feel out whether they have just the spark your organization needs to move forward. 

So start replacing impersonal RFPs with personal conversations and you’ll start your project off on the right foot with the right consultant.

Join Nonprofist.ist as a nonprofit member today to start searching for a consultant and begin the conversation! 

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