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Breakthrough's Survival Strategies for Your Next RFP

By: Monique Muldrow

If you’re on the business side of tech, you might be well familiar with the vexing challenges that come with creating a Request for Proposal that elicits quality responses.

To help you reduce that burden, here’s a practical article that we recently wrote for the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE).

Reprinted with permission. Copyright, ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, January 19, 2015, Washington, DC.

How frustrating is it when the time, effort, and sweat you invest in writing a technology request for proposal (RFP) yields few vendor responses or, worse, an overabundance of over­engineered, overpriced replies?

More importantly, it can cost you time, momentum, and, in some cases, an ideal partner.

As the need for technology tools has permeated associations, tech RFPs are no longer the sole purview of the IT department. Increasingly common, RFPs seeking information technology­related services are being generated by association marketing, publications, and membership departments.

Yet, in designing technology RFPs all associations face similar challenges that include

- creating "right­sized" requirements that define the project without eliminating consideration of useful technologies, processes, or features

- explaining a project so broadly that it attracts off­the­mark proposals

- deciding whether revealing the project's budget will foster or hinder RFP responses

- committing staff to the long evaluation process.

On the opposite side of the RFP equation are the vendors. They, too, face challenges that can block them from responding, including

- short response deadlines (The shorter the time frame, the less complete or thoughtful a response will be.)

- excessive brevity or ambiguity (Project details are insufficient or too vague.)

- limited communications (The impersonal RFP process precludes an information exchange.)

- investment. (Committing resources to crafting an RFP response can cost a vendor thousands of dollars.)

Enhancing the outreach and effectiveness of your association's technology RFP requires a good deal of internal homework and an understanding of the RFP process from the vendor's point of view. Here are four strategies for creating a more effective technology RFP that can elicit spot­on vendor responses.

1. Be as open and detailed as possible. Perhaps the most critical point, include as much information about the project as is comfortable for your association to improve your odds of receiving quality responses.

When defining your technology project, identifying what your organization must have, what it would like to have, and even what it definitely should not have are valuable guidelines for potential vendors.

Dream big, yes, but not too big. While the RFP is an opportunity to outline what your association wants, be careful to limit the proposal to what you truly plan to accomplish.

A growing trend in technology RFPs is to incorporate "user stories," which are descriptions of what different types of users—an association member, a potential member, a staff website editor—will be doing and accomplishing with this application. Such stories can provide more real­life insights about your technological application than a mere recitation of function specifications.

Also, include in your document, or as addendums, any ancillary content that first led your association to create an RFP. Surveys, statistics, and diagrams offer vendors a deeper dive into your proposed product, which can help elicit more fitting responses.

2. Describe your ideal partner. What type of firm are you looking for? Size? Location? Expertise? Including such information helps weed out vendors that are not a good fit. Also, the planning that goes into imagining the ideal candidate will help determine the best distribution method to target the right group, such as directly to vendors, postings on your association website, via an RFP service, and other avenues.

What expectations do you have for this product beyond its delivery? Is this a one­time project? Will you need ongoing support? Such information opens you to responses from firms that offer more extensive capabilities.

Would you consider vendor partnerships? The partnering of vendors to accomplish a task described in an RFP is often seen in the government sector but less so in associations. Groups of specialists working together can provide a strong solution. Mention in your RFP whether your association is open to multiple vendors working on your project.

Also, it helps to be transparent about the technologies you're using or would prefer to use. For example, if you're looking for a content management tool and your association has five .NET technologists on staff, a vendor with a .NET solution might be ideal. Being specific can earn you better-targeted responses.

3. Establish reasonable and realistic timelines. When it comes to technology solutions, it costs more to make something faster. So be realistic about establishing a project's completion date. If it doesn't need to be finished in two months, four months might make a proposed solution less expensive.

Likewise, set a reasonable deadline—a month, at least—for RFP responses. It takes time for a potential vendor to discover your RFP, then construct a thoughtful reply. An RFP with a short two­week deadline can limit responses. And it can drive off vendors who suspect that you've already made your choice and are simply fulfilling an organizational requirement.

Be clear about how long your association's evaluation process will take. Respondents often note the length of time that their proposal will remain good. However, extended, unanticipated delays on the association side can affect a vendor's rates, staffing, and their scheduling of other projects. That, in turn, can change what they said they could accomplish.

4. Define your project budget to elicit a "right­sized" approach. Releasing a project budget sometimes worries RFP creators who fret that respondents will present a solution that's at the absolute limit of available resources.

However, revealing your budget, or even a budget range, can effectively guide vendors in developing a right­sized solution rather than one that is more than you need or can afford.

If you're not sure what an appropriate budget would be, be candid. Let respondents know up front that this RFP is aimed at gathering a range of options. Such transparency makes them an early partner in the process of developing your product.

Dave Jaffe heads Chicago­area based Dave Jaffe Communications, Inc., which provides media strategies and develops creative content.

Kevin Leonard is association and nonprofit engagement manager at Breakthrough Technologies in Evanston, Illinois. Email:; Twitter: @kevinnow 

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