The dangers of requests for proposal

As I write, the great herds of wildebeests are thundering across the Serengeti. Part of the great migration in search of greener grass.

Written by
Roger Craver
May 23, 2014
Are fundraisers like wildebeest thundering across the fundraising world searching for greener fields?

Same thing’s happening right now in our nonprofit world, where too many mindless requests for proposals (RFPs) are being issued for about the same reasons. Duh! Let’s find some green grass.

With nonprofits migrating in search of the New, Best, Very Best, Awesome, ‘Please-Help-Us-Consultants’ RFPs are being spawned and issued – if not at the rate of salmon in an Alaskan August, at least at a rate that makes me wonder just how much true thought the issuing organisations really put into the process.

For years I’ve believed that among the Great Idiocies of our nonprofit world is the RFP. Most often issued because the board, the CEO, or an equally unknowledgeable person in the finance department requires the RFP, and the gruelling process it involves, simply for ‘transparency purposes’. Or, even worse, for the mere sake of ‘let’s put our work out for bid and see what we get back’.

Over the past six months I’ve seen a tsunami of RFPs. The majority strike me as senseless and idiotic documents. I suspect the folk issuing them don’t understand that a less than thoughtful and goal-oriented RFP is the equivalent of the organisation forming a firing squad in a circle.

Here’s why.

Only the very naive throw their consulting contract up for bid helter skelter.

Unless an organisation is truly dissatisfied with the results it’s getting, only the very naive throw their consulting contract up for bid helter skelter. Why?

  • Almost never — and I’ve been watching this self-destructive behaviour for years — will a new consultant or agency come in and actually improve results.
  • Almost never will there be anything but disruption.
  • Almost never will there be anything more than the loss of institutional memory.
  • Almost never will the most valuable element you have going – continuity – be, well, continued.
  • Almost never will you make up for the time lost and the demoralisation you’ve created fooling around with all this stuff.

Sure, I know it’s fashionable. And sure, the process will garner lots of free lunches and other calorific but generally non-nutritious nonsense.

But, in the end it’s not very smart or healthy where fundraising is concerned. The agencies that have produced will end up demoralised, the new guys will be overly bullish and confident in their claims and there’s little chance that a better, more powerful and productive programme will emerge.

So this didn’t really deliver a Power Point presentation with smooth talk and charm, but it is funny.

But, in the end it’s not very smart or healthy where fundraising is concerned. The agencies that have produced will end up demoralised, the new guys will be overly bullish and confident in their claims and there’s little chance that a better, more powerful and productive programme will emerge.

It’s a shame the consultants and agencies simply don’t revolt. They really should just refuse to participate in this nonsense, unless they’re paid by the nonprofit to prepare a response. But, sadly, the agency business model is so broken — and fear of not winning so strong — that they spend $10,000, $20,000, sometimes as much as $50,000 in preparing elaborate responses and presentations to what are generally uninformed, poorly-constructed RFPs, very light on substance and goal orientation.

The result? The organisation issuing the RFP gets a sugar surge. And then loses money. The consultants and agencies spend thousands and thousands to provide the potential client with the highest claims and the lowest prices … all delivered with Power Point, smooth talk and charm.

To meet the usual requests for ‘innovation’, ‘better results’ and ‘world-class account management’, some who prepare the response feel perfectly free to make exaggerated claims, use whatever jargon is currently in fashion and declare ‘we’ll do it so much better. (The most popular buzz terms in the RFPs we’ve seen here at The Agitator seem to be: ‘What can you do with predictive modelling?’ ‘Speak to your experience with multi-channel integration.’)

Celebrate the silo.

And even when the consultant/agency is truly responsive to buzz-term requests like ‘integrated, multi-channel fundraising’, I have yet to see or hear of an organisation that didn’t simply break up all the work and award direct mail to one agency, online to another and so forth. Celebrate the silo.

It’s a crying shame that no one calls the poorly prepared, knee-jerk RFPs for what they really are and simply blacklists the organisations that so cavalierly issue them. Fact is, unless the process is carefully thought through (copying an RFP from another nonprofit does not equal ‘carefully thought through’), it turns out to be destructive of best practices and proven performance.

I will always admire and praise a well thought-through RFP. One that seriously discusses problems, goals, strategic plans and provides ample data from which a knowledgeable consultant can prepare a meaningful response that adds true value to the process.

But most of what we’re seeing these days in the RFP department represents a frightening trend. In their ambiguity and fuzziness they encourage hyperbole and often reward the rhinestone glitter of glow-in-the-dark presentations, while importantly and essentially ignoring continuity, performance and proven results.

Shame on those of us who take most RFPs with any seriousness at all.

What’s your experience with RFPs? And most importantly, if the work was rewarded to a new agency or provider, how did the results match up against the promises?

We’d sure like to know.

About the author: Roger Craver

Roger Craver

Roger Craver, founder of Craver Matthews Smith in the USA, is a lifelong pioneer in applying mass communications and technologies to activism and fundraising. His groundbreaking work in fundraising has helped launch and sustain dozens of national and international organisations.

Today, Roger is the founder of DonorTrends, a company providing fundraising intelligence, predictive models and market research to the nonprofit and political communities. diMobile is his latest company, building mobile engagement applications for the next generation of activists and hell-raisers.

He is also the publisher of the Agitator.

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