Successful Nonprofits: 5 Reasons Why RFPs ≠ The Best Consultant

The Best Consultants Don’t Respond to RFPs

by goldenburggroup

The Best Consultants Don’t Respond to RFPs

by goldenburggroup

by goldenburggroup

When I was an Executive Director, I tried to use a Request for Proposal (RFP) process to hire consultants. But I was often unimpressed with the majority of consultants who responded.

I reviewed many lackluster proposals. I was similarly unimpressed with those who wrote even the best proposals. So I often resorted to asking colleagues for recommendations. I would reach out to those recommended consultants and hold one-on-one meetings with two or three. I usually asked one consultant for a proposal based on those meetings. 

Once I became a consultant, I learned a secret I want to share with you: the best consultants don’t respond to RFPs. 

I receive an RFP at least once a week. They are typically well-written and encourage a diverse set of consultants to send in proposals. They always ask for a thorough description of the consultant’s process, team and price.

In fact, I receive so many RFPs by email, that I created a template so that I can respond quickly and easily: 

Thank you so much for thinking of me as a prospective consultant to provide [organization] with [type of consulting requested]. The consultant you select may be one of the most important and impactful decisions your organization will make this year. 

Based on the process described in the email, I may not be a good fit for your organization. Typically, I start with a get-to-know-you conversation with leadership, which is focused on fully understanding the organization’s issues and determining if my unique skills, qualifications, and approach are a good fit for the project. 

If either of us feel it’s not a good fit, then we simply decide to not move forward to the proposal stage. If we both feel this is a good fit at the end of the conversation, I would typically prepare a full proposal and present it to the board or committee responsible for making a decision. This process saves leadership’s time by only having to review a few targeted proposals (instead of a larger stack of proposals), and it allows me to focus my time on serving clients instead of responding to RFPs.  

Having said this, I am fully engaged with my current consulting projects through [month a current project is expected to end] and am scheduling new engagements to begin in [number of months from now] months.  This allows me to give both current and future clients the dedicated attention they deserve.  

I would welcome a conversation with those leading the contracting process if they do not find the right consultant using the RFP process. 

Why don’t the best consultants use an RFP process?

Most consultants respond to RFPs during their first year. But they soon learn that blind proposal submission is counterproductive. They rarely lead to successful engagements while potentially harming current clients and creating challenges to running a consulting practice. RFPs are also counterproductive for nonprofits, as this article illustrates. And here’s why: 

          • The best consultants need to understand the presenting issues

Successful consultants tailor their process to meet the organization’s needs and resources. So they need to understand the organization’s issue and their available resources to submit a successful proposal. For example, my typical strategic planning process requires 4 to 6 board members to serve on a work group that meets every other week for about 5 months. If your organization only has three board members available to serve on a work group, then I would adjust my typical approach.

          • The best consultants look for organizational fit.

The best consultants understand their own interpersonal style. They use the initial meeting with the organization to determine if the relationship is a good fit for both parties. Thus consultants understand that blind bids on a project may result in the “successful bidder” getting stuck with a project they can’t successfully complete. For example, a prominent institution asked to meet with me to discuss a prospective consulting project. We met twice to discuss how we could work together. From those meetings, I determined the organization was not ready to embrace the necessary change for the project to succeed. Including this high-profile organization in my “clients served” list would have been impressive, but we were not a good fit. I referred them to another consultant who I felt was a better fit. 

          • The best consultants get most of their business from referrals and repeat clients.

I receive about two referrals a month from former clients and colleauges. At least once a month, a former client also reaches out about a prospective project. These leads are more likely to result in engagements that are a good fit, so I focus on responding to them. Even if an organization is referred to me, I always have a conversation with their leadership before responding to their RFP.

          • The best consultants are booked for the next several months

The vast majority of RFPs want to start the project in 6 to 10 weeks. But the best consultants have full calendars for the next 3 to 6 months. The best consultants prioritize their current clients over prospective clients. We won’t take on engagements if it endangers our ability to competently serve our other clients. It’s not worth the money.

          • The best consultants are often not the least expensive.

The best consultants rarely submit the lowest cost proposal. Note, though, that I never suggest blindly picking the most expensive consultant. For example, three consultants bidding on facilitating an annual board retreat might charge $500, $3,000 and $5,000. There is likely a big difference in experience and skill between the $500 consultant and the $3,000 consultant. And the two higher cost consultants are also likely planning to do more work to prepare for the retreat and follow-up after.

I’ve explained why using an RFP process is the wrong approach in finding your next consultant. Now I feel a sense of duty to share some thoughts about how to find the right consultant. I’ll do this in my next post, so make sure you check back in the coming weeks!

Additionally, check out the following Successful Nonprofits® resources if this post was helpful:

Podcast: Selecting the Right Consultant with Matt Hugg

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