“We don’t RFP, we ask for help.”

At a recent meeting of a volunteer non-profit association, one which requires dues of its members, one of the agenda items was announcing the launch of their new website.

We were told the priority was to have a simple, functional, basic online presence.  A few years ago, the previous leadership had also wanted a website.  They put out a Request for Proposal.

It didn’t go anywhere.

At the meeting, the new leader dismissed the earlier attempt, attributing the RFP as part of the failure:

“We’re a non-profit.  We don’t Request for Proposal, we ask for help.”

Read it this way: We cannot afford to do this, we will take the least expensive offer but we’d rather pay nothing.

I cringed.

Before the organization disregards an RFP as the way to solicit proposals, the benefits need to be understood:

The organization can obtain accurate and detailed information on the solution and its associated costs, compare and contrast the benefits of one proposed solution to another, and have some negotiating power.

Working for non-profits, I’ve had vendors try to hook me believing that all I cared about was cost.  Every time, one vendor proposal would be to beat the lowest bid by 10% and provide the exact same service.  When I heard that, they were crossed off my list.  If their initial response doesn’t include substantive inquires that required digging deeper into my business problem, then I know they don’t care about what I am trying to do.

With that approach, I know the vendor is not committed to my mission.

I want vendors who are listening to me.  I want them to ask questions.  In their proposal, if they are able to take what I’ve given them and run with it, then I want to know.

And, that’s the kind of company I want to work with.

That’s the kind of company that is truly helping me.

The volatility of the economy is causing many people to take a “wait and see” attitude.  Justifying every penny spent is going to become important even for larger non-profits.  Calculating ROI will become more important than ever.

It will be a time to show creativity and leadership in demonstrating their marketing strategies are forward-thinking, innovative, and ROI-driven.

Non-profits will need to invest more in search engine optimization and marketing, social media, blog strategies, and making sure their website is built with the most current markup and content management strategies. Only in this way can a non-profit have the highest return possible on investment.

The technology sector knows this.  Just read Mark ‘Rizzin’ Hopkins’ article on Mashable.com, “5 Web 2.0 Businesses That Will Thrive in a Down Economy”:

“The world knows that they need to be on the Internet, they know they can use it to efficiently connect to new and existing customers (something they’ll be wanting to do more than ever, soon), and we have ironed out the ways to do it.  Look at this as our distribution phase. We’ve been innovating for quite a while on the technology side, now we’ll be turning our attention on innovating and making more efficient the business side.”

Now is the time for non-profits to educate themselves and adopt business process standards like Requests for Proposal. Yes, you can still “ask for help”, but you need to know that you’re receiving the right type of help.

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2 Responses to ““We don’t RFP, we ask for help.””

  1. Matthew Baya November 6, 2008 at 11:20 am #

    I hear what your saying but when I first read the title I thought you were going to be saying something else, as in ask for help from your volunteer base and see what is available before jumping in on a commercial solution.

    I’ve also seen a number of places, including the CRF recently (I’ll spare the rant here but ask me about this if you want more info), go for commercial solutions and ‘professionals’ without ever consulting their volunteer base and even existing ‘tech’ committees for assistance. Also, the community radio station I volunteer at recently stalled it’s web site revamp because the funds had dried up, without ever saying anything to the ‘tech’ committee that had volunteers willing to proceed with or without funds. It wasn’t until I asked ‘Um.. what’s going on?’ that things started moving again.

    It seems like some places get in this mindset that if you want something done you HAVE to pay for it and that volunteer work isn’t reliable or that volunteers ‘aren’t accountable’. I have a different take… spell out what you want, be it an RFP or the like, and find out what your volunteer base can provide towards that. If they can’t meet some or all of your requirements, then work with those volunteers in finding the best commercial/professional solution to meet your needs. Involve the volunteers who are interested and have skills in the topic you’re looking for a solution for at all steps, whether it’s getting them to take on the RFP themselves as a volunteer project, or as assistants in managing/overseeing the project. When done right, and with reliable volunteers, many hands make light work.

    Sorry.. guess I went off on a tangent there.. this may be my personal baggage speaking since I have felt rather slapped in the face on this very issue recently, but figured I’d share. Thanks for listening.

    -Matt

  2. Nicholas Peterson November 6, 2008 at 12:05 pm #

    Matt, thank you for your comment. I agree with most of what you’re saying and believe that much of this depends on organizational structure and the roles of volunteers to contribute and whether or how they contribute towards the completion critical path tasks. A few thoughts come to mind while reading your comment and I will throw them out here for consumption (maybe they will inspire a future post!)

    I firmly believe in leveraging the power of volunteers and inexpensive, highly qualified and competent labor. At the same time, I understand how things change in the lives of the volunteers and they aren’t able to prioritize the lower ROI projects so the organizations are left high and dry.

    There are, at least, three manifestations of the “asking for help” attitude:

    1. The sense that because an organization is a non-profit, that gives them the excuse to not follow sound business evaluation skills and make an ongoing financial investment in technology strategy.

    2. The attitude of exemption from prioritizing and investing in technological infrastructure because they are non-profit and investing in technology (even in a fundamental way) is not investing in the mission.

    3. Making the largest factor in selecting a vendor being price. I believe there is a difference between cost-effective/efficient solutions and quick/cheap ones.

    You bring up a good question to me: What is the appropriate way to leverage a volunteer base with a wealth of professional experience, credentials, and knowledge?

    I think advisory councils and committees can be quite effective when they are used and a process has been established. After completely scoping out a project (before RFPing), some strategic decisions can be made to find out what portions of the project can completed through using the volunteer base. This can cut cost and make the funds for the project go farther.

    I don’t know if this is the way to go. I’m still thinking about it all. However, I do know that alienating a volunteer base and not activating them may have significantly negative repercussions when the organization needs them in a pinch later on. How can volunteers feel they are being effectively utilized and also included in the mission of the organization?

    Any thoughts?

    Thanks, again, for the comment, Matt. I appreciate it.

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