Winning the Request for Proposal (RFP) for program evaluation

I want to start off by saying that I don’t like the RFP process.

But, if you are doing any type of consulting work, odds are that you will need to respond to RFPs from prospective clients. The purpose of an RFP is to present a problem, and your job is to find the solution. RFPs for program evaluation typically outline the background of the program, the scope of the work, the evaluation questions, and the requirements of the evaluator. In some cases, the RFP may have a proposed methodology already, and may just need a qualified third-party evaluator to carry out the work.

I’ve responded to quite a few RFPs in hopes of establishing myself as a consultant. The process is quite painful – it takes a lot of time and effort to carefully craft a thoughtful response. Even with a great response, you are not guaranteed to win the bid. However, I learned that there are several steps that you can take to minimize your losses and maximize your wins. Here they are:

1) Figure out if you have a chance of winning the RFP

It’s way better to say “no” now rather than go through the demanding work and get a “no” later because you weren’t qualified. Ask yourself honestly, do you have the skills, time, resources, and interest, to carry out the work? If you answered yes with confidence, keep reading. If you answered yes with hesitance – perhaps due being qualified but lacking experience – don’t worry, you could still win. Read on.

2) Follow instructions

Clients spend a large amount of time and energy creating an RFP. Respect them by including all the components that they ask for. Your ability to follow directions is an indicator of your professionalism. However, you may notice that RFPs are not always clear, often by design. If there are opportunities to clarify, do so. But, keep in mind that there may not always be an opportunity for questions as to provide an even playing field for all bidders. In this case, write your proposal and state any assumptions you have.

3) Have a well-written, thoughtful response

A good way to structure your response is to mirror the RFP’s structure. Whatever the organization of the RFP is, your proposal should reflect it. Sometimes RFPs also include the criteria to evaluate responses. Do them and yourself a favour – evaluate your proposal according to the criteria first.

A typical response includes: 1) information about your qualifications and what makes you better than competitors; 2) your understanding of the program and the needs of the evaluation; 3) your proposed approach and methodology to address the problem; and 4) work plan and budget. The RFP may also you to provide examples of previous relevant work and references. If so, identify clients and projects with similar problems that you helped address, along with the outcomes of the project. If you have no previous clients, then be creative. Draw from your experiences with course projects or other jobs. But always, be realistic and clear with what you can offer.

During the writing process, skip the jargon. Imagine you are having a conversation with the client – you should write your RFP in the same way. If you insist on using technical terms, then mirror, find their words in the RFP and use them back.

As you write more and more RFPs, you may find it tempting to re-use RFP templates. Admittedly, I do this to some extent. It maximizes your efficiency and allows you to push out more responses to RFPs. But be careful with having too much ready-to-go content.  You need to customize your responses, otherwise you will appear generic and boring. You stand a much greater chance of winning the bid when the client feels that you really understand them and their needs.

4) Don’t tell your whole secret

This is tricky. While you want to distinguish yourself from competitors, at the same time, you also don’t want to give away all of your innovative solution. It is possible that the client may ask other bidders to provide the same thing. The key is to convince the client that you have the best solution, and you are the most suitable person to carry out the work.

5) Know where to find RFPs

If you are interested in responding to RFPs in Canada, some good resources include Canadian Evaluation Society (have to be a member), Ontario Health Promotion E-BulletinCharity Village, and Merx. If you want to expand outside of Canada, try following some groups on LinkedIn such as Monitoring and Evaluation Professionals. Personally, I am a big fan of VUFO-NGO Resource Centre because of their assignments in Vietnam (anyone looking for a program evaluation done in Vietnam? I’m your man!).

Final thoughts

I generally apply for RFPs solo or part of a small team. There are many strengths of remaining small including streamlined communication, greater flexibility, and more control over quality of work. For larger consulting firms, this may not be possible. Use this to your advantage.

All in all, the steps that are needed to create a successful RFP are not too bad. And, lets face it, I think RFPs are here to stay. Being skilled at responding to an RFP is essential in getting program evaluation consulting work. I’ve learned that it is best to improve these skills sooner rather than later to have a competitive advantage over others.

What do you think about RFPs? Have you responded to one, and what did you learn from the process? Let me know below.

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