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How to Write an Effective Nonprofit Website RFP

For anyone who’s preparing a request for a proposal (RFP) for a website redesign, if you’re looking for some guidance on strategies to improve your partner selection process, here are some insights I’ve gained over the last 15 years responding to them. Much of this is common sense, but its my hope that by having ideas reinforced here with some perspective from a firm that often responds to RFPs, that it will help you develop an RFP that finds you a great fit for your engagement.

When we receive an RFP, it tells us a lot about the kind of client with whom we might be working, before we’ve even spoken. Without fail, the quality of an RFP has a big impact on how excited we are to go through the process of responding to it. The process that comes along with a nonprofit’s RFP also influences the kind of value and insight we can offer an organization in our proposal to help in their partner evaluation process.

As you prepare to write an RFP for a new website, if we can give one recommendation it is to begin with one simple premise: you are largely responsible for the quality and consistency of the proposals you’ll get back. If you’re ready for this responsibility, you’re well on your way to increasing the value you and your organization will get out of the process—and hopefully finding a partner to work with who will offer a lot more than just pushing pixels and lines of code.

As a design firm that’s dedicated to partnering with social change organizations, we get excited to partner with thoughtful clients who express their needs clearly, and who value the expertise we offer to be fully engaged from the beginning. So, when we’re responding to RFP’s, our ability to deliver a thoughtful proposal is directly related to the information contained in the RFP. There’s a bit of a Goldilocks scenario here. Too little information suggests a client who doesn’t understand what a design firm needs to be seriously engaged. And too much information speaks to an overly prescriptive engagement and a less-than-ideal client partnership.

This being said, here are a few characteristics that separate the good from the bad in RFPs we’ve received over the years, with some of our thoughts on how to apply them to the RFP you’re developing.

Garbage in, Garbage Out

Simply put, if your RFP is no good, neither will be the proposals you receive. The best way to develop a strong RFP? Know what you are really asking for and why. That includes being honest about what you do and don’t know—and pointing out in plain terms how you see your partner helping you close those knowledge gaps.Two key things to keep in mind:

  1. What are your goals? Define what you hope your website redesign will accomplish for you—not just from a website or communciations perspective, but from an operational perspective and your broader impact goals. The better you speak to these in your RFP, the better a design firm will be able to understand how your project fits into the bigger picture.
  2. What are your must-haves? Identify the features and functionality you truly need to achieve your objectives. Separate these and for your nice-to-haves, prioritize them accordingly so that if there’s budget to spare, your partner can find a way to deliver them for you.

This one’s too big. This one’s too small. This one’s just right…

The complexity of your RFP is usually a good signal of how much of a priority it is financially for your organization. The effort and scope of detail put into it should match the scope and requirements of the project.

For example, if you write a 5-page summary RFP for a $500K website, you’re likely not to give potential partners enough insight to help you understand how they’d work with you to meet your goals. And not that we recommend aiming for an apples-to-apples comparison of design firms, quite the opposite. You want someone to stand out. But too little information into your goals and requirements will make it that much harder on yourself to evaluate proposals.

Conversely, if you have a limited budget and relatively modest needs, writing a 20 page RFP with extensively detailed requirements is likely a waste of your time and money. It will also scare off firms who might see a relatively straightforward way to do a great job for you, over concern that your expectations will be unrealistic.

Share your budget!

We can’t say this enough: don’t be afraid to publish your budget. Don’t worry, you’re not going to lose a great deal of money because a firm might have charged you less. For most nonprofits, this is highly unlikely. And by sharing your budget, you first let design firms know if they are a good fit for you, and second, let them think about how they’ll accomplish your goals to the best of their ability within the budget you have. After all, you have the budget to spend—don’t you want the best possible result?

By letting potential partners understand your budgetary expectations, you’re likely find several firms that are good fits for your organization (and who you look really appealing to as a result). As a result, they can spend more time and effort to win your business—or not waste your time (and theirs) if there isn’t a fit.

Be Realistic

Website engagements are complex and it’s important to know what to realistically expect for your money. Talk to colleagues and experts; even call a few design firms ahead of any RFP to gain a good sense of what you can expect for your budget (or request more budget if its clear you won’t have enough!). Knowledge is power. By having a good understanding of what things cost in the confusing world of web technology and design, you’ll be able to fearlessly publish a budget‚ and have productive conversations with design firms when discussing your project.

Three good rules of thumb to keep in mind:

  1. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. By being informed and prepared for firms that promise the moon, you’ll avoid either ending up with a partner who wildly under delivers, or one who incrementally bills you for everything
  2. Evaluate on price last. Design is not a commodity, so you are paying more for better results. This comes from a partner with better experience and expertise, a proven track record, greater reliability, a wider breadth of services, and who adds greater consultative value. Assuming you’ve done your homework and have firms who will all be offering budgets in a reasonable range of one another, evaluate the expertise criteria first; THEN look at the price tag.
  3. Consider a Diagnostic! If you have a project that has far more questions than answers AND you lack the expertise to develop a strong RFP that helps bridge the gap between your goals and expectations, consider engaging 2-3 of your favorite firms in a “diagnostic,” where you can pay them a reasonable amount to analyze the situation and make their top recommendations (including budget) in an effor to win your project. This is a great way to recognize their value and —and put it to work by understanding how they view your situation and how they’d help.

Give Respect, Get Respect.

A good proposal takes a lot of time and effort to offer. So do presentations. Don’t start your RFP process by engaging 10 or 15 firms—not only will it waste the time of many partners who likely are not a good fit for your needs, it’ll waste yours and your colleagues having to make sense of all the responses.

Assuming you’ve done your homework and have pre-screened firms that are a good fit for your organization and your budget, then you should be able to limit the candidate field to 3-5 firms—any of whom would do a very good job for you. Ideally, you should be able to get down to two firms you truly love, and then, if you need to hear more, have them in for sit-down conversations. Don’t ask for presentations—those are just another form of being sold like a proposal is.

What you really want to know now is how you’d work together with your soon-to-be partner. How do you click? How effective are their listening skills? What value do they add to the conversation? Do they push your thinking and welcome their own being pushed? Get good answers to these questions from a well-vetted pool of  firms and you’re likely to find a team that will be an outstanding partner.

And lastly, no one likes losing projects—after all, winning them is how we stay in business. Given the time and effort that goes into winning projects, if there’s one thing that is sure to leave a bad impression with a partner you ideally think very highly of, it’s not keeping them up-to-date on your process. Whatever you do, do not go dark once you’ve requested proposals.

Design firms like mine put a lot of energy (and often a lot of ourselves) into proposals. We’re also hopeful for a good partnership with people we like. Nothing throws a wet blanket on that like not having an email responded to for an update on where things stand in the process—even if there’s nothing new to report than “we’re still thinking things through, should be back to you in a week.” And when it comes time to let the unlucky firms know they weren’t chosen, if any ask you for a quick call to learn why (the good ones should), make time for a quick call. The feedback is always appreciated and it costs you nothing to build good will that can pay you back down the road.

Tying it All Together

A well-run RFP process sets the tone for the working relationship with your partner. Handing it well will not only help you find the right design firm to do a great job, it will also save you an enormous amount of time, effort, and participation cost for your organization. As a result you’ll be far more likely to find the right partner to work with—one that fits your organization well and can deliver a more effective, satisfying result.

About the Author

Matthew Schwartz

Matthew Schwartz

For the last 23 years, Matt has specialized in brand strategy and digital design, focusing his passion for social and environmental issues to help organizations achieve greater impact. As Constructive’s leader, Matt plays an active role in collaborating with clients and our teams to develop strategies and design brand experiences that increase mission focus and deepen audience engagement. A frequent writer and speaker, Matt is a regular contributor to The Foundation Center, Communications Network, and other organizations. His work has been recognized for excellence by numerous organizations such as The Webbys, Communication Arts, Print Magazine, The Case Awards, Graphic Design USA, The W3 Awards, The Communicator Awards, and others. Matt earned his Bachelor’s Degree from Sarah Lawrence College in Writing & Visual Arts. He then conducted post-graduate design studies at the School of Visual Arts, Rhode Island School of Design, and Parsons.

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