In my former life (B.C., or “Before Constructive”), I ran a nonprofit in New Zealand that raised awareness and funds for cancer research. Like a lot of nonprofit leaders, I wore many hats and had a wide scope of responsibilities, including the organization’s communication strategy and a major overhaul of our website. I found the latter experience both fascinating and terrifying — and, believe me, the learning curve was steep. Despite my initial trepidation, however, I was gradually bewitched by the process — and the meeting of minds that was our partnership with the agency we eventually selected. It was magic: our mission and vision, their creativity and expertise, all of it leading to something that looked great and truly had the power to change lives.

On returning to the U.S., I made the leap to a brand strategy and design firm with the intention of participating in and experiencing that magic on a more frequent basis. These days, I’m often the first point of contact between Constructive and social sector organizations that reach out to us for assistance. I get to chat with many people like my former colleagues about their challenges and how we can help them better advance their missions.

With half a year under my belt here, I often find myself wishing I could do more to share the agency viewpoint with all the fantastic social change organizations out there. I daydream about time-traveling to tell my past self how to find an agency partner that would not only do a great job on my project, but also bring a perspective to the work that I didn’t know was missing and add value I didn’t know existed.

So, if you’re beginning a search for a branding or digital agency and are struggling to develop an effective RFP, here’s a little helpful guidance (I hope) from a former nonprofit leader who’s moved to the agency world and is deepening her understanding of both sides of the nonprofit-agency equation.

1. Clarify your goals (but don’t be prescriptive).

If you’re issuing an RFP for a website redesign or rebranding project, you’re already familiar with the pain points that brought you to this stage. Of course, the first thing you’ll want to do is to clarify the likely challenges and strategic goals for the project. But don’t get carried away!

As someone responsible for selecting a partner for an important project, it’s tempting to create an RFP that includes everything you might need in painstaking detail. If nothing else, you may tell yourself, it will make it easier to evaluate the proposals you receive in response to the RFP. But there’s a fine line between articulating your goals for a design/rebranding project and being prescriptive about how you expect to achieve those goals. And time you and your colleagues spend “designing” your ideal solution now is likely to be time, as the process unfolds, that’s not well spent.

According to business development expert Blair Enns, the vast amount of information easily accessible on the Internet has led to a dramatic rise in the number of organizations that approach agencies, of all kinds, with entrenched ideas about the solutions needed to solve their problems. And that often leads to unfortunate consequences. You don’t have to be a genius to appreciate Einstein’s observation that “it’s unlikely that [a] problem will be solved from within the context it was created.” While proactivity in a client is something every agency welcomes, it can be a problem when experts in a domain are not allowed to exercise that expertise. A good partner will be equally effective in combining the expertise of the client with its own unique expertise to create something greater than either could achieve on their own. And if there’s one thing agencies bring to the table that clients are unlikely to develop on their own, it’s an “outside” perspective and new thinking.  

So, if you’re issuing an RFP, yes, absolutely, make sure you know what your goals for the engagement are. But before you spend valuable time adding painstaking detail to your RFP, remember that you want to leave room for good ideas not necessarily your own to flourish. Then go find a partner who is willing to ask challenging questions and can help shape, not simply implement, your vision.

2. Know (and be willing to share) your budget for the project.

Many social change organizations are hesitant to share their budget with potential design or branding partners. Believe me, I get it — I didn’t share my budget with firms that were looking to do business with us, and, at the time, I “had my reasons.” Despite the due diligence we had done, I wasn’t confident about what a design project “should” cost and was looking to firms to put a price on it. And, yes, I was also afraid that agencies in the hunt for our business would try to pull the wool over my eyes and raise their price to match the budget we had shared with them. But now that I’m on the other side, I see things differently.

Trying to estimate what your project “should” cost is time well-spent. Do you need a basic brochure website that can be built on SquareSpace, or do you have ambitious digital goals that require the skills of a partner with serious technical chops? How heavy is the lift? Unless you have carte blanche from your board and bottomless funds, establishing realistic budget expectations for a project is essential. And once those expectations have been established, you need to share them with potential partners.

I understand why people don’t like to discuss money up front. But open and honest conversations around budgets are critical if you hope to create a project plan that will achieve your goals. Budget is a design consideration, and good design firms should be able to work with you to prioritize and/or scale back features, identifying must-haves from nice-to-haves. Think of the design firm as a consultative partner advising you on how to get the biggest bang for your buck and offering a menu of options customized to your needs. If you refuse to share or discuss budget, you will be cheating yourself of the opportunity to have those kinds of conversations, and at the end of the day that’s lousy for everyone involved.

3. Have a realistic timeline.

Shifts in branding or digital strategy often are driven by changes in a strategic plan or other time-sensitive initiatives. And website redesigns have been a pain point for nonprofit leaders, well, forever. But in my experience, what often pushes an organization to commit to a website overhaul is something they see happening “down the road.” Unfortunately, the future almost always arrives much faster than you expect it to.

The majority of RFPs I see propose completion dates for projects based on egregiously optimistic “project kickoff” dates. Organizations habitually underestimate the time it takes to choose a partner and get started on a project: by the time key stakeholders have met with all the agencies under consideration, compared cost estimates, and come to a decision, they are already well into their timeline. Of course, this almost always creates panic and affects an organization’s ability to make smart decisions.

Given the strategic importance to an organization of branding and its website, you really don’t want to rush through the strategy, design, and implementation process. Because you’re investing valuable time and money, you want to do it right the first time, and cutting corners almost always will come back to haunt you. So do yourself a favor and avoid a lot of panic, stress, and regret by establishing a realistic timeline that includes a cushion for unforeseen contingencies.

4. Narrow the  field.

After you’ve determined  your goals, requirements, and budget, it’s time to identify potential partners. Use Google and whatever tools you have at your disposal to find websites you like, and don’t be shy about reaching out to those organizations to ask who designed and built their site. Next, spend some time looking at various agencies’ work to determine whether it resonates with you, and check out rating resources like Clutch that speak with former clients and publish detailed agency ratings.

In my former life as a nonprofit leader, I tended to approach the RFP process in a “more the merrier” spirit. I mean, who knew, maybe a superstar firm would come out of the woodwork. But while it’s natural to want to have as many options as possible, studies have shown that having too many options can paralyze a decision-maker or group of decision-makers and can even lead to people making a decision that isn’t in their best interest. I experienced this firsthand and can say without hesitation that you are doing yourself, and the design firms you are thinking about working with, a disservice by not limiting your pool of candidates. Reading and assessing proposals submitted in response to a well-crafted RFP requires a significant amount of time — time that could be drastically reduced by engaging in candid conversations with potential partners that give you an opportunity to determine whether there is even the possibility of a good fit between the firm and your organization.

So once you’ve identified a handful of firms, reach out and try to meet or speak with them before issuing an RFP. Through these discussions, you should be able to narrow your list of potential partners to an exclusive, qualified few.

5. Decide whether you really need an RFP.

Lastly, before you issue an RFP, consider whether you really need to. Are you doing it because you’re bound to a procurement process? Is it because that’s how you think clients and agencies find one another? There’s increasing resistance out there to the RFP process from agencies and social change organizations alike who recognize it may not be the most efficient or effective way of identifying a partner.  

Having been on both sides of the equation, I’m officially anti-RFP. (Stay tuned for a future rant…) Social organizations spend far too much time creating RFPs and feeling compelled to explain the entire background of the project and every lofty goal they hope to achieve. And, as I’ve noted, good agencies are likely to challenge your assumptions and want to dig deeper to develop their own understanding of the big picture. So is it really a good use of your time to develop a detailed list of needs and requirements, only to have your eventual partner put it aside?

Summing Up

Regardless of your position vis-a-vis RFPs, be sure to focus on the quality of the conversations you have with potential design partners. Speak with them before you request a proposal — and after you receive it. Ask questions, invite questioning from the firms themselves, and try not to play your cards too close to your vest. After all, it’s the experts you end up working with and the process they bring with them that will determine the ultimate success of your project!