Before You Distribute an RFP, Narrow Down the Field With an RFI

  • Photo of Tobin Conley
    Tobin Conley

Barbara sat with her colleagues in the back of the room exchanging discreet fist bumps. The board had just approved the budget for the new content management system (CMS). After the meeting, the CEO asked her to get a request for proposals (RFP) out as soon as they got back to the office, because the president wants the new system to be up and running before the annual conference. 

A few days later, she looked through the association buyers’ guide and the ads in the latest issue of Associations Now to find CMS vendors and consultants. She found 13 whom she thought might provide CMS implementation; she really wasn’t sure. Then she went logged into the ASAE Collaborate online community to ask for recommendations; she got 8 more names! She sent an RFP to all of them – 21 in total.

The Consequences of a Buckshot Approach to RFPS

Barbara received proposals from 10 firms (about half of those she contacted), none of whom were among those recommended by Collaborate users. Why didn’t those firms respond?

First, several consultants have said on Collaborate that they no longer respond to RFPs like Barbara’s that are sent out with a “cattle call” or “spray and pray” approach. Thoughtful, accurate proposals require a great deal of effort on the vendor’s part; they’re not likely to go after a longshot when the association doesn’t narrow the list down to the most appropriate set of solution providers.

Second, she sent out the RFP without doing a thorough requirements analysis. Vendors didn’t have the information they needed to submit an accurate proposal, and they weren’t supposed to call her, so they didn’t bother.

Here’s what she’ll never know: 3 of the firms who declined to reply would have been a great match for the project. What a missed opportunity for the association – and the vendors!

A Wiser Approach to Market Research

You can have a consultant help you with the selection process or you can spend some time on market research. Here’s how we do it. 

After we get to know our client, we use our knowledge of the association technology market to help them pre-select a small field of potential partners. Then the match-making begins.

We introduce the client and a potential vendor to each other with an initial phone call, followed by a demonstration and discussion that’s targeted to the client’s specific needs (not the vendor’s bright and shiny object). The field is narrowed down and some (not necessarily all) of the potential vendors submit nuanced and informed proposals. There’s likely more dialogue and Q&A before a final decision is made and the winning vendor is chosen.

If you don’t have a consultant working with you on your requirements and selection, you need to do your own preliminary market research. Barbara was on the right track with her initial efforts – buyers’ guide, advertisements, Collaborate. But she should have talked to association peers, checked out vendor websites, and done some Googling.

She Should Have Sent Out a Request for Information (RFI).

An RFI doesn’t ask for same depth of information as an RFP, but instead helps to narrow down the field by finding out who has the relevant experience and expertise. You might compare an RFI to an employment ad. You’ll collect a lot of resumes in response to the ad (the RFI), but the real match-making begins when you call in the finalists to discuss their suitability for the job (the RFP). 

What Does an Organization Typically Include in an RFI?

  • A description of the project – its context (the “why”), challenges, desired outcomes, and success factors
  • Desired timeline
  • Technological environment – a description of the key systems that must integrate with the desired solution
  • Budget – if the budget is firm and therefore a major consideration

What Does a Vendor Provide in Response to an RFI?

  • A description of relevant products and services
  • An overview of experiences with similar institutions, projects, and integrations
  • Their approach to your toughest challenge
  • Customer service and support philosophy/practices
  • Any other critical factors that will help you make your “first cut”

After reviewing the responses to your RFI, the next step is to develop and distribute an RFP to just 3-5 firms. And that’s the topic of our next post!

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