How to Write a Better Request for Proposal: RFPs from the Consultant’s Side of the Desk

The premise appears simple: libraries want to hire a consultant with the expertise their organization needs, and consultants seek interesting projects with clients that are a good fit in terms of work style and capabilities. Writing a RFP is hard work. Writing a proposal is hard work. Both require time and effort and are generally viewed with some apprehension. Having responded to literally hundreds (perhaps even a thousand!) of RFPs, I can attest: the better the RFP, the better the proposal! Here are a few tips from the consultant's side of the desk that may help your library get the desired result.

Solicit ideas about questions and issues that pertain to your project.

Before you write your RFP, consider calling some of the consultants you think would be likely to bid or you would like to have bid (unless prohibited by regulation or policy, of course). Get a sense of the consultant's style, responsiveness, energy level, expertise, and availability. These calls provide insights that even the best-written RFPs may not elicit. They also give desirable prospective bidders a "heads up" to watch for the RFP when it is issued.

Report back to your board and confirm with them their commitment to the project and the deliverables they envision.

If your board isn't "on board" with project specifications and expectations before the RFP is written, it is unlikely they will agree when proposals are reviewed. (You may even want to prepare the proposal "grading sheet" at the same time the RFP is prepared to ensure you evaluate submissions in accordance with the original vision for the project.)

Get the details in one place.

On the RFP cover, clearly state the issue date, due date and time, address for sending responses (consider paperless electronic submissions), contact information and date by which all questions should be submitted.

Consider the flow of the RFP.

Begin the request with a concise, coherent explanation of the background of this project as well as details about the library's mission, history, facilities, programs and use statistics, governance and anything else relevant to the project. Divide response requirements into two main sections. The first should include:

  • A statement of understanding of the background of the project
  • Concise, coherent scope of work; deliverables; and anticipated completion date
  • Methodology
  • Timeline

The second section should ask:

  • Description of the firm and relevant experience
  • Resumes
  • References
  • Fees for services

Inform bidders of the selection process.

Be sure to include an explanation of the evaluation criteria (i.e. Will the contract automatically be awarded to the lowest bidder or will local firms being given preference?) and the date by which a decision will be made.

Decide whether to reveal the budget for the project.

A published budget helps respondents decide whether to respond and, if responding, how to allocate funding. The fear that revealing the budget may not get you the lowest price is far outweighed by the probability that respondents will tailor the methodology to get you what you want at the price you can afford to pay. Your evaluation then can be based on best value, not lowest cost.

Communicate with bidders.

Consultants will tell you that, too often, proposals go into a deep dark hole, and they never hear what happened to them. Let them know of delays in making a decision. Let them know if the project is canceled for some reason. Notify everyone who submits a proposal when a decision is made and tell them the name of the successful bidder. Be willing to provide feedback to respondents regarding their proposal if they are interested. These are courtesies that build better relationships and ultimately go to serve the profession--library and library consulting--well.