How to Write an RFP for Library Strategic Planning

When beginning the strategic planning process, consider: Why should the Library hire a strategic planning consultant instead of going it alone? What are the dos and don'ts for writing the strategic planning RFP? How should the Library evaluate vendor proposals?

Prefer to listen instead of read? Listen to the Advancing America's Libraries Podcast episode, Issuing an RFP for Strategic Planning.

Library Strategic Planning: Why Not Just Do It Yourself

The decision to engage an outside consultant to conduct your strategic planning initiative is no trivial matter. The financial considerations alone might well lead one to task members of the senior management team—indeed, those who know the Library best—to conduct the study internally.

Library consultants bring objectivity and fresh perspectives to the process.

Hiring and working with consultants for your library is all about finding the “best fit”. What are you looking for in a consultant? To manage a complex process or project that staff members don’t have time or expertise to complete? To develop mediated solutions to contentious challenges?

Time and again, our clients have shared with us and others the significant advantages they experienced in working with The Ivy Group. At the top of that list: as independent consultants, we bring professional objectivity to strategic planning, immune to any "library politics" or internal biases. Having worked closely with libraries across the country, our team has a broader understanding of industry best practices than staff whose capacity to see possibilities may be clouded by the filter of "how things have always been done."

Engaging consultants means less disruption for library leadership and staff.

Perhaps most importantly, we provide clients with access to a highly credentialed team equipped with the resources to plan and implement a strategic planning endeavor in an effective, timely manner. In collaborating with The Ivy Group, you can be assured that your planning initiative will proceed thoughtfully and expeditiously while your staff remains focused on their daily duties of running the Library and serving its customers.

Conducting research confirms, refutes, and alters internal hunches. 

The planning team begins with a set of assumptions that evolve as we conduct research with stakeholders, influentials, library users, and non-users. Generally, librarians have strong hunches about what needs to be done, and research confirms, refutes, and alters the shading of those hunches. More important, the process of asking the questions opens up whole new dimensions of learning. Research always seems to raise new questions, and unforeseen opportunities present themselves in the course of strategic planning.

RFP Dos and Don'ts

We review dozens and dozens of RFPs every year. Some are concise, clear in their intent, and signal prospective bidders that the issuing organization knows what they are doing. Others, frankly, are a mess: they’re fraught with inconsistencies, incomplete information, unrealistic expectations, and inappropriate requirements. Badly written and/or discourteous RFPs discourage participation in the bidding process, often soliciting responses that don’t fit the bill. Overall, poorly-prepared RFPs waste everybody’s time and reflect poorly on the issuing organization.

We’d like to make some suggestions that ensure RFPs elicit on-the-mark proposals from a qualified pool of respondents.

Communicate RFP process expectations.

Clearly and concisely review the background and purpose of the project, the anticipated timeline, anticipated deliverables, and evaluation criteria.

If your library must issue an RFP through a municipal or other similar public authority, respect the procurement officer’s role but communicate clearly your expectations for the process.

Do your homework and budget adequately for the work.

Reaching out to prospective bidders for some ballpark pricing and input into crafting a reasonable RFP is worthwhile. Make sure you explain that any assistance given in advance does not guarantee they will receive the work in a competitive environment.

Some organizations feel that revealing a budget ensures non-competitive pricing. However, being completely uncommunicative about your financial resources can result in sticker-shock bids. Consider communicating a budget or budget range while emphasizing the importance of fair pricing and its relative weight in the final selection of consultants. This enables vendors to make educated decisions about whether or not they should respond and how to craft a response that is appropriate to the budget.

Allow RFP responses to have options and add-ons.

It benefits your organization to be able to pick and choose from a variety of activities, especially if prices come in higher than expected.

Make sure you are clear about costs and expenses. Do not overlook the costs of travel, copying, communications, and meeting expenses, among others. For the most accurate pricing, define communications and meeting expectations: when do you expect face-to-face vs. conference calls or web meetings?

Outline realistic timelines.

Allow adequate time for bidders to develop their proposals—at least four weeks.

If an in-person interview is required of finalists, allow enough time between notification and presentation to enable vendors to prepare and, if at a distance, to secure reasonably priced airfare.

Make sure you set reasonable deadlines and milestones and respect the fact that consultants have other clients,  not just you.

Make it as easy as possible to submit proposals.

Provide up front the name and contact information of the person to whom the proposal should be sent and the date and time when it is due (never immediately before or after a holiday).

Acknowledge that we are in the twenty-first century and allow electronic attendance at pre-proposal meetings and electronic submissions of proposals.

When Evaluating Offeror Proposals

Select with objectivity.

If a board member or donor is pushing a particular consultant, make sure you have additional trustees, staff, or community members involved in the selection process for objectivity and transparency.

Recognize that selection committees don’t have to be democratically composed.

Steer clear of naysayers and obstructionists. Include your most talented, energetic, and interested. This is a great opportunity to provide a “rising star” with an engaging project.

Consider the project team.

Evaluate consultant experiences and track record in the specific area of need. Call references and ask probing questions.

Make sure you know who will be assigned to your project and consider how their personality fits the team. You and your team are likely to have many hours of intense and tiring work with the consultant. Ask yourself: would I enjoy working with these folks?

Follow up with bidders.

After submission, acknowledge proposal receipt and let bidders know when they might hear back. Especially if there is an unforeseen delay, update bidders about the timing of decisions.

On contract ratification, promptly notify firms not awarded the contract; tell them how many RFPs were received, the name of the winning firm, and an offer to provide feedback on their proposals.

Publicize the contract award to promote the planning process.

Issuing a press release or announcement on your website lets those most interested know what the library is going to be doing. The announcement should also explain how the community will be invited to participate in the planning effort.

Once the RFP has been issued and a consultant selected, it's time for the next step: assembling an effective strategic planning committee.

Advancing America's Libraries Podcast episode on Library Strategic Plan RFPs with Ellen Roberson