Digital projects are often based on the release of an organization’s Request for Proposals (RFP) that outlines the project goals, needs, and requirements. While this is a good way to elicit detailed responses, another effective approach is to first launch a Request for Information (RFI), which allows you to get detailed input from vendors that is more focused on how their expertise and experience fit with your organization, rather than on a specific project proposal.
A challenge that many mission-driven organizations face is that they develop and release an RFP, select a partner based on the responses they receive, but then find that as the work kicks off, new issues and needs come to light which suggests that a different direction should have been taken, and perhaps with a different project plan and/or partner vendor.
In our experience working with large nonprofits, foundation and membership organizations, a Request for Information (RFI) can be a smart first step before the release of a Request for Proposals (RFP) to ensure that you are taking the right direction, and with the right selection of vendors.
The benefits of an RFI
An RFI can lead to better decision making on a project and partner direction because it is centered on having conversations with potential bidders about their proven successes, and less on theoretical approaches or a rigid project plan.
When undergoing an RFI, you articulate your general needs, and send the RFI to a number of firms, inviting them to express interest in your potential project. From the feedback you receive, you are able to gain more insights into what you want to develop within your RFP, as well as create a shortlist of firms to include in your eventual RFP process.
[Important] If you choose to go this way, be both brief and concise. This is unpaid work, and as contractors and vendors will be prioritizing their responses to proposal or contract requirements, they are more likely to respond to RFIs that are a reasonable and valuable investment of time.
The components of an RFI
The format is flexible, and it’s up to you to determine what input you want, page length, etc. Some RFIs ask for responses to specific questions, request corporate capabilities, or ask for short white papers in order to collect more consistent feedback. When developing an RFI, the following base items should be included.
1. Information about you
- Your organizational context: Explain your organizational needs and why you are looking to take on this project at this time.
- Your baseline: Provide information about your current state such as:
- What you are currently doing
- What has and hasn’t been working for you
- Market research and data that you’ve done or have drawn upon to inform your decision making
- What success looks like to you, e.g., how you wish to measure success
- Your needs: Communicate any specific needs you already know, including non-negotiable issues and must-have items.
- Your budget: While this does not need to be specific at this point, provide a sense or range of what you are exploring, including any flexibility or openness you might have. This will be helpful for potential partners to know if they are even remotely a good fit.
- Deciding factors: Articulate what are looking for in a partner and which deciding factors will go into your final decision.
2. Information about them
- Past successes: Learn about what they have done that works. Ask for several examples of past projects that are comparable to yours. These should include a description of the challenges faced, the approach taken, and the final solution implemented. They should also include information about the team used, schedule, and budget.
- Background: Find out who these firms are. Ask them to provide information like their story, what makes them successful, and what their direction is for the future.
3. Information about the project
- Project feedback: Share general details and information that you have developed so far, and ask them for recommendations on how you can make it clearer or easier to bid on.
- Budget feedback: Directly ask if your pricing estimate is realistic and if they have any other related budgetary questions that could help them better prepare a bid for you.
Collecting RFI responses
Send the RFI out to firms that you have identified as viable partners (in general, we suggest no more than eight firms). Based on RFI responses, narrow down to two or three potential partners to bring in for in-depth conversations. For these conversations, you will want to be clear in advance about your goal of narrowing down the pool of vendors and what feedback you are expecting from those you invite.
We recommend putting out an RFP only to the companies that you have already vetted as a good match for your needs. Alternatively, you can put the RFP out to a wider field based on the feedback you received during the RFI process. With all this information, you are able to select the best firms with whom to move forward.