Madison Ave. Collective

est. 2008

Nonprofits exist to make an impact. And branding can help you deepen the impact you make: clarifying your goals, translating your mission into a powerful story, and bringing your entire organization into alignment.

The importance of branding for nonprofits is well expressed by several notable names, including the World Wildlife Fund, The Red Cross, and Cancer Research UK, all of which are “widely recognized,” as “people from all over the world know what they do and who they are,” said Dan Linn at Solution Link. Why are these organizations well known? — “because they have a great brand strategy.”

Developing such a strategy is a complex task that touches on many different areas, all of which are achievable with the right expertise. What’s often most difficult lies closer to home: getting internal buy-in from your team during the branding process.

Today we’re going to share a simple technique to help you move through that challenge successfully. Before we go there, let’s start by looking at some of the markers of a strong brand.

Building a stronger brand

A strong brand is one that differentiates your nonprofit from others in the same space. One that harnesses the power of storytelling to communicate what you do in a way that inspires people to join in your mission. One that builds credibility by expressing your leadership, your impact, and your partnerships.

To bring these thoughts to life, let’s see how our client, the Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems at Oregon State University, does so.

Example: the Center for Small Farms

The Center for Small Farms hired the MAC to strengthen their brand with a messaging toolkit that included an elevator pitch, several audience-specific value propositions, and extended copywriting appropriate for a variety of applications (such as a website or brochure).

Here are a few excerpts that demonstrate some of the principles we mentioned above.

1. Express leadership

“The Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems is a leader in sustainable, local food production. We’re working all over Oregon to unravel challenges and create innovation in farming communities.”

2. Express impact

“Small farms boost local economies, support the environment, promote public awareness, and build community resilience. And every dollar of support helps us do more.”

3. Express partnerships

“We have partners in every corner of the industry, who trust us because we’re effective and support us because it matters.”

By developing language designed to strengthen our client’s brand, we helped the nonprofit position itself to reach larger donors and pursue its financial goals.

That said, doing good work is only part of the process. How a nonprofit handles feedback within its team plays a major role in determining how successful that work will be.

The buy-in challenge

It’s one thing to hire an agency to partner with you on your branding. It’s quite another to persuade your internal stakeholders on that partner’s strategic recommendations.

Why is it so hard?

The disconnect comes down to a difference in what we know, and where we’re standing.

1. Different expertise

The staff and board of a nonprofit are experts in doing the work of the organization, and they typically care a great deal about that work. Specialists within a branding firm, meanwhile, are experts in brand communication.

Sometimes it’s hard for internal stakeholders to trust external expertise, because it stems from a skill set and rationale outside their own experience.

2. Different vantage point

Internal stakeholders are insiders: they have powerful insight into the nonprofit’s values and offerings. But being immersed also lends itself to blind-spots about how your organization is perceived by those you seek to reach.

Sometimes the creative solutions that meet the needs of your external audiences feel counterintuitive to an insider. When doing the tremendously important work of branding, it’s crucial to see from the outside in.

Seek feedback — not buy-in

The solution to this challenge is disarmingly simple. Change the goal from “getting everyone’s buy-in” to “hearing everyone’s input.”

It’s rare for everyone on a large team to agree on anything, let alone on creative decisions. In fact, perfect consensus can be detrimental to creative work. The most daring, noticeable, memorable, and effective ideas are also the most likely to get cut right off the bat, leaving only the safest and blandest ideas to be getting on with.

Great branding isn’t the result of unanimous committee agreement. It’s the work of small, tightly focused teams with the experience, research, and insight to make decisions that prove their worth over time.

To be clear, it’s vital to include your team in the branding process. As internal experts, their perspectives are invaluable. As ambassadors of your brand, they need to be on the same page about what it all means. And as human beings, they’re sure to feel frustrated if they’re ignored.

Switching the focus from buy-in to feedback addresses all these needs at once.

How it works

1. Seek input early and often

Be proactive about collecting input from those with the vantage point to offer meaningful feedback. Listen well, evaluate how their input aligns with stated project goals, and integrate what’s useful.

2. Reserve the right to make a different decision

Don’t count on getting 100 percent buy-in on any step of the branding process. Allow yourself to rule out feedback that’s off target. Expect some amount of disagreement with your decisions. It’s normal for people to dislike what they aren’t used to; that’s a human impulse.

Remember, the goal isn’t to please everyone on your team, but to make decisions that empower your organization to do its best work.

When you take this approach, beautiful things can happen. Even amid internal disagreement, proactive listening combined with confident leadership can bring an entire team together.

The process in action: the Center for Small Farms

The client we mentioned earlier in this article is a case in point. Here’s how the process went for the Center for Small Farms.

  1. We did our homework: the MAC performed a brand audit, then conducted interviews with the nonprofit’s directors, extension agents working directly with farmers, the farmers themselves, and others.
  2. Drawing from what we learned about the nonprofit’s mission, offerings, lived culture, and audiences, we developed messaging components firmly founded on research and expertise.
  3. We worked with the nonprofit’s directors (a team of two) to fine-tune the messaging.
  4. We scheduled a round-table discussion to present the refined work to the larger team and collect their feedback.
  5. We met with the two directors to review the team’s input and evaluate what we heard. We didn’t incorporate every note, but we did consider every voice and integrate input that served the project goals.

The result was a strong, unified messaging toolkit, which will help the entire nonprofit unify their voice throughout the state of Oregon. And because each team member knows their voice was heard, they’re ready to stand behind it.

Tricky, but worth it

At the MAC we understand how hard it can be for nonprofit teams to navigate internal politics, avoid the pitfalls of committee decision-making, and gather multiple perspectives into a productive consensus. It’s a process we’ve helped many of our clients navigate.

In fact, we see it as part of our job as a branding partner to provide this type of guidance, helping each organization work through their internal process successfully to arrive at a final product that truly serves their goals.

Hard work? Sure, it can be.

Worth every minute? Absolutely.

This article is also published on Medium.

Branding for nonprofits is not just a fundraising tactic. In fact, it’s not a tactic at all. Branding is a strategy that serves as the compass for your different initiatives.

A strong brand builds your trustworthiness and credibility. And the best way to grow trust and connect people to your nonprofit is through brand storytelling.

Your story creates a connection between your organization and individuals. It invites them to get involved and shape a future narrative.

We’re not just telling a story to entertain. The goal is to tell a story that draws people in and inspires them to share it with their own connections. You want to engage your audience in a powerful way that elicits emotional connection that translates to taking action.

Brand storytelling framework

You may doubt your ability to tell a captivating story. You may even doubt that your nonprofit has a story worth telling. But I say, baloney.

You don’t lack the ability and you’re not without a story. What you’re missing is a framework to weave your nonprofit’s brand into a story that wins you followers.

For this, we’ll turn to Joseph Campbell.

Campbell, a mythological researcher, was best known for his work in comparative mythology and religion. Through his studies he discovered a common narrative pattern called the hero’s journey.

The hero’s journey provides a foundational framework that can be applied to crafting a captivating brand story that has emotional appeal, is relatable, and will draw people in.

We’ll roughly follow Campbell’s concept to illustrate how you can use the hero’s journey to tell your nonprofit’s brand story. A quick case study on the nonprofit charity:water will provide a concrete example of how to put the framework into action.

Step one: Identify your main character and their trigger

Every story needs a main character or protagonist. This character (or hero) is someone or something that your audience can identify with and have empathy for.

Your main character is likely your founder, but it could also be your nonprofit as a whole, your product, or service.

Once you’ve identified your main character, list out their main personality traits and attributes. These attributes can help you connect with your audience in a humanistic way.

Charity:water’s main character is its founder Scott Harrison. Years of promoting nightclubs and fashion events in New York left him financially successful but spiritually bankrupt.

This tension and frustration was his trigger. Harrison asked himself, “What would the opposite of my life look like?”

He leaned in to the trigger and signed up for an eight-month volunteer position on Mercy Ships: hospital ships that provide free medical service to the world’s poorest nations.

Step two: Address the conflict

Your hero’s conflict doesn’t need to be absolutely gut-wrenching to be inspiring or believable. But without conflict, your story is a lullaby.

Since you’re a nonprofit, the conflict to include in your story is likely found in your mission statement. Your conflict is the issue or problem you are determined to solve.

For Cornerstone Associates, a client of the MAC, the main conflict it addresses are the barriers people with mental and physical disabilities face in becoming integrated into the community.

For Harrison, when he was volunteering with Mercy Ships, he encountered a level of poverty and disease that he didn’t know existed. This experience conflicted with what he believed to be an acceptable standard of living and became the impetus for starting his nonprofit.

When speaking to their followers, charity:water invites people to imagine what life would be like without water. This stirs up an inner conflict with the goal of encouraging people to get involved with the nonprofit’s cause.

Step three: The revelation

The struggle with conflict leads to the eventual revelation that the issue or problem can be addressed.

For your nonprofit’s story, the revelation could be how your founder discovered a solution to a specific problem or how a service you offer addresses a specific need.

When Harrison returned to New York, he was determined to address the medical problems related to inadequate access to clean drinking water.

On his 31st birthday, he launched charity:water by asking for donations of $31 instead of gifts. This first step to addressing the identified problem brought in $15,000 and helped build the nonprofit’s first wells.

For followers of charity:water, they understand how their financial contributions or sweat equity contribute to improved health and quality of life.

Step four: Leading the transformation

This is the part of the story where you show how your nonprofit is solving an issue in a unique way. Through the transformation, you illustrate the value you provide. This transformation invites your followers to to connect with you on an emotional and logical level.

The brand story for charity:water contains two transformations. Harrison was personally transformed, and through his nonprofit he is transforming the lives of others.

Finding your nonprofit’s brand story

Now that you have a foundational framework, get out there and look for your brand stories. Stories are developing every day; you just have to be willing to look.

Look for small, specific stories that bring your brand to life. How did a project help one person? Was a volunteer transformed by working with your nonprofit?

Win followers

By working with the hero’s journey framework and being on constant alert for intriguing stories, you’re well armed to craft a story that solidifies your nonprofit brand in people’s minds and wins you followers.

When you tell a captivating story, you humanize your nonprofit and invite connection. When you strike a chord, your story will inspire people to follow along and actively help you achieve your mission.

This article is also published on Medium.

It’s a summer evening and you’re attending a benefit concert for a local nonprofit.

As your eyes sweep the crowd, you notice a 55-year-old woman subtly snapping pictures of the band that she’ll later post to Facebook or text to her kids. She has donated to the nonprofit for years, and the concert is just one more opportunity to make a contribution.

Meanwhile, a 37-year-old couple is hovering around the beer garden, waiting for their chance to take a picture with the nonprofit director and big benefactors so they can impress their Facebook friends. As they wait, they browse the organization’s website to learn about donation opportunities.

A group of 25-year-old friends first learned about the concert thanks to the trendy band. When they found out it was a benefit concert — extra bonus! As the lead singer croons, they artfully take pictures and videos for their Instagram feed: #giveback.

Everyone appears to be enjoying the evening, but as a member of the board of directors, you’re concerned that the nonprofit has missed an opportunity to drive home its message with potential advocates.

What could have been done differently?

Generational marketing

Generational marketing, the strategy of segmenting audiences based on generational characteristics, provides marketers with insights to the preferences, ideals, and values held by different age groups.

This knowledge allows organizations to craft messages that will resonate with target audience segments. That said, as with any segmentation strategy, remember that each audience group is comprised of unique individuals. Be wary of making sweeping generalizations or stereotypical appeals.

How to use it

Depending on your business sector, your unique selling point or brand promise could be cross-generational. This is especially likely if you’re directing a nonprofit.

Regardless, when sharing your message you’ll need to adjust your approach to effectively reach different generational segments.

Start with common characteristics, and then dig deeper for each targeted generation.

Once you’ve nailed down your message for each segment, you can ask:

Messages that drive action and engagement

So, how can you use generational targeting to drive engagement and action among different audience segments? Here are some ideas to get you started.

For Baby Boomers, your message could appeal to their desire for self-fulfillment by using the second person point of view. Also, do not remind them that they are aging.

Marketing tactics for baby boomers

When creating a compelling message for Generation X, focus on your brand value. Make a direct connection between their individual needs and how your brand could impact their life. Also, if appropriate, subtly appeal to status.

Marketing tactics for generation X

When targeting Generation Y (aka Millennials), brands have the opportunity to align their message with this generation’s desire to make a difference and help the greater good. If you do this while creatively communicating your brand’s personality, you’ve struck gold.

Marketing ideas for millennials

Encore: Taking these principles to the next concert

Another benefit concert has arrived.

This time, your nonprofit has a firm understanding of the generational differences and preferences among its target audience groups. With this knowledge, you’ve used targeted messaging in your pre-event promotions to encourage attendance.

You recognized Baby Boomers as valuable contributors, thanked them for their regular donations, and told them that the founders wanted to meet them in person at the concert. At the concert they received material about becoming a legacy donor, meeting their desire to make a long-term impact.

You encouraged Generation X to attend, since the funds raised could improve their families’ access to a new community initiative. The invitation to become a regular donor was included in their confirmation email.

You targeted Generation Y through messaging that clearly outlined how attendance would help the organization raise the remaining funds necessary to finish a community project. You also provided the opportunity to text your nonprofit a small donation, as the first step towards a long-term relationship.

As a result, attendance increased 20 percent over the previous year, and the nonprofit met its fundraising goal. Better yet, individuals from Generation X and Y — groups that had been minimally engaged — signed up for volunteer opportunities and sustaining, automated donations.

Knowing your target audience’s age and the factors that shape generational attitudes and perceptions allows you to craft a message that is more likely to resonate and drive action.

This article is also published on Medium.

If you’re a project manager looking for guidance on finding the best creative partner, or a procurement specialist looking for ways to streamline your company’s policies, this book will help you navigate your search and get results that provide the return on investment you need.

Love ’em or hate ’em, Request for Proposals (RFPs) are standard practice for many non-profit, higher education, and government organizations, and this leaves project managers with few options when they’re purchasing tangible goods or professional services.

If this is your first project lead, make sure you know your organization’s regulations and purchasing limits. Be aware of all your options. With professional services like design and website development, there are lots of reason to avoid an RFP.

But if an RFP is your only option, there is a right way to conduct the process.

Developing the RFP

Here’s how to develop an efficient RFP for professional services that gets you better results in less time.

1. Establish an effective team who can get on the same page about the project goals. Honest feedback and effective collaboration is an essential part of working with a team. Differences of opinion can be helpful for honing in on the goals and needs of your project. But you must manage the fine line between constructive discussion and derailing disagreement. Don’t be afraid to trim the fat from your team if you have a team member who disrupts the flow of the process.

2. Provide context for the project. Once your team is established, you need to determine the key elements of your RFP. These are important to the responding firm’s ability to develop an effective proposal that meets your organization where you are and solves your problems. These items include:

3. Determine your budget. Some people believe that keeping your project budget a secret from potential respondents helps you to get the best deal.What it really does is hamper your ability to find the partner who is the best fit for your organization. If you hide your budget you will inevitably get responses with a wide variance in cost, experience, and ability. This means more time on your part to evaluate proposals that you’ll never select because of the cost or lack of fit. You will also have wasted money on the part of the firms developing those proposals just for you to throw them out without real consideration.

Clearly defining a budget or at least a budget range allows firms to decide if they can provide you with an effective solution to your problem within the given budget. Those that can will write proposals, and those that can’t will self-select out which saves both parties time and energy.

After setting your budget, instead of focusing on getting the best deal (i.e. price), focus on getting the best value. In other words, focus on identifying the firm who is giving you the most return on your investment given the budget limitations by evaluating the combination of deliverables and quality of work they are offering to complete for you.

If you truly have an open-ended budget for your project, then your team should determine the value of this project to your organization.

These are just a few examples, but all of these questions will help you to determine value and establish a budget. That budget will help all potential partners determine if they are really the right fit for you.

4. Determine respondent requirements. Once you’ve clearly articulated your pieces of the RFP that help to educate the respondents about your organization and the particular project, it’s now your turn to get specific with a few requirements for the responding firms that define how much control your team wants over the creative process, and what you need to see from them to determine best fit.

Be clear about what you want from them, but be respectful of their time. We all know the old adage that “time is money” and RFP responses cost time to develop and evaluate. To be efficient, your goal should be to develop an RFP that is as efficient as possible while still sharing all the information a firm needs to respond. Requirements you should request include:

Of all of these, the most important piece to consider here is whether your team will outline the statement of work (i.e. the solution to your problem), the process, and the timeline for the project, or whether you will simply identify the problem and let your applicants outline these other elements (the process, timeline, and ultimate deliverables) for you.

The benefit of the first option is that your team has control of how you want the work done, and the deliverables you receive at the end of the process. The negative is that when we identify our own problems and solutions we often bring preconceptions to the process that blind us to alternative solutions that may better serve us. This is magnified when dealing with technology because innovation is constantly happening, so you may not even be aware of other solutions that are available to you.

In “Expository Sketch is the New RFP,” Stanford University Technology Strategist Zach Chandler provides good insight as to why engaging your partner firm in helping to solve your problem is essential to successful projects.

While Chandler advocates for doing this outside of the RFP process, if you must seek this problem-solving expertise within the RFP framework, the firm’s response will also give you insight into their process, creative vision, and strategic thinking abilities.

5. Gather any additional information needed. Depending on your project you may consider asking a few additional questions beyond those outlined above. But don’t ask for frivolous requirements, documentation or intrusive information that has no real bearing on your project.

Examples of these frivolous requirements and questions that the MAC team has seen in RFPs include (but are not limited to):

Tell us about a challenge that you’ve faced and overcome.
What project would you like to re-do?
What’s one question we should be asking and haven’t?
After providing a fixed cost bid and an estimate of hours needed to complete the project, please provide a breakdown of each individual team members estimated hours and hourly rate.
Please provide project budgets and scope for similar projects you’ve completed for other clients.

Some of these questions are a waste of time for firms to respond to and your team to read the answers to. This only serves to distract from the only elements of the RFP that truly matter: the quality of the work, the process, the timeline, and the total proposed cost.

As for budgets, the only thing that should really matter is whether you think the work being done for you is worth the price the firm has placed on it. As with all businesses, as a firm does good work and grows, inevitably so will their internal overhead costs. It’s unfair to the firm for your team to try to nickel-and-dime them for the same rate they charged a client five years before. If your team feels the quality of work being proposed is worth the price tag being attached, then the creative firm should have the freedom to distribute the funds how they see fit.

Soliciting proposals

Once you’ve written the RFP and have a solid foundational idea of what you are looking for, it’s time to reach out to potential partners and solicit responses.

Some organizations require you to post an RFP publicly, but many allow you to distribute your RFP selectively to pre-qualified firms. While selective distribution requires some upfront research on your part to identify prospective partners that fit your project requirements, it also provides you with tighter control of the process, shortens the required evaluation process, and eliminates wasted time developing proposals from firms that you’d never actually consider to complete the work.

If you’ve failed to scope the project correctly, or underestimated the project budget given the type of firm you’d like to work with, selectively soliciting bids will also help to identify these issues because your prospective partners will politely decline the invitation to respond.

If you can selectively distribute the RFP, your distribution list may include as few as 2–3 firms or as many as 20 depending on your objectives. The general rule is that if you don’t consider the firm a serious contender, don’t send them the RFP.

Make yourself available to answer questions

Depending on your organization, there may be ways in which your communication is legally limited after the RFP has been distributed. At the very least, you should conduct a pre-proposal conference call where firms can ask you clarifying questions to make sure their proposals are on point.

If you’ve limited the pool through selective distribution and you’re legally allowed to, consider answering individual emails and phone calls. This will allow you to quickly and effectively answer questions, establish a relationship with potential partners, and get insight into their process and attention to detail.

Evaluation and selection

If you’ve done a good job outlining the RFP and soliciting proposals from prequalified firms, the evaluation process should be simple and efficient because you’ll already have a narrow, focused field of responding firms and a clear guideline for how you want to evaluate the proposals.

When you’re writing your RFP and establishing timelines, your team should also internally pre-schedule proposal evaluation meetings as part of this timeline. The last thing you want to do is receive proposal submissions and then spend two weeks trying to nail down your team’s schedule to meet.

Additionally, make sure you’ve established a clear scoring system that is being shared with the respondents as part of the RFP. For example, if your rubric uses a 100-point valuation process and 25 points can be awarded for price, then make sure it is clear what price (or range) will earn the proposal the full 25 points and what will just earn it 15 (or zero) points. A vague scoring system makes it harder for your team to objectively evaluate proposals, and it makes it more difficult for firms to see what you really value in their response.

Successful selection committees

An odd-number of selection committee members is also best in evaluation in the event that the decision comes down to a majority vote. If you have an even number of committee members or a voting system that requires unanimous approval, make sure you have a predetermined tie-break procedure in place.

If you opted to distribute to a small field (3–5 firms) of prequalified firms, you may also consider if it is possible to have the firms present their proposals to you rather than your team just reading them. This will allow you to ask follow-up questions and clarify aspects of the proposal if needed.

Finally, If you ask for references, use them. References can be extremely helpful in evaluating a firm’s expertise and ability to form positive working relationships if these are key evaluation metrics for your team. If you have no intention of contacting the references, though, then asking for previous work samples will go just as far in showing prior work experience.

Final thoughts

Ultimately you can only award your project to one firm, and someone will inevitably be disappointed given the amount of work responding to an RFP requires. However, the firm you select will be your partner for months, if not years. Make sure you treat this relationship with care by responding to emails and phone calls in a timely manner and keeping them up-to-date as you go through the evaluation process.

When you’ve come to a decision, let all responding firms know of your choice and why you went that direction. While you may pass on a firm’s proposal this time, they could be a great partner for you on a project down the road, and letting them know where they fell short will help them to improve for the next project they take on.

While sometimes necessary, RFPs are time consuming for organizations on both sides of the table. Following a simple, clearly defined process and avoiding anything that’s not essential to the process will help you to streamline your efforts and make it as painless as possible for all involved.

This article is also published on Medium.

The Request for Proposal (RFP) process was developed for the well-intentioned purposes of leveling the playing field, minimizing bias, and guaranteeing competitive pricing. It is also the default procurement method for many higher education and nonprofit organizations. When done by the book it holds everyone to the same requirements and theoretically allows the organization to compare like-for-like.

But creative services, or any professional services (lawyers, architects, accountants, etc.) for that matter, aren’t like physical commodities. They can’t be compared like-for-like because while they may be similar, they are inherently different.

Information gathering and comparison is important in your selection of a partner for your next creative project, but doing so through an RFP is highly inefficient and won’t produce the best results or the least costly solution.

Here’s why.

RFPs = Longer project timelines

There was a time before the internet when information was more difficult to find, and it’s possible to argue that RFPs were the quickest way to collect the needed information to effectively evaluate creative partners.

But we live in an age where you have endless information at your fingertips. It takes far less time to do a little research on Google than to develop an RFP, send out that RFP, wait for responses, evaluate 20 different 50-page proposals, narrow that down to 3 finalists… then listen to 3 presentations from those finalists, select a winner, then wait 2 more weeks for your procurement office to get through the contract paperwork.

The RFP process is the epitome of inefficiency. If you’re looking to work efficiently and save your team time then avoid the headache of the RFP.

RFPs = Less value for your dollar

On top of the money your organization loses through wasted time in the RFP process, there are also unrecognized costs of doing business this way.

RFP responses, which can top out at well over 50 pages for creative services when including previous work samples or spec work, take a lot of time to put together. While you’d be hard pressed to find a firm to admit it, there are situations when more time is spent on developing the RFP response then will actually be spent on your project. If you ask for spec work as opposed to previous work samples, then this is definitely the case since asking for spec work is literally asking the responding firms to start working on your project for free before you’ve even awarded the contract.

Creative service firms that consistently obtain business through the RFP process have to make up the money they spend writing your proposal, so these additional costs inevitably get built into the cost of your project.

The bigger problem for you is that even firms who are really good at navigating the RFP process only land a small percentage of the jobs they write proposals for. This means that you aren’t just paying a premium for the extra time spent on your project, but also the time spent developing proposals for projects your selected firm didn’t win.

Business consultant, author, and university lecturer Cal Harrison estimates that the Canadian economy alone wastes $5 billion dollars a year due to this RFP inefficiency. Watch his 3:30 minute video and see the math.

As Harrison said in this TedEx Talk, “As soon as you realize that your inefficient buying process is costing you money, then maybe there is incentive to change. The buyer benefits the most if we change this.”

Additionally, if you happen to get a response to your RFP with a lower than average estimated budget it shouldn’t be viewed as a cost-saving opportunity. Rather, it should be a red flag to you that the firm is:

  1. Under-qualified
  2. Under-delivering
  3. Desperate for work, or
  4. All of the above

In any case, none of these scenarios are good if you are looking for the best final product.

RFPs = Limited creativity

When your organizational team sits down to develop an RFP, you are required by the very nature of the document to lay out the project scope and specifications, timeline, (hopefully) budget, and even set guidelines for the environment in which you want the project completed. If this project is for, say, a website redesign, by defining all these parameters you are essentially saying, “We are looking to hire a firm full of creative and qualified people to develop this thing for us, but we already know the solution to our problem and only need your skills — not your creativity — to implement it.”

By doing this you are not just limiting the creativity of the team you are hiring, you are also limiting the potential of the project itself, and therefore the value you get out of your investment. As Stanford University Technology Strategist Zach Chandler puts it:

“But what if our assumptions (laid out in the RFP) are not completely valid? What if we can’t see around all the corners, or see new possibilities of connecting with new methodologies or technologies? A pre-emptive spec locks you into your current best guess … and the web changes faster than that… By being open to the ideas of others, and stating the problem you want to solve rather than telling the vendor how to solve it for you, you may find that the outcome can be far better than you imagined.”

If you are required to use a formal bid process like Chandler is at Stanford University, then his Expository Sketch approach is a great alternative to an RFP. If you have more flexibility in how you approach creative partners, you may consider an initial Discovery Phase engagement with the partner of your choice to access your chosen partner’s entire creative and strategic capability while establishing the project scope and specifications.

RFPs = More hassle than they’re worth

They might not say it to your face, but this is how many great creative services firms feel. And it keeps many of them from seriously considering or responding to your RFP.

Don’t take my word for it. This feeling prompted an advertising agency CEO to write this piece for Advertising Age. It led to this panel discussion at SXSW. And it frustrated a very talented designer and illustrator so much that he penned this comic.

The inherent risk and cost of responding to an RFP a firm probably won’t win coupled with the annoyance of wasting time answering questions that are irrelevant to your project (proof of insurance! Company history? Financial record of past projects!!!) just to meet RFP requirements leaves many creative services firms feeling that responding to RFPs is more of a hassle than it’s worth.

This is a problem for you because if you are conducting a truly open RFP process, then this just eliminated some of the very best potential partners for you, and left you with the firms that are desperate enough for the business (and possibly for good reason) to put up with the frivolousness of the RFP.

Skip the RFP = More efficiency & better results

Creative people love to have real conversations about solving problems that engage their creativity. I don’t know a single creative director or web developer who wouldn’t give you an hour of their time to talk about a project you wanted to work on with their team. In fact, many totally geek out with excitement at the opportunity to do just that.

Do yourself a favor and engage in these real conversations with qualified creative firms that you’ve pre-screened rather than wasting your time and money engaging in an inefficient RFP process that will only stifle your ability to get the best results from the creative process.

This article is also published on Medium.

Request for Proposal (RFP) is a time-tested procurement process that’s consistently worked well for some organizations in purchasing commodities and goods. But in the digital era, using RFPs in the procurement of creative services is an antiquated process that can cost you valuable time and may not lead to the best results.

Think about it this way: an RFP makes sense if your organization is trying to find the best deal on 50 tons of concrete. But if you’re looking for someone to shape that concrete into a work of art, do you really want to start with a process designed to keep all qualified artists at arms length?

Eliminating RFPs from your procurement process for creative and website development services will get you better results and save you the investment of significant time and money.

Not sure how to avoid RFPs?

At this point you may be pointing out the fact that whether you like it or not, your organization has procurement regulations that force you to go to an RFP if the proposed project exceeds a certain dollar figure.

If this is the case let’s frame the problem it in a different way: All projects are made up of phases, which inherently make up a fraction of the total project cost. In fact, many RFPs ask creative service agencies to outline their process and project phases in the proposal response and estimate the cost of each phase. So if a cost can be assigned to each phase, why not make these phases into separate, smaller projects?

This is the route more and more organizations and agencies are going when they begin to understand the downside of RFPs as they relate to creative services. This is a simplistic breakdown for illustrative purposes, but your $50,000 website project can easily become four or five individual projects that each separately fit within the purchasing limits set by your organization. When combined, these five projects equal one awesome website, and operating this way has allowed you to work with the partner of your choice.

And remember how I said avoiding RFPs could actually save you money? Well here’s how: by avoiding the RPF and working directly with your chosen agency, that agency can better anticipate real costs and problems upfront after taking time to understand the project details with you. Otherwise, they are just making a best guess estimate they are locked into once it’s written in the proposal. Most agencies also put an up-charge on RFP work since they’ll only land about 10% of the RFPs they bid for, and time and money is invested into creating each RFP response proposal.

Every project is a little different, so make sure you are working with an expert firm that can help you navigate this process, lay out clear phase projects, and set achievable timelines and goals.

An in-depth example

If you’re now intrigued and want to know more, here is a closer look at how our example $50,000 website project could be divided into smaller, less expensive projects.

Project/Phase 1: Discovery ($5K)

Discovery is the research and strategic planning phase that starts any successful project. Sometimes overlooked by less experienced firms, this is often the most vital part of any project where you work with the partner firm to uncover needs, define scope and timeline, and establish measurable goals for the project.

If you’re unfamiliar with discovery — or want to know more about how it can help you — check out this free, 8-page Discovery Guide.

Project/Phase 2: Branding ($10K)

If you are going to invest the time and money into developing an extensive online tool for client, customer, or donor engagement, you really should make sure your message and brand image are on point before implementing these elements into your new website.

Project/Phase 3: Content Development ($5K)

Content development can include anything from photography, illustrations, video, or written copy that helps to tell your organization’s story.

Project/Phase 4: UI/UX Design ($15K)

This phase includes information architecture, wireframing, and visual design mockups. It may overlap with content development and testing, depending on the schedule and nature of the project.

Project/Phase 5: Development & Testing ($15K)

Developing the website can begin as the design phase approaches completion. A web developer takes the static, designed pages and codes them into a functional website. This phase is typically completed with user testing, bug fixing, and launching the site.

If your organization has even tighter purchasing limits than those described above — or if your project contains more extensive requirements and a more hefty budget — some agencies may even be willing to break the outlined phases into smaller chunks. For example, the development and user testing phase could potentially be broken into two separate phases.

Why your organization will love this new process

My experience has shown that organizations who go to RFPs do so for one of three specific reasons:

  1. The Well-Intentioned Organization: This organization and project leader doesn’t realize there is a better way or isn’t sure of the organization’s policies. This team just wants to do things by the book.
  2. The Traditional Organization: This organization goes to RFP on every project regardless of the service or product they are seeking because that’s just the way it’s always been done. They like the familiarity of the RFP process.
  3. The Evil Organization: This organization just wants the FREE consulting to think out and scope the project for them so that they can take it in house.

Image Courtesy of Kyla Tom, Madison Ave. Collective

When presented properly, the idea of phased projects appeals to these organizations for the following reasons:

Are you following my logic, but still not convinced that RFPs are a bad business model for contracting creative services? A panel of experts presented on RFPs at SXSW a few years ago and their website, contains more useful information.

New Approach = Consistently Better Work

If you begin to engage expert creative firms outside of the RFP process, it will help save you time and money by avoiding the cumbersome RFP timeline and allowing the creative firm of your choice to hone in on the project details with you. Most importantly, you will see the reward in the quality of work produced for your organization.

Do you have an upcoming project and want to test the waters with this new approach? Do a little research and make a few phone calls to agencies that are doing great work for your competitors or in similar industries to find a creative team that fits your needs.

This article is also published on Medium.