Regardless of where your organization is in its lifecycle, there will come a time when you realize you’re in need of additional support. Maybe that support is a PR professional to assist with messaging or legal counsel to offer guidance. Maybe you need a technical writer to review a specification or simply someone to help answer the phone. When the time comes, you will need to prepare a request for proposal (RFP) seeking services in support of your organization. Developing this document can be an important exercise for the organization, requiring self-reflection and insight to understand and effectively communicate your needs.
Where to Begin
The first step in developing an RFP is twofold: 1) creating a small committee or team to assist with drafting the document, and 2) identifying a primary point of contact for the association. This team will be responsible for communicating the mission of the organization and its needs. We usually recommend at least 1-2 officers of the organization serve on the committee in addition to 1-2 work group chairs. This mix tempers work product detail with high-level strategic insight from organization leadership, and usually offers a solid representation of the organization as a whole. One primary contact for the organization should be selected from this team to serve as a liaison between vendors being considered and the association.
This team should take a candid look at your organization, including its strengths and weaknesses. The identification of knowledge gaps and resource constraints within your volunteers and leaders will automatically help narrow down the desired list of services and provide valuable insight to a prospective AMC. Further, this insight will provide a guide for developing an objective set of criteria on which you’ll base your final selection.
An important final preparatory step for the team is to develop the aforementioned criteria for making your decision. This rubric should prioritize elements that are most important to your organization. For example, a smaller association may find that a targeted maximum spend is the most critical element of the response while another group with more financial flexibility may prioritize speciality divisions. It's often easiest for the decision makers to assign weights to criteria then allocate point values for each element for each vendor considered. An example of such a rubric is illustrated below with an editable version available for download.
What to Include in the RFP
At a minimum, the RFP should include a high-level introduction to your organization, its goals and mission, structure, and needs. An understanding of the expertise needed is also an important component when framing your RFP. The desired level of support, necessary experience, and examples of past projects requiring this insight are also helpful pieces to include as is the criteria that will be used when selecting a vendor, high-level financial status of the organization, and the timeline for selection.
This information should be detailed enough to provide the vendor insight into your organization and a realistic understanding of your needs without being weighted down by too much information. A sample RFP for a made-up association, ACME Organization, is avilable for download above. This six page document is informative in its brevity--a lot can be inferred from the length and compilation of an RFP. Be aware of the message you're communicating throughout the document--is the group organized well or should the AMC build in extra hours to offer support? Is there a clearly defined mission with active work groups or is the organization in need of strategic guidance? Is the timeline reasonable or compressed/extended, which may communicate the speed at which decisions are made.
Philip K. Dick wrote, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." The bid provided and subsequent support offered by an AMC will best serve the organization with a healthy understanding of its realities. Insight into the association as a whole is an integral element in allowing the AMC to provide an accurate response to the RFP. It will also initiate a successful partnership between you and the selected AMC.
How to Evaluate Responses
The intrinsic knowledge that comes from a thorough internal review is an important step when creating your RFP, but is also critical when evaluating responses. A partnership with an AMC can be very fruitful for both the association and the AMC, especially if the personalities and collaboration styles of both complement one another. Getting a sense of the company culture at the AMC may be difficult; however, reviewing their website and marketing collateral, speaking with their management and/or sales team, knowledge of the proposed support team, and an in-depth evaluation of their proposal will provide valuable insight.
The prioritized matrix created during development of the RFP will be invaluable when it comes to subjectively evaluating responses. In addition to prioritization elements of each proposal, it will be important for everyone considering the bids to assign points in a similiar fashion. Creation of a key that defines the number of points available on an easy-to-use scale is a simple and efficient way to meet this need. Consider the matrix above, now with a defined key and completed evaluation:
The above evaluation clearly pronounces Company A as the vendor of choice with the highest weighted score.
It's important to note that the priorities established may be scored as a result of written responses to an RFP and/or a presentation and interview of the candidates. Many organizations choose to identify the top 2-3 vendors, or keep the selection pool very small to begin, and invite them to participate in a virtual or in-person interview. This discussion may be held with the candidate(s) and the previously identified selection team or the full Board, as determined by organization leadership. Each interview provides an opportunity to delve deeper into any questions with the AMCs written response; it's encouraged as the time to identify and address specific concerns with the company as well. Their response to this interaction should also be considered when making the final selection.
Creation of an RFP, execution of the process, and selection of a vendor is a laudable achievement. More work remains, however, once the paperwork has been signed and both parties settle into the new relationship. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) identified critical elements of a transition process as part of the AMC Institute's accreditation requirements. Section 3.5 of the standard outlines transition procedures:
- a time table to include the closing or transferring of all accounts, shipment of materials, and notification to members
- a list of all clearly defined responsibilities of current AMC, volunteer leaders, and new management
- established procedures as well as fees and charges for agreed upon services that may be rendered following termination
- a process and timeline for the shipment of materials in an organized manner, with clearly marked files
- the methodology to be used for timely notification to all vendors of the management change
- an outside audit by a CPA of the financial records immediately after the transfer of financial responsibilities; or, if no audit is authorized, a release in writing from the client Board that they will accept the financial records as transferred
Successful negotiation of the RFP process, from creation of a team to transition coordination, should establish a solid foundation on which to build a fruitful partnership with your new management firm. Good luck!