Nonprofit Website RFPs

Requests for Proposals, or “RFPs”, are a traditional way to hire website consultants or agencies, but they rarely work for smaller organizations and there are better ways to hire people. If you’re a small nonprofit, consider skipping the RFP when looking to get your next website built.

RFPs Don’t Align With Your Goals & Needs

Websites are complicated. They merge creative design work with technical implementation and both of those things are only valuable if they meet your needs and support your mission. RFPs are good for buying 1,000 two-by-fours, but less good for something as complex as a website where different agencies and consultants offer different technical solutions and processes. No two website providers are the same, so using a process for comparing apples to apples doesn’t make sense. As one article puts it, RFPs are the least creative way to hire creative people.

What’s worse, a traditional RFP—and nearly every RFP template you find—assumes that your nonprofit has already made final technical and strategic decisions. Planning your nonprofit’s next website is a critical task, yet RFPs make it easy to skip that step. Consultants need to know about your organization, goals, and constraints, but RFP templates usually focus on the technology and exact description of what you think you need.

Having seen plenty of bad RFPs, consultants know to watch out for them and many won’t even respond. (You can learn a lot from reading “shop talk” about RFPs on the NTEN community forums.)

Alternatives to Nonprofit Website RFPs

The goal of an RFP is to hire someone to build your website, so think about the qualities that determine a successful project! Plenty of folks make beautiful designs. Plenty of folks have the technical skills to build websites. Communication, attention to detail, and collaboration are what separate good website providers from bad ones. Let those needs drive your search for website help.

Start with networking. Identify a few potential consultants or agencies, buy them a cup of coffee or lunch and pick their brain for an hour. (Here are some tips for finding consultants.) Tell them about your organization and what you think you need, and hear what they have to say. This will show you what it’s like to work with the consultant, and almost always includes free advice!

After meeting a few people, ask for project proposals from your favorites. Don’t get too specific about the format of a proposal; just explain the basic details you have to know (timeline, cost, key requirements, technology constraints) and leave the rest to them. Done this way, each consultant pitches their specific process and your organization is given options you might never have considered.

If You Have to Use an RFP

Some organizations have boards that require RFPs for large projects. If your nonprofit absolutely has to publish an RFP, make sure you still consider all the advice above, and encourage respondents to submit a proposal in the way they see fit.

“How to Write an Effective Nonprofit Website RFP” includes some fabulous advice:

There’s a bit of a Goldilocks scenario… Too little information [in an RFP] suggests a client who doesn’t understand what a design firm needs to be seriously engaged. And too much information speaks to an overly prescriptive engagement and a less-than-ideal client partnership.

Focus your RFP on your organization’s high-level needs, and known constraints. Embrace the questions you have and the support you want, and ask for it in a way that will make people want to help you!

Keeping Contractors Accountable

Once you’ve selected your favorite proposal, start working with the consultant quickly! This is finally the time to determine the requirements for your new website. If the consultant charges a flat fee, make sure that your contract includes a full list of things included in your project (a “fixed scope”)!

By going through the planning process together with the person building your website, they’re in the room for important discussions with key stakeholders and have the time and space to truly understand your needs. When it’s actually time to build your site, you’ll find the person doing the work is  attuned to both your organization and website requirements.

Many contractors may even charge for a planning project that includes “discovery” and “scoping”. As long as you can afford it and you receive full website plans at the end of the project, this is a great way to plan your website and also test out working with someone on a smaller project.

Relationships and Communication Over Process

The desire to use an RFP is understandable. You want to hear from lots of people about your project and then choose the best one. However, the process simply doesn’t work for websites—especially smaller projects, probably including yours.

So get your head out of boring documents and impersonal screens so you can focus on identifying someone you can work with and who wants to understand your needs. Your project will be better for it, and you’ll enjoy the process more too!