Getting started with RFPs: A guide for Canadian nonprofit organizations

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So you want to respond to an RFP, perhaps for a great contract being tendered by the federal government. Fantastic! But you’ve never done this before and have no clue where to start.

STEP ONE: Understanding bidding on contracts in Canada

The world of RFPs (and RFQs, and RFIs)

Whether to follow good business practices in the private-sector, or because it’s mandated in the public sector, bids are posted on a daily basis in Canada to contract services and purchase goods.

The process can be a good one for all concerned if done effectively and efficiently. For small businesses in Canada, RFPs provide a chance to bid on contracts they normally may not know about. For companies, it provides the opportunity to get the best product or service at the best deal through an open and transparent process.

As a refresher (or a crash course), there are many variations of requests once you start to look for potential contracts.

  • RFI (Request for Information): An RFI is all about gathering information and is often followed by an RFQ or RFP. In this case, the client wants to know about your company, what you do/offer and how suitable you may be for an upcoming or anticipated project. It’s the broadest and vaguest request, typically.
  • RFQ (Request for Quote/Quotation): An RFQ is a request for a quote. Depending on the wording of the RFQ, there may be an opportunity to provide some additional detail - but the focus is on price or cost of a particular product or service that has already been determined.
  • RFP (Request for Proposal): This is the most commonly-known request (or tender) where a company or government actually needs a service and is requesting that companies or associations submit a proposal on how to deliver that service (or product), and at what price. It asks questions to determine if you have the right experience and fit for the client. An RFP is where you will provide the most detail in how to fulfill an objective or deliver solutions.

How do I find what’s out there in Canada? There are many places you can regularly visit to look for bid opportunities in Canada.

STEP TWO: Now that you’ve found an RFP, here are a few things to consider.

Writing comes last; ask yourself the tough questions first

This may sound like tough love, but just because you can bid on a contract, doesn’t mean that you should. A few things to consider:

  • Do a Cost/Benefit Analysis, just like you would if you were purchasing something for your association. If the costs and strain of delivering the service outweigh the benefits (think adding salary costs or needing new production facilities) then it doesn't make sense to waste time with a proposal.
  • Can you deliver? This RFP may be a match made in heaven with what your organization offers and you know you can compete with anyone on quality and cost. But can you meet the demand and the deadlines, while still running your organization and serving your existing clients?
  • What makes you shine? Before ever putting pen to paper, be clear on why you are best suited for this potential contract and how you can rise above the other bidders.

Do some research

If you’re considering bidding on a contract for the private or not-for-profit sector, do a bit of research on who is involved in the process or who is influential in making the decisions. Sometimes that can help determine your angle in the proposal, by gearing your pitch toward their interests. This can also help determine if the company is one that aligns with your brand and values.

Follow the instructions

Ensure that you follow them to the letter. Not doing so can disqualify you. That includes making sure you are submitting exactly in the way requested. Often governments want everything completed online – but there are times when hard copies are concurrently requested. Don’t miss out on an opportunity by ignoring the fine print on the details.

Less theory, more deliverables

“If it sounds fluffy, it likely is.” Just because you have some brilliant material on your website and in your fact sheets doesn’t mean that all you need to do is copy/paste and then you’re done. Knowing your audience is critical when responding to an RFP, so make sure you’re taking the time to address specific questions with real deliverables and promised results. That also means making sure that you are taking the time to talk about the client as much as yourself; help them clearly see how you can benefit them, solve their issues or meet their goals, and hopefully introduce either efficiencies or cost-savings.

Be clear – especially with the numbers.

There is one section where you don’t want ambiguity – either on your side or the client’s – and that’s with the financials. Your job is to do your homework ahead of time and make certain that the costs being proposed, with the associated timelines, are competitive. Sometimes, a budget will be included in the RFP, so make sure you haven’t gone over that before submitting the proposal or your hard work will be wasted.

Manage your time

You may be a genius when working against a deadline, but pay attention to the time allotments for RFPs. These are detailed documents that require a lot of thought and customized responses. You may need to create a business plan or receive board approval before proceeding. Give yourself enough time.

Also, read the RFP very, very carefully. There may be key dates included, such as a deadline for when you can ask questions. And remember, most RFPs (if written properly) will be very clear that late submissions will not be accepted. So don’t count on an extension.

Ask for help if you need it

If in doubt, don’t guess. Engage the key players who will be helping deliver on a successful bid, and make sure that what you’re promising stacks up with what can be done. If you’re confused about a certain question is asking or what information to provide, contact the individual (or email address) listed on the RFP.

If the stakes are really high or you’ve never gone down the RFP road before, consider working with an expert. But one piece of advice: it’s better to engage help early on in the process to help guide your submission from the beginning, rather than up against a nail-biting deadline.

Flagship Solutions is a public affairs and government relations firm, headquartered in Ottawa. Offering a broad range of communications and association management services, Flagship has been successfully assisting clients for over a decade in responding to RFPs and funding proposals. Experience and knowledge make all the difference when completing a successful submission – and here are some tips from their experts. For additional information or inquiries, contact us today.

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