How RFPs are like eHarmony and a better way to find your match

In the vast sea of nonprofit consultants (especially here in DC), it can be hard to find your perfect match. So once you’ve done your prep work for a consulting project, what’s the best way to find a great consultant?

Issue an RFP, right? Isn’t that how every professional nonprofit finds consultants these days?

Well, to continue with the dating metaphor, RFPs are sort of like eHarmony. You put together a request for proposals to say, “this is what I’m looking for;” consultants put together proposals to say, “this is what I can offer;” and through some evaluation process (à la eHarmony’s Compatibility Matching System), you find the consultant with the greatest number of offers that match your needs. The process is transactional, controlled, and, in my opinion, completely limiting.

Ditch the eHarmony approach, and come on over to It’s Just Lunch*, where “chemistry happens face-to-face.” Ok, enough of the cheesy dating metaphor, but seriously … the consultant search process has potential to be SO much more than a transaction. You can use the search process as an opportunity to start exploring, testing out, and building a relationship with a consultant right from the get-go.

Instead of an RFP, here’s what I recommend you do to find a great consultant for your nonprofit:

1. Get clear on what you want from your project and a consultant. If you haven’t already, check out my first blog in this series that will walk you through a step-by-step process to define your project and the consultant’s role.

2. Reach out to a handful of people you trust - nonprofit peers, funders (especially capacity-building funders), other consultants you’ve used and liked, etc. - tell them what you’re looking for, and ask if they know anyone who may be a fit. Try to gather 2-5 referrals.

3. Contact the consultants, share your project purpose and desired outcomes, and ask if they’re interested in and qualified for the work. If the answer’s yes, and you feel the possibility for a fit as well, then ...

4. Set up a FACE-TO-FACE meeting (caps used purposefully ... if geography is a factor, use video conferencing). At this meeting:

  • Spend some time getting to know one another. Imagine what it would be like to work with this consultant and notice your cognitive, emotional, and sensory impressions and reactions. (Are you getting feelings of confidence or doubt? Trust or mistrust? Clarity or confusion?)

  • Talk collaboratively about the project. Express your desires and listen to his or her responses, ideas, and questions. Is the consultant deeply listening to you and offering different perspectives and alternative approaches that may work better for your nonprofit? Or, is the consultant overselling and telling you exactly what you want to hear, instead of thinking critically about your situation?

  • Expect to gain some new insight, ideas, or tools that you can start using to benefit your nonprofit immediately. The best consultants will begin to deliver value from this very first meeting, even before a formal commitment has been made.

5. After the meeting, ask yourself if you could partner with this consultant, and trust him or her to deliver the project purpose and outcomes (which may be slightly different now thanks to your meeting(s) … you won’t get that with an RFP). If the answer is yes, invite the consultant to submit a proposal. If there’s only one consultant who meets this criteria, then only ask for one proposal. If you’d really like to (or are required to) have more than one proposal, then repeat steps 2 to 4 above until you’ve found another strong candidate. Don’t waste people’s time when you know they’re not the right fit for you.

6. Use the proposal to continue having a real, collaborative conversation with the consultant(s). Express what you like and don’t like in their proposal, be honest about any budgetary issues, and continue to challenge one another to create a solid, realistic scope and plan that will deliver the results you want for your nonprofit.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

In the comments section below, share whether you're pro or anti-RFP, and other tips you’ve used to find great consultants for your nonprofit organization.

And remember to come back and check out our next blog post in this series, where I’ll lay out key steps to take at the start of your consulting engagement to ensure project success.

Thanks as always for reading and sharing!

Best,
Jen

*I’ve never used online dating and have no personal, or even second hand, experience with eHarmony or It’s Just Lunch. They could both could be great or terrible - I really have no idea!