Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Proposal Etiquette?

The Golden Rule really does matter.

And I don't mean the one about "S/he who has the gold, rules."  I mean the one about treating others in the way you'd like to be treated --- especially when it comes to sending out RFPs (Request For Proposal) for people to respond to, or if you're the institution or person crafting a solicitation.

Several years ago, I edited the Spring 2007 issue of NAME's (National Association for Museum Exhibition) journal, The Exhibitionist, called "The RFP Issue" which was (you guessed it!) all about writing and responding to RFPs.  In addition to a wide range of articles, the issue also included several boilerplate examples of RFPs, contracts, selection matrices, etc.  (Lucky you, it's all online now to download for free at the NAME website.)

In the months I spent re-reading and editing the articles for The RFP Issue, it was disheartening to keep coming back to variations on two common themes:  1) Institutions that sent out literally dozens and dozens (if not hundreds) of solicitations, and 
2) Institutions that never notified respondents after a final selection was made.

Even if you don't feel, like I do, that for the most part, the RFP process is an archaic, legalistic waste of time, why would you treat potential creative partners in this way? (And don't even get me started about the wasteful notion of requiring multiple hard copies of a proposal in addition to digital versions ...)

In the first case, by requesting a large number of people to respond to your RFP, you know that you are wasting many people's time, but even worse, you will not be able to carefully and thoughtfully review such a large number of responses. (Ideally, you should be striving for the smallest number of "best fit" responses possible to your solicitation, not a cattle call.)

In the second case, if people spent their limited time and resources to craft a response, couldn't you or your institution display the common courtesy of sending out a boilerplate email to the groups or individuals who weren't selected?  (For example, "Thanks for submitting, we're sorry you weren't selected, but we look forward to opportunities to work together in the future ..."

This lack of civility happens much more often than it should in the proposal process, especially given the relatively small museum/exhibits community.  Perhaps it's no wonder that one of the articles from The RFP Issue was entitled, "Why We No Longer Do RFPs"

In any event, I hope the next time you might find yourself in charge of an RFP or proposal process, or something similar like a hiring/internship process, that you remember that there are real people involved, and even if they aren't selected, they'd like to be treated with professionalism and respect.

Thanks for considering this.

And thanks for reading ExhibiTricks!


  1. You're entirely right; there needs to be a whole lot more etiquette and consideration in the RFP process or it'll drive a whole lot more of us to drinking heavily.

  2. Well said.
    I don't think I've ever had so much as a form e-mail when unsuccessful.
    I actually don't respond to many RFPs any more - they're too much work, loaded with onerous and pointless requirements and despite fancy "value-based" formulas are almost always awarded on the basis of price. I'm not interested in being the cheapest consultant, nor should anybody be interested in hiring the cheapest unless they're looking for inexperience or desperation.

  3. In this neck of the woods they call it 'tendering' and there's nothing remotely tender about it. It dismisses creativity as a commercial consumer commodity. It is a means of satisfying bureacracy while strangling inventiveness and excluding individual personality. In my experience such projects seem to get precisely what they deserve.

  4. As the proposal writer for an exhibit design-build firm, I couldn't agree more. (I love the RFP issue of Exhibitionist and reference it often, btw.)

    Normally we do try to find out not only if we won or lost, but also why so hopefully we can improve the next time around. As you said, the answer to the first question is hard enough to get most of the time, let alone an answer to the second, but we keep trying.

    Oh, and what about "short lists?" Five, eight, or ten firms is not a short list! A lot of time and money goes into responses to RFPs let alone the cost of having to make a presentation across the country.

    We truly appreciate those rare clients who understand the time and money this process in our industry takes. We wish there were more like them. Cut the red tape and you'll end up with a firm who is a good fit, not just one who is able to fulfill all the "pointless requirements" as Stewart put it.

  5. Hear hear! I used to feel a bit of fear/grudging acceptance to discover an RFP in my inbox. Now I'm more mirthful/amused as I ponder which short phrase I'll use to respond. "Unfortunately our schedule doesn't permit us time to adequately respond, but I wish you the best in this project." Lops off 8 hours of needless toil. It feels really nice to send.

    1. I typically invite 3-5 companies to tender for a job (depending on the scale) and try to be very clear about what we expect. For exhibits I prefer to state the budget and what we want to achieve and select on quality and process. Unfortunately, ethics is mostly absent of rfp process when it comes to granted contractors....

  6. Right on Paul. The preparation of an RFP is definitely a big investment for a small creative office such as mine. The investment is even greater, and most of the times not made, when the RFP additionally requests design concepts and renderings as part of a complete submission. Drives me up the wall when this request is made. I've had my share of the no response after submission. Says a great deal about the organization and its business practices in dealing with vendors.

  7. As someone ususally on the client side of the relationship I would also agree with all of this. I typically invite 3-5 companies to tender for a job (depending on the scale) and try to be very clear about what we expect. For exhibits I prefer to state the budget and what we want to achieve and select on quality and process. I also try to call unsuccessful bidders to talk through the decision - not an easy call to make but important. The thing I try to remember is that creating the pitch costs real money (£2-3k at least) for my benefit. The difficult part for a client (in Europe at least) is bending the rules for spending public money enough to treat suppliers fairly without breaking the rules!

  8. Paul,

    Great post. Thanks for the reference to my article in that issue. I emphasize that, in law, there is no requirement for anyone, even agencies and institutions that receive public funding, to issue an RFP. Filed under "Hope Springs Eternal", we just responded to one. And NB, were considering one from a state agency in Illinois, but it had 50 pages! I couldn't afford to print it out. They withdrew it because NObody responded.