This is the second part of my two-part blog series on busting myths about Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for consultants and advisors. If you missed my first blog about this, you can read it here and catch up!
Here’s a little background on why I wanted to write this: I recently shared this on TikTok and reposted the video on LinkedIn, and it received close to 12,000 views and many comments from other consultants sharing similar experiences. In my experience advising hundreds of foundations, corporate giving programs, and ultra-high-net-worth philanthropists over the past 23 years and talking with dozens of consultants helping to launch and lead the Philanthropy Consultants Network and the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers, RFPs can be the worst way to find and engage talented philanthropy advisors.
The RFP process can easily waste your time, waste money, and impede your ability to find top talent. But most funders don’t realize this. They genuinely want to find fabulous and diverse advisors, consultants, evaluators, and executive coaches – but they don’t recognize how the RFP process gets in their way. (Psst – this is why I wrote a whole book on this topic, called Delusional Altruism!).
I personally find RFPs to be, on the whole, not a good use of time and an impediment to my ability to improve my clients’ conditions. Here are the last three myths to close out my series on RFP myths:
Myth 4: An RFP is the fairest way to reach emerging and diverse philanthropy advisors.
✔️ Fact: RFPs are stacked against the consultants and advisors you don’t already know.
Many funders believe that by casting a wide net they will find BIPOC advisors, emerging LGBTQ+ consultants, evaluators with lived experience, and advisory firms led by women and people with disabilities. Consultants who aren’t the “usual suspects.” This is all very well-intentioned. And it IS extremely important for philanthropy leaders to actively seek and engage consultants (and staff, trustees, and grantees) who bring diverse experiences and expertise, especially those whose lived experience reflects the issues they are trying to address and the communities they seek to help.
But an RFP is often not the best way to do this. In fact, for many consultants, it feels like a setup.
The reality is funders are most likely to retain those with whom they are very familiar or have an existing relationship, who come via a referral from a trusted colleague, or whose brand recognition looms large. It’s common for funders to request proposals from dozens of philanthropy advisors only to select a firm they planned to hire anyway, already knew, or have previously worked with. In doing so, they’ve wasted a tremendous amount of time with a tremendous number of advisors.
On top of that, more prominent philanthropy advisory and consulting firms have far greater bandwidth than smaller boutique firms and independent consultants to respond to RFPs. They might have ample staff capacity (e.g., 60+ staff) to easily deploy a junior team to write proposals. Some receive large general operating support grants from foundations and many charge extraordinarily high fees. As a result, they have ample extra funds to respond to many RFPs with little financial consequence if their proposal is not selected. Many larger, more well-known firms have communications staff to support proposal development with beautiful marketing materials and PowerPoint decks.
By contrast, an independent consultant of color has herself. An emerging philanthropy advisory firm might have a handful of staff and a part-time virtual assistant to support them. They are wearing all the hats and juggling all the balls.
If they spend countless hours responding to many RFPs, competing against dozens of other consultants, and aren’t selected, it hits their bottom line much harder. If they spend eight, 16, or 40 hours preparing a proposal, that could be 20%, 40%, or 100% of the entire firm’s work week.
And if they don’t already have a relationship with that funder, or don’t stand out through national marketing, or they haven’t developed and packaged their consulting services with funding from a foundation grant, it’s hard to compete in an RFP process. The result? A funder might honestly believe that issuing an RFP demonstrates that they are trying to be inclusive of consultants who have smaller firms, or who represent diversity in terms of gender identity, socioeconomic background, upbringing, religion, education, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, neurodiversity, and life experience. However, with an RFP they are often wasting those (or any) consultants’ time and setting them up for failure.
Myth 5: The RFP makes the process fair
✔️ Fact: RFP processes often undermine applicants
Consider this: If the foundation allows advisors and consultants to ask questions before submitting proposals, those questions and answers are often shared with all applicants. That means if the consultant has invested their own time and resources in training, coaching, and professional development to improve their ability to help their clients gain insight into their underlying needs – simply by asking the right questions – all that investment, and the consultant’s unique value, is freely disseminated by the funder to the consultant’s competition. Similarly, if the philanthropy advisor’s lived experience allows them to have more meaningful insight into the situation and ask deeper questions that no one else has ever asked the funder, that information is often freely shared with the advisor’s competition.
The funder often has no idea how problematic this is because few have been entrepreneurs seeking to improve and grow their businesses. Often, they are so focused on what they think is “fair” and “transparent” they don’t realize they are often giving away proprietary information and differentiating the value and expertise of small business owners. To make matters worse, these are often the diverse consultants they proclaim to want to help through their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.
Sometimes, the funder overtly undercuts the consultant applicants. I once had a client at a family foundation solicit philanthropy advisors using an RFP, and he specifically told me that he planned to identify the best ideas from all the proposals and then have the chosen advisor (likely the cheapest) implement them. Like most philanthropy advisors, I find this offensive. It takes a tremendous amount of unpaid time and uncompensated resources for a consultant or advisor to put together a well-considered scope of work, budget, and proposal. And every proposal is infused with the consultant’s proprietary intellect, creativity, and experience. It is not the job of philanthropy advisors — often sole proprietors without consistent income — to subsidize philanthropic foundations that have millions or billions in assets. If a grantmaker is not aware of the best approaches to tackling a project, then he should either pay for that information or solicit it in honest, risk-free ways.
Myth 6: RFPs help funders build relationships with advisors
✔️ Fact: RFPs stymie relationship building
Often there is no opportunity for the philanthropy consultant to talk with funders, much less build a relationship, during the RFP process. As I described in Part 1 of this blog series, the expectations and scope of work for the consultant have typically been so tightly designed and described by the funder in the RFP, many funders aren’t interested in talking about it further. They just want the consultant to follow their detailed instructions and submit a proposal by the deadline. Or the funder has spent way too long developing the RFP, has invited too many philanthropy advisors to apply, and now they are swimming in proposals, behind schedule, and running out of time to talk with any of them. Often foundation leaders feel if one consultant asks to talk with them, they must offer conversations with all applicants (again, thinking this means they are being “transparent” and “fair”).
As a philanthropy advisor, it is ethically important for me to talk with all the people involved in deciding on which advisor to hire. For starters, I need to make sure I understand their objectives directly from them. I need to be able to listen carefully for indications of unspoken concerns and fears, or previously unsurfaced opportunities so that I can ask critical follow-up questions. This allows me to ensure my proposal meets their full objectives and previously unseen needs. Further, they need to know if I’m the right fit for them, and I need to know if they are the right fit for me. We can’t do that through a piece of paper. Like everything in philanthropy, consulting and advising are based upon trusting relationships.
Unfortunately, too often funders forbid any of this communication! By design, the RFP process often does not allow for a one-on-one conversation with decision-makers. A board committee might be making the decision on which strategic planning coach to work with, but the strategic planning coach is forbidden from talking with them before submitting a proposal. There is no relationship, much less a trusting one!
Look, I’m not saying that RFPs never result in finding and retaining talented philanthropy advisors and consultants. I am sure many of you have examples of terrific, diverse consultants you never would have found without their RFP process. That’s fabulous! I’m truly glad the RFP process worked in your favor.
However, I suggest that instead of turning to an RFP as the default, consider how it might be getting in your way. You might be better served by checking your assumptions about the value of this process, considering the actual human and financial resources involved in executing it, and brainstorming other ways of engaging consultants that involve honesty, trust, and genuine relationship building.
If you’ve read this far you are probably wondering, “OK, Kris if RFPs aren’t great, what are those better approaches to finding and retaining top-notch philanthropy advisors and consultants?” Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered! My next newsletter will share my best tips and advice for finding and engaging fabulous philanthropy advisors to support you, your team, and the amazing work you are doing. (Hint: It’s all about relationships!).
Now that you know what to avoid in finding your next consultant, I want to invite you to my next Aerodynamic Giving Workshop. This free event is specifically for CEOs of grantmaking foundations, corporate giving programs, and philanthropic family offices who want to minimize strategic friction and find their fastest path to impact. If you’re interested, be sure to RSVP today: https://putnam-consulting.com/aerodynamic-giving/
And if you missed the first part of this blog series, you can catch up here: Myths Vs. Facts: Consultant RFPs — Part 1