When your museum is seeking a vendor for a project, you may choose to create a formal Request for Proposal (RFP). The RFP contains detailed requirements and asks the right questions to ensure that you have all the relevant information your museum needs to select a vendor. To create a high quality museum RFP, it’s important to identify key stakeholders in the process, to establish evaluation guidelines, and to ensure that the RFP asks concise questions that elicit all the information your team needs to make an informed decision.
The better your RFP, the better your responses will be. Here are nine guidelines to keep in mind when writing your RFP to help vendors write proposals that match your needs and keep the vendor selection process fair and equitable.
1. Include your scoring rubric
Include your scoring rubric. Be clear about the information that you want vendors to supply and equally clear about how their answers will be evaluated. Explaining your scoring helps vendors understand your priorities, and It’s only fair to reveal your scoring system (e.g., “prior experience is worth 25%, references are worth 20%, ability to meet requirements is 35%,” etc.)
2. State your budget
State your budget. I always recommend that museums include guidelines for how much they plan to spend on the project. Setting upfront price expectations ensures that proposals will be within your budget, and vendors who can’t deliver at that cost won’t waste their time (or yours) creating a response. You’ll receive better proposals by revealing your budget because you’ll be able to compare how different firms propose it be spent, thereby giving you a way to evaluate the proposals based on how to get the best value for your money.
3. Limit the number of pages for answers
Limit the number of pages for answers. If you don’t, you may end up with proposals that contain dozens of pages of unnecessary information. The goal of the proposal is to establish that the vendor can meet your needs as you’ve described them. You can request additional marketing materials from the vendors who advance to the next stage of the selection process.
4. Leave sufficient time for the firms to prepare their response
Leave sufficient time for the firms to prepare their response. I recommend a minimum of three weeks, and thoughtful proposals for complex projects like a new CRM may require longer. If the response time is too short, some qualified vendors may decline to bid simply because they don’t have time to prepare their response. Second, proposals that require Herculean efforts to meet a tight deadline can signal that your organization may be a “client from hell,” which is a bad way to start what should be a positive relationship and may discourage some vendors from responding.
5. Accept electronic submissions.
Accept electronic submissions. First, it’s environmentally friendly—online submission eliminates paper waste and emissions associated with delivery. Second, online submission eases deadline pressure for respondents—requiring printed responses reduces the amount of time they can spend on their answers and requires the cost of delivery. Finally, online submission levels the playing field and ensures that vendors are judged on content and not on how attractively their proposal is printed and bound. Unless your organization is required to ask for printed bids, online submission is an important best practice. The one possible exception is if your project is design-related, in which case seeing a real sample of a vendor’s work (like a bound proposal) may provide information about their design practices that would not be visible in an online submission.
6. Communications with vendors must be consistent
All communications with vendors must be in writing through a single point of contact and all vendors must have access to the exact same information about the project. This is necessary to ensure a fair process. And, if your selected vendor created a better proposal because they knew more about your needs than the competition, your organization may be legally liable under the doctrine of detrimental reliance and the unsuccessful vendors may have grounds to sue.
7. Limit the number of vendors you invite to respond
Limit the number of vendors you invite to respond. Unless your museum must follow a public bidding process which requires open RFPs, I recommend that you invite no more than six vendors to submit proposals. Limiting the number of vendors makes it easier for your team to evaluate submissions thoughtfully. By the way, it’s to your advantage to share the list of vendors being invited to participate. Because writing proposals is a time-consuming process, some firms may factor the competition into their decision whether to respond. And, identifying the other respondents gives firms the opportunity to differentiate themselves from their competitors in ways you might not otherwise be aware of.
8. Ask vendors to register “Intent to Bid”
Ask companies to register “Intent to Bid” in writing by a specific deadline. That way, you’ll know whether you’ll receive a sufficiently diverse set of proposals or if you need to widen your net and invite more firms to participate. By sending the list of questions and answers to only those firms that register their Intent to Bid, you’re creating a powerful incentive for them to comply.
9. Invite vendors to submit questions about the RFP in writing
Invite vendors to submit their questions about the RFP in writing within a week of release, and share the complete list of (anonymized) questions and answers with all participants. This guarantees that all vendors are operating with exactly the same information, which is the foundation of a fair RFP process. You may choose to hold a “bidders’ conference,” which is held either in person or virtually, in which submitted questions are answered and vendors can ask for further clarification or information. After a bidders’ conference, compile and distribute a list of the questions and answers and make the recording available to all invited vendors participating in the process.
Following these guidelines will help ensure that submitted proposals meet your requirements, and establishes your organization as one that vendors want to work with.
Barbara Punt has over 25 years of experience managing major capital projects and the development and installation of exhibits and site-specific artworks for museums. She has a unique “insider’s/outsider’s” perspective from having spent half her career on museum staffs as an exhibit designer, project manager, and exhibit operations manager prior to founding Punt Consulting Group. PCG specializes in running vendor selection processes (including RFQs, RFPs, contract negotiations, and meeting facilitation) as well as managing projects ranging from $100K through $130M.