All’s well that starts well.

You have some cash. You need to kick off a high visibility project. You decide to engage an external partner. You begin to complain when you realize you must write an RFP.

Yes, you can whine about writing the RFP; but, truly, the Request for Proposal is key to the decision you will need to make.

Hiring an external partner, at least for me, has always been high stakes. William & Mary is a public school and frankly, we just don’t have the budget to cover the perpetual cha-ching that comes with an “agency of record.” So, when we do issue an RFP, it’s an opportunity not to be missed and it’s usually undertaken to support a key university goal.

Recently, I chaired an RFP committee charged with selecting a firm to help us rethink our admission communication strategies. The RFP committee spent several painful weeks drafting the language, and more importantly, talking about what we wanted to accomplish. People, it’s hard to write because you probably haven’t figured out what you want. And, if you have figured out what you want and what you want is the solution to a complex problem, that’s hard to write too.

Simply put: Hang in there. Writing an RFP forces you to 1) describe what you want and 2) outline what you need. I submit that, no matter how difficult it is to do, if you can’t clearly and concisely articulate your goals in written form, you sabotage the RFP effort. Why? Because it might mean you haven’t made the tough decisions about what your priorities are. Also, a fuzzy, mushy RFP will potentially limit responses and perhaps won’t attract the attention of the right kind of firm.

It doesn’t just start well … a well-crafted RFP will also help at the end when you have to pick. Think of the RFP as your roadmap, your playbook. Assuming you take the RFP writing seriously, you end up with an armload of colorful binders to wade through. With any luck, you start developing impressions about the many great proposals and it’s hard to decide. I recommend inviting consultants to campus for presentations as a means to gather more data. The only downside is that you’re likely to hear about things they can do that you didn’t know you needed. Rely on the goals spelled out in the RFP to bring clarity. Remember, when all else fails, go back to the plan.

I have a lot to say about working with external partners and getting the best from them and from internal participants. Andrea Jarrell wrote a piece for CASE Currrents called Partners vs. Vendors and it includes some of my thoughts. Future posts here will offer my best advice for working with consultants.

On February 2, 2011, we awarded a contract to mStoner for the admission communication project. It ended well.

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