How to Write an Effective Nonprofit RFP: A Step-by-Step Guide

Alfredo Ramirez

An RFP, or a request for proposals, is more than just a document—it's a comprehensive process designed to streamline project milestones and deliverables. This guide breaks down the RFP into manageable parts, helping you set clear dates and milestones for successful project completion.

An RFP serves as a structured framework that, when executed effectively, simplifies complex projects into actionable steps. It's not just a checklist; it's a strategic tool that aligns project goals with prospective partner capabilities.

Nonprofits are not alone in using RFPs — here at Prosal, I’ve spent the last four years talking to people in nonprofits, health care, and government about RFPs. They have been some of the most insightful years in learning how RFPs are used and why most people dislike or even despise them.

I’m not exaggerating: while organizations and their RFPs vary widely across industries, almost everyone has a distaste for RFPs, and usually for the same reasons. Whether it’s finding the right candidates, having to wrangle their department to “get on board” with the details, or just spending so much time running the entire process, everyone agreed: RFPs can be a pain.

The good news is that they don’t have to be, and it doesn’t take much to improve your experience. All you need to make an RFP and your project better is to create a little transparency and allow for self-qualification. These eight steps are simple yet powerful ways to save time in the long run and hire a better partner for your nonprofit.

1. Identify the Problem Clearly

Initiating your RFP by clearly defining the problem or need sets a focused tone for potential responders. Discuss the specific issue or opportunity that prompted the RFP. Whether it's addressing a gap in services, enhancing your operational efficiency, or implementing a new initiative, providing this context helps clarify your goals and aligns expectations. Did a recent funding opportunity or organizational need spark this project? Start here to ground your RFP in reality.

2. Include a Detailed Budget

A detailed budget is essential; it's not just about stating how much you can spend, but also about showing transparency in your financial expectations. This clarity helps prevent under or overbidding and ensures that the proposals you receive are realistically aligned with your financial constraints. My interviews with over 100 consultants reveal that many will bypass an RFP lacking clear budget details — including this information ensures you attract serious partners who are prepared to meet your needs within your fiscal parameters.

3. Share Your Ideal Outcome

Envisioning the successful resolution of your problem provides a roadmap for potential vendors. Describe what success looks like for your project and how it impacts your organization. This vision helps proposers understand the end goals and tailor their solutions to meet these outcomes effectively.

4. Detail the Process Timeline

Like your ideal outcome, specifying the steps of the RFP process is crucial. This includes what you want to see in proposals as well as a reasonable timeline: When do you want to receive, evaluate, and decide on a proposal? When do you want to start and finish the project? Setting these expectations early ensures that all parties are prepared and can plan accordingly, reducing delays and increasing efficiency throughout the project lifecycle.

5. Facilitate Pre-Submission Meetings

Including a point of contact is an essential RFP requirement, but the hard part is meeting with candidates before they submit. While it is an investment in time, it also allows you to better understand who is behind the proposal. The reverse is also true: by meeting with you, candidates also get a better picture of who is behind the RFP. Like budget, almost half of the consultants I’ve spoken to will not respond to an RFP if they can’t schedule a meeting before submitting a proposal. This added humanity is one of my top tips for finding a partner.

Pro tip: Utilize scheduling tools like Calendly or Doodle to streamline meeting arrangements and minimize email exchanges.

6. Disclose Any Incumbency

This one is less intuitive, but calling out a freelancer or firm that has been or is eligible to continue working with you does two things. First, it adds a layer of refreshing transparency that can help your RFP stand out from the crowd. Second, it allows potential respondents to appreciate what you liked or didn’t like in a prior approach and will help them submit a better proposal.

7. Highlight Organizational Values and DEI

Better outcomes begin with intentionality. This tip is for everyone, but especially for organizations that identify as progressive. Include your organizational DEI statement or briefly discuss how this project intersects with your values, including how diversity and inclusion factor into your mission. Something simple but genuine like “Candidates from all backgrounds are encouraged to apply” can ensure that your organization comes across as authentic.

8. Expand Your RFP's Reach

Broadening the distribution of your RFP can dramatically increase its effectiveness. Consider sharing it beyond your immediate network. Post it on relevant online platforms, distribute it through industry listservs, and engage with affinity groups to ensure it reaches a diverse and capable audience.

Key Takeaways

Remember, a well-crafted RFP is more than a procedural document; it's a strategic tool that enhances project alignment and partner selection. By following these eight steps, nonprofits can create RFPs that not only clarify their needs but also foster connections with the right partners, streamlining the path to successful project outcomes.

Looking for more RFP advice? Download our RFP template below to guide you through your own process!


Alfredo Ramirez

Alfredo is the COO and Co-Founder of Prosal. He has over ten years of experience working in the nonprofit industry and previously founded a successful digital strategies business, winning over $2 million in RFPs throughout his career. He is an avid mountain biker and snowboarder and enjoys anything that takes him outdoors.

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