Advocacy RFP Pitfalls to Avoid

by Ben Holse (He/Him)

Advocacy RFP Woman pointing to document in front of two men

Advocacy RFP Writing Tips 

The goal for your advocacy RFP should be to compare apples to apples and make the best decision for your organization. Check out our Advocacy RFP Template to determine what questions you should be asking your advocacy consultants in your request for proposals. At The Campaign Workshop, we fill out a ton of advocacy RFPs and have seen a lot of good ones and some not so good ones. The RFP process can often be riddled with unintended errors that cost your organization time and (lots and lots of) money. Here are the top mistakes we see organizations make when going through an advocacy RFP process: 

Choosing a vendor on price alone
One of the biggest pitfalls we see advocacy organizations make is that they will get all of the RFPs back, scroll through to the pricing section, and narrow their options based on that alone. While pricing is undoubtedly important, choosing on price alone risks alienating firms who may be able to provide you with better quality services. We strongly recommend that you take the time to read through each firm’s entire RFP and narrow your top selections as if price weren’t a factor. Since you’re the only person who can see all of the proposals that come in, pricing really does have to be a two-way street. You should always feel empowered to go back to those firms who you like based on the quality of their response and ask them to meet some of the lower pricing from other firms.  

Not defining the information that you want to see
This is a pitfall we see all the time—advocacy organizations just assume that firms will include all the same information and leave out some of the critically important details. If your goal is to compare apples to apples, and you really want to be able to compare the pricing for direct mail at a quantity of 50K, you should specifically ask for that pricing. If your organization is really concerned with data security, you should specifically ask that question. Because when you think about it, it’s really not fair to cut firms for not answering questions in their proposals that you never asked them in the first place. 

Not defining what success looks like and gaining organizational buy in BEFORE you write your RFP 
Before you send out your RFP, you should make sure anyone who will participate in the project has already weighed in on that document. This will help ensure that their opinions are heard and that you have full organizational buy in. You should also be clearly defining in the RFP what success looks like. Sure, your main goal may be to advance a bill in the legislature, but what would success look like in the event that the bill doesn’t pass? Would you hope to boost your number of supporters? Increase fundraising capacity? Develop new relationships with coalition partners? Making it very clear what success looks like in your advocacy RFP will help to increase the quality of the responses you get in the door. 

Not defining your budget
We all know that advocacy budgets can depend on a wide variety of factors and that early on in the process it can be hard to pin down an exact budget number. But including a broad total budget range in your advocacy RFP can help to increase the quality of responses you get back. What a firm would do for a total budget of $40K is very, very different than the types of tactics that you would use on a project with a budget of $250K. Without defining your budget, you may get a response back that’s full of tactics that aren’t realistic for your budget. 

Not agreeing on realistic timelines and missing key milestones
Here’s another pitfall we see all too often. Many advocacy organizations will list a decision-making timeline in their RFP (which is a good thing) but will list deadlines that are only a day or two after the submission deadline. Realistically, it’s very hard for an organization to do a thorough job of sorting through all of the RFPs that they receive without having at least a week to do it. If you are doing it faster than that, chances are that you’re just scanning the RFPs for their pricing page (see pitfall #1 above) and not doing a quality job of vetting submissions.  

Not calling references before you select your vendor
You wouldn’t hire a new employee without checking their references, so why hire an advocacy consulting firm before checking their references? Before you make a final decision, we always recommend that advocacy organizations ask for a list of references to call. This will help you get a true sense of some of the pluses and minuses of each firm so you can make a real, informed decision based on the advice of people who have worked with them before. Depending on your goals, you may want to ask for a reference whose primary objective was achieved (i.e. a bill passed the legislature, etc.) and one where they fell short of achieving their primary objective. 
Agreeing who is a decisionmaker and who is not
At the end of the day, someone is going to have to be the decisionmaker who decides which firm you hire. Often this decision is made by a group of people instead of just one singular person. But before a decision is made (or preferably before an advocacy RFP is sent out) you should decide who is on the team that makes that decision and who is not. If you don’t decide this at the outset, you’re going to get a lot of back-seat drivers weighing in on the process. While it’s a great thing to get advice (particularly if it’s from someone who has experience working with the firm in question in the past), at the end of the day you are the person who will interact day-to-day with this firm and you need to be comfortable with the choice you make.

When well-drafted, an advocacy RFP can help you get off on the right foot and will net you quality submissions. Advocacy RFPs should always err toward providing more information rather than less—they shouldn’t be a guessing game about what you want and what you don’t. The most important thing with drafting an advocacy RPF is to take the time to write a thoughtful document and making sure you are carefully reviewing all of the submissions.

Have other questions about writing great advocacy RFPs? Reach out to The Campaign Workshop!