Using Competitions & RFPs Requests for Proposals

When does it make sense to hold a grant competition or use an RFP? In addition to looking at management issues to consider along the way, this guide explores how grantmakers shape competitions to serve larger strategic goals, communicate with wider audiences, create a learning community, and find ways to work with those who are not selected.

Highlights

  • Deciding whether to use an RFP
  • Shaping the competition so it serves your goals
  • Managing the process and other issues to consider

What's in the Guide?

There are many ways to communicate about grantmaking goals, to solicit proposals, and to ensure that grants are awarded fairly. Holding a competition, with a written solicitation of proposalsand a formal process for selecting grantees isn't the only way to achieve these things, but it can be a highly effective one.

  • When does it make sense to hold a grant competition or use an RFP? Competitions are sometimes the best way to organize a program and select grantees — but not always. They're useful, for example, if you're entering a big and unfamiliar field, or trying to enlarge your circle of grantees, or concerned about making decisions in an especially transparent and evenhanded way. Here, grant makers reflect on the circumstances that made competitions a good choice for what they wanted to achieve.
  • How can you make the component parts of an RFP process or competition serve your program goals? If it's set up wisely, the very act of holding a competition can contribute to the field you're working in. The contents of your RFP, your selection criteria, the things you ask applicants to consider proposing — all these things can send a message to the field and elevate issues you consider important. The process by which you solicit grants and interact with applicants can be a learning experience for you and them. Several grant makers offer experiences with competitions that show how this can work.
  • Management and administrative issues to consider. If you take on a competition, be sure you're ready for the administrative and procedural workload. To be effective, a competition takes careful planning and execution, and it poses a number of out-of-the-ordinary administrative responsibilities. It's sometimes useful to enlist an outside organization to manage part or all of the process. In this section, grant makers reflect on what it takes to set up and administer an effective competition.
  • Working with advisers. Outside experts, working individually or as a panel, can help guide you through the planning of your competition, the scoring and selection of applications, and the implementation of the proposals that are selected. It helps, though, to be clear about exactly how you would like these advisers to work, in what roles, at what stage. Here, grantmakers describe how they used advisers to get better results.
  • Using the competition or RFP process to create a learning community. Holding a competition can help in forming a "learning community" in your field. Sometimes, people working in a field gain insights or focus their discussions as a direct result of a grant competition. Soliciting a number of proposals that are organized to address the same set of issues, and then convening those who apply (or those who are selected) for ongoing discussions can advance that process. Grantmakers reflect on how that has worked in different cases.
  • Ways to work with those who are not selected. It helps to have a plan for how you'll deal with the applicants you don't select for funding. At a minimum, grantmakers feel it's important to give them early notice that they weren't selected, and to try to explain how the decision was made. But in addition, some grantmakers try to do more for the unsuccessful applicants. Here, they offer thoughts on how to make competitions useful even for those who don't win.
  • Communicating with wider audiences about the competition. When you first start planning a competition, it's not too soon to begin thinking about ways to tell a wider audience about the competition's purposes, progress, and results. Sometimes, the ideas in an RFP, or just the fact that an RFP has been issued, constitute important information that might interest a broader public. In this section, grantmakers describe how they approached communication as part of organizing a competition.
  • Takeaways
    Lessons from Grantmakers on Using Competitions and RFPs

    As you think about whether a competition or an RFP would be helpful to your program, it might be useful to bear in mind these brief lessons that our contributors have identified:

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  • Takeaways
    What is a Request for Proposal (RFP)?

    The most common instrument for organizing and conducting a grant competition is a Request for Proposals, or RFP. An RFP is an invitation to submit a proposal, which a grantmaker may issue broadly or in a targeted fashion to those working in a particular field.

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  • Takeaways
    What Grantees Wish Grantmakers Knew about RFPs
    • Get feedback from the community before you launch an RFP or competition — don’t create your plan in a vacuum.
    • Be clear up front about what you are looking for, and make the application simple.
    Read More »
  • Takeaways
    Yes! Post an RFP or Hold a Competition

    When a grantmaking organization plans to enter an unfamiliar field, or one in which the grantees are not well known, a competition may help generate a flow of new organizations and ideas.

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  • Takeaways
  • Takeaways
    No, Not the Time to Post an RFP or Hold a Competition

    Rejection has too high a cost for the institutions that do not receive grants. For some fragile fields, losing a highly visible competition can mean that the applicant loses standing in a field, in its community, or in its host institution.

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  • Takeaways
    Ensuring a Wide-Range of Applicants

    Grantmakers establish selection criteria in order to encourage a diverse pool of applicants, and sometimes use additional types of support to ensure that they get it.

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  • Takeaways
    Linking Program to RFPs/Competitions
    • Use the process of responding to the RFP to build knowledge in a field or to strengthen organizations working in a particular area.

    • Organize the selection process to ensure the right overall mix of grantees — reflecting whatever variety and balance are important to the program’s goals.

    • Capitalize on the fact that you have a cluster or cohort of grantees to develop a communications strategy that reflects your overarching program goals and values.
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  • Takeaways
    Tip: Drafting the RFP

    Grantmakers observe that it is important to strike a balance between the need to make each proposal consistent and the desire for enough flexibility to allow the unique ideas and experiences of applicants to emerge. Two grantmaker suggestions:

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  • Takeaways
    Three Approaches to Managing a Competition
    1. Internally managed, or “in-house” competitions, in which grantmaking staff oversee the entire process, from creation of the Request for Proposals to final selection of grantees, potentially with the assistance of consultants, and typically using a selection panel of outside experts to assist in grant decisions.
    Read More »

When does it make sense to hold a grant competition or use an RFP? In addition to looking at management issues to consider along the way, this guide explores how grantmakers shape competitions to serve larger strategic goals, communicate with wider audiences, create a learning community, and find ways to work with those who are not selected.

Highlights

  • Deciding whether to use an RFP
  • Shaping the competition so it serves your goals
  • Managing the process and other issues to consider

What's in the Guide?

There are many ways to communicate about grantmaking goals, to solicit proposals, and to ensure that grants are awarded fairly. Holding a competition, with a written solicitation of proposalsand a formal process for selecting grantees isn't the only way to achieve these things, but it can be a highly effective one.

  • When does it make sense to hold a grant competition or use an RFP? Competitions are sometimes the best way to organize a program and select grantees — but not always. They're useful, for example, if you're entering a big and unfamiliar field, or trying to enlarge your circle of grantees, or concerned about making decisions in an especially transparent and evenhanded way. Here, grant makers reflect on the circumstances that made competitions a good choice for what they wanted to achieve.
  • How can you make the component parts of an RFP process or competition serve your program goals? If it's set up wisely, the very act of holding a competition can contribute to the field you're working in. The contents of your RFP, your selection criteria, the things you ask applicants to consider proposing — all these things can send a message to the field and elevate issues you consider important. The process by which you solicit grants and interact with applicants can be a learning experience for you and them. Several grant makers offer experiences with competitions that show how this can work.
  • Management and administrative issues to consider. If you take on a competition, be sure you're ready for the administrative and procedural workload. To be effective, a competition takes careful planning and execution, and it poses a number of out-of-the-ordinary administrative responsibilities. It's sometimes useful to enlist an outside organization to manage part or all of the process. In this section, grant makers reflect on what it takes to set up and administer an effective competition.
  • Working with advisers. Outside experts, working individually or as a panel, can help guide you through the planning of your competition, the scoring and selection of applications, and the implementation of the proposals that are selected. It helps, though, to be clear about exactly how you would like these advisers to work, in what roles, at what stage. Here, grantmakers describe how they used advisers to get better results.
  • Using the competition or RFP process to create a learning community. Holding a competition can help in forming a "learning community" in your field. Sometimes, people working in a field gain insights or focus their discussions as a direct result of a grant competition. Soliciting a number of proposals that are organized to address the same set of issues, and then convening those who apply (or those who are selected) for ongoing discussions can advance that process. Grantmakers reflect on how that has worked in different cases.
  • Ways to work with those who are not selected. It helps to have a plan for how you'll deal with the applicants you don't select for funding. At a minimum, grantmakers feel it's important to give them early notice that they weren't selected, and to try to explain how the decision was made. But in addition, some grantmakers try to do more for the unsuccessful applicants. Here, they offer thoughts on how to make competitions useful even for those who don't win.
  • Communicating with wider audiences about the competition. When you first start planning a competition, it's not too soon to begin thinking about ways to tell a wider audience about the competition's purposes, progress, and results. Sometimes, the ideas in an RFP, or just the fact that an RFP has been issued, constitute important information that might interest a broader public. In this section, grantmakers describe how they approached communication as part of organizing a competition.