Reimagining the Request for Proposal

Article by Devon Davey, Heather Hiscox & Nicole Markwick : “In recent years, the social sector and the communities it serves have called for deep structural change to address our most serious social injustices. Yet one of the basic tools we use to fund change, the request for proposal (RFP), has remained largely unchanged. We believe that RFPs must become part of the larger call for systemic reform….

At first glance, the RFP process may seem neutral or fair. Yet RFPs are often designed by individuals in high-level positions without meaningful input from community members and frontline staff—those who are most familiar with social injustices and who often hold the least institutional power. What’s more, those who both issue and respond to RFPs often rely on their social capital to find and collaborate on RFP opportunities. Since social networks are highly homogeneous, RFP participation is limited to the professionals who have social connections to the issuer, resulting in a more limited pool of applicants.

This selection process is further compounded by the human propensity to hire people who look the same and who reflect similar ways of thinking. Social sector decision makers and power holders tend to be—among other identities—white. This lack of diversity, furthered by historical oppression, has ensured that white privilege and ways of working have come to dominate within the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. This concentration of power and lack of diverse perspectives and experiences shaping RFPs results in projects failing to respond to the needs of communities and, in many cases, projects that directly perpetuate racism, colonialism, misogyny, ableism, sexism, and other forms of systemic and individual oppression.

The rigid structure of RFPs plays an important role in many of the negative outcomes of projects. Effective social change work is emergent, is iterative, and centers trust by nature. By contrast, RFPs frequently apply inflexible work scopes, limited timelines and budgets, and unproven solutions that are developed within the blinders of institutional power. Too often, funders force programs into implementation because they want to see results according to a specified plan. This rigidity can produce initiatives that are ineffective and removed from community needs. As consultant Joyce Lee-Ibarra says, “[RFPs] feel fundamentally transactional, when the work I want to do is relational.”…(More)”.