Do RFPs Gel With DEI? Let’s Re-Evaluate The Cost of Doing Business

February 17, 2022

Dr. Sarah Saska & Chantal Hansen

If you are a service provider, you’ve probably submitted a Request for Proposal (RFP). RFPs are usually questionnaire-style documents developed by organizations seeking to buy services from external vendors.  Organizations may lack the time, resources, or in-house expertise for specific needs. This process can help them compare vendors and select the “best” option, typically based on quality, cost, and delivery. 


While RFPs are standard across various sectors and industries, the process is often bureaucratic. As a result, it can reinforce various forms of inequity that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts seek to dismantle. 


As an organization, Feminuity rarely responds to RFPs. We also (generally) advise our clients against the RFP process for a few reasons. Nevertheless, here is a breakdown of our experiences, criticisms, and recommendations for improvement.

1. They are rarely designed collaboratively.

We can’t forget the why of this work. DEI work encourages communities to collaborate; we strive to empower and revolutionize organizations and shed light on the communities that must be represented, respected, and included in all stages of an organization. 


Let’s iron this out. Here are some suggestions to move forward more equitably:

  • Those seeking services must learn about the root of DEI work before engaging with vendors. 
  • Those seeking services should encourage co-design and create opportunities for practitioners to collaborate.

2. They rarely reflect an organization’s *actual* needs.

Too often, RFPs appear to be written by those not intimately involved with the project - making it unclear what the organization wants precisely. Other times, RFPs may provide an incredibly detailed outline of how the project will be executed. This can stifle vendors’ creativity, undercut their autonomy, and set them on a strict, stressful, and unrealistic timeline. 


Let’s iron this out. Here are some suggestions to move forward more equitably: 

  • Those seeking services should provide the appropriate insight into their needs. This may require the RFP to be written by someone intimately involved in the project or within the same department.
  • When designing a RFP, use subheadings and bullet points, so the document is more scannable and easier to digest.
  • Those seeking services should consider the vendor's expertise and forge a path together. Discuss what timelines are feasible and come to an agreement together.

3. It encourages a “race to the bottom” approach if they don't include a budget range. 

A DiVerity study shares that only 41% of RFPs include guidance about the budget for the project. By not adding a budget range, those seeking services are not providing vendors with the necessary context needed to understand the project's scope. This can include effort, time, resources, and refinement. And it helps stop scope creep, which happens when project expectations are not adequately defined, documented, or controlled. 

The idea that projects must be high quality, done quickly, and at low cost is unreasonable and unfair. Not to mention, it’s only feasible in an unethical process.

Let’s iron this out. Here are some suggestions to move forward more equitably: 

  • Always provide an initial budget range and stick to that range. 
  • Don’t encourage a bidding war for the cheapest proposal. Don’t make it about supply and demand in a field that values community work.


4. They are uncompensated and financially inaccessible for many.


We’ve never found a paid RFP or offer that is in any way reciprocal to vendors. This is a fundamental equity issue. Depending on the nature of the RPF, they may take hours or even weeks. 

Let’s iron this out. Here are some suggestions to move forward more equitably: 


  • Those in need of services should not request that vendors provide a substantial amount of free labour. They need to treat vendors with respect for their time.

“Being able to work for free is a privilege few have and seems unfair to ask of people.” - Feminuity Team Member


5. They request too much time and effort.

RFPs often require lengthy responses to a variety of questions. A DiVerity study found that RFPs range from 2-58 pages long (woah!). Vendors may very well spend an entire day or two conceptualizing and operationalizing a project on paper. 

Let’s iron this out. Here are some suggestions to move forward more equitably: 

  • Instead of causing migraines with an inordinate amount of open-ended questions, those seeking services may want to consider asking vendors for work samples and maybe just a few short-answer questions.


"We recognize that, in the current climate, there is increased reliance upon consultants and firms led by BIPOC; and that answering a request for proposals takes thoughtful time and energy away from your business. Mozilla would like to ease the submission requirements for this request for proposals. Rather than requiring a lengthy, unique proposal, we’re asking you to submit the above information along with an existing work sample that you feel represents a similar work you’ve done for another client. This way, we can gauge your level of expertise and the quality of output without the burden of creating extensive new material related to this submission." - Mozilla Foundation.

6. They don’t protect people’s intellectual capital. 

The RFP process can require a respondent to present intellectual capital with no promise of confidentiality. When respondents share their unique ideas in a proposal, there is no guarantee that these ideas won’t be stolen or repurposed.

Let’s iron this out. Here are some suggestions to move forward more equitably: 

  • Add a protection clause or explain what you will do with the info that has been shared.
  • Don’t use RFPs to shop around for ideas. Don’t grab a more expensive vendor’s idea and hire a cheaper vendor to implement it. 


7. They can be too jargon-y.

Jargon, clauses, and legal terms can exclude people who may not have specialized knowledge of a particular subject or whose first language is not English. This can limit effective communication, overcomplicate the ideas and work required, and limit the applicant pool.

Let’s iron this out. Here are some suggestions to move forward more equitably: 

  • Use plain language and familiar words. Simple is kind.  Spell out acronyms.

8. Avoid paywalls.

Hosting RFPs on platforms with paywalls where respondents must purchase a monthly or annual subscription to access bid opportunities can be restrictive. Not only can it stifle the public's open communication with one another by restricting the ability to consider and share options, but it may also function as a financial barrier, especially to those just starting.

Let’s iron this out. Here are some suggestions to move forward more equitably: 

“People will say this is the cost of business. However, the established and expensive consulting firms generally access this model first. These inequities hurt solo practitioners and early-stage consulting firms.” - Feminuity Team Member

9. Sometimes, they are simply rigged.


A “baked” RFP is one that already has an incumbent winner. Maybe the RFP issuer is a repeat customer of a particular vendor. It’s also possible that a vendor has been working with the organization for months to try and “sell” outside the RFP process. We’ve been on both sides of this, and ultimately, this is unfair for all other vendors who take the time to submit their proposals. 

Let’s iron this out. Here are some suggestions to move forward more equitably: 

  • Don’t do this shit!

10. They often lack capacity building.

Too often, people think DEI work is a one-time project that one or two people are responsible for. When a vendor joins a team for a project, the whole organization must get on board, and the work continues after they leave. This won’t work.

Let’s iron this out. Here are some suggestions to move forward more equitably: 

  • Ensure the work handoff is considered within the RFP’s budget to ensure capacity building, sustainability, and buy-in.
  • Ensure team members are not just assisting off the side of their desk. Train them to champion the work. 

“This RFP is not balanced in responsibilities” - Feminuity Team Member


Conclusion

As the world slowly recognizes the extent of energy and unpaid time necessary to respond to RFPs, we hope more organizations will shift away from inequitable RFP practices. We are calling for a new mindset for engaging with DEI consultants and firms. Please reach out to hello@feminuity.org to share your ideas on how RFPs can improve.