Many evaluators, especially external evaluators, have to bid on evaluation requests for proposals (e.g., RFP, RFA) to find work. Others of you, particularly grant-funded organizations and programs, have to bid on grants to get funding to do your work. The advice below can apply to both groups, but it’s written from the evaluator perspective.
First of all, there’s a plethora of opportunities out there to find evaluation RFPs – with just a few listed below:
- American Evaluation Association
- Your state evaluation association, such as the Michigan Association for Evaluation
- Federal web sites offering research and evaluation grants, such as US Department of Education or Institute for Education Sciences
Of course my favorite way to secure new work is by word-of-mouth, but that’s a whole other topic!
How do you know if you should bid on an RFP or not? Sometimes it can be a very difficult decision, and the key questions below may help you think a bit more strategically through if you should bid on it or not…
- Does it look like the bid has been released because the organization was forced to and may have an evaluator already in mind?
That happens often. Many organizations must go through a bid process for any projects costing more than $25,000, yet they have pre-established relationships with evaluators they have worked with in the past. I’ve been on both sides of that equation…I’ve bid on projects that took a lot of time only to find out there was already a planned evaluator, and I’ve been that planned evaluator. Over the years I’ve learned some details to look for to help you figure this out. Ideally, you could ask the organization directly, but many bids do not allow unsolicited communication prior to submitting the bid (if they do, ask!). Look for very detailed, and sometimes unusual, requirements in the bid such as resident of the state, XX years of experience, specific educational background, or prior experience conducting particular types of evaluation. Those are typically signals that they have an evaluator/team in mind and are writing the bid so that evaluator/team will be the only one who meets the requirements.
- Do you have enough time to commit to giving serious thought to designing the evaluation and writing the narrative & budget for the bid?
Creating responses to an RFP take a significant amount of real work and time. Some evaluators use more of a cookie-cutter approach when submitting an evaluation bid, but we create each bid from scratch. We want to make sure we are seriously considering what the potential new client wants and carefully explaining how we would achieve that with our own special added value. There may be elements from other bids we’ll use, but they are always reviewed and rewritten to target the potential new client. That being said, writing bids from scratch can take a long time. I typically plan 2-3 hours just to think about the project, no writing involved. Then, for every page of narrative the RFP requires, I estimate 1-2 hours of developing/writing time. I estimate the budget to take another 1-2 hours. So, for a 10-page bid, you’re looking at 13-25 hours of time!
- Do you have the capacity to implement the evaluation if you are chosen?
This sounds simplistic. If you get funded, you’ll make it work, right? That’s a naïve approach. In thinking more strategically, I first consider if my evaluation team has the knowledge, skills, and time to implement the evaluation. If there’s a knowledge or skills deficit, then I need to start thinking immediately about what training would help us be better prepared to implement the evaluation…which may involve investing some time/money on our own. If there’s a time deficit, then I need to start looking for potential new team members to bring on board and get up to speed with our evaluation work ethics. I never want to be put into the situation where I have to bring someone on board that is unprepared then inappropriately represents my evaluation firm. I like to do some “speed dating” with potential new evaluators – have them work on minor elements for projects to learn more about their skills and deliverables, then I’ll be more prepared when I need to increase team membership.
- Are you comfortable with sharing your personal ideas about evaluation approaches with an organization or individual who could potentially abuse that information?
I’m normally a Pollyanna type of person – I like to think positively about things and people for the most part. However, there have been several times when we’ve bid on a project and the organization took our bid, shared it with a close friend or relative, and hired that person to implement the evaluation. Now, the fact that neither of those evaluations were implemented well because the people hired didn’t have the necessary skills does not make me feel better. I felt violated and taken advantage of. Unfortunately, many RFPs state in them that the bid becomes the property of the organization. This is a risk we take. I often add a statement at the end of the bid that says something like “This evaluation plan is being provided by iEval for the sole purposes of review through the RFP process and should not be shared for use by any other organization.” While I have no legal control over it, it makes me feel a little better. It’s something you need to seriously think about when you’re writing and submitting a bid. We also tend to not put in some of the very specific information about evaluation implementation or data analyses, which would make it more difficult for someone to copy our plan without complete knowledge. The hope – and the request we write in the bid – is that the reviewers will be so impressed with what they read that they will follow up with additional questions via phone or interview where we can go into more details.
Now, there are always situations that come up where you just have a gut feeling that it was meant to be. A few years ago we bid on a project that was really outside of our content area of expertise, we were swamped with work at the time the RFP came out so time was at a premium, and receiving the project would put a big strain on our available staff time. However, something in my gut said it was meant to be. I talked a while with the team about it, and we decided to go for it. Amazingly, we got it. It resulted in our first international project, expanded our portfolio, helped us create new processes that we’ve continued to use in other evaluation work, and produced very satisfied clients!
DR. TACKETT’S USEFUL TIP: As external evaluators, bids are a part of life. While it’s important to be thoughtful when deciding which projects to bid on, sometimes you do have to just go for it! You never know where it will lead you…
On a personal note, I have to give a HAPPY BIRTHDAY shout-out to my husband, Paul, on his birthday today! Paul is the one who introduced me to Thomas Jefferson years ago (see prior posts on Jefferson as our founding evaluator, weeks 76 & 81), and – for those fellow math geeks out there – Paul’s birthday is actually on the average of Thomas Jefferson’s two birthdays. Yes, President TJ had two birth dates – google it!