There is a growing consensus in international development that we will not achieve our development goals without tapping the resources, investment, and expertise of the private sector. But that can be difficult: The development community is very different from the private sector, and our processes and timelines aren’t always compatible.
The U.S. Agency for International Development’s INVEST initiative is experimenting with ways to make it easier for the private sector, specifically the investment community, to work with USAID. The INVEST mechanism, managed by DAI, was designed to streamline the procurement process and make it faster and easier to connect USAID with the partners it needs.
We have found that a few simple tweaks have made a big difference. Here are a few hacks that have helped us get better results.
Don’t scare people off with paperwork
Writing a proposal shouldn’t be overwhelming. We want it to be as easy as possible for firms to submit a proposal — even if they are small or have never worked with USAID before. That’s why we keep our subcontract requests for proposals, or RFPs, as short as possible, and we ask for all technical proposals in the form of a 10-slide presentation.
This reduces the burden of writing a proposal. It forces firms to get right to the point and focus on substance. And, it helps DAI make faster recommendations to USAID and get the real work underway.
Ask for what you want
Because our subcontract proposals are lean and we operate on tight timelines, we have to be explicit about exactly what type of expertise we are looking for. That might mean spelling out the technical knowledge or in-country relationships we need.
Clearly communicating what we need keeps subcontract proposals focused on exactly what we need to know, and it makes it easier for reviewers to make a good decision. It also gives small firms who are juggling multiple proposals a better sense of how competitive they are, based on their qualifications. That can help them manage their pipeline of work.
Use phone interviews
It can be hard to choose from a short list of highly qualified firms. But getting them on the phone can be very informative. Using phone interviews as part of the subcontracting procurement process can help differentiate between qualified firms. Putting them on the spot shows off their expertise or exposes hidden weaknesses, and it gives us a sense of their professional style.
This two-step process helps us choose the most qualified organization — not just the one with the most experience writing proposals for USAID.
Always send a thank you note
Proposal-writing takes a lot of work. But showing our appreciation is not the only reason to follow up with the people who submitted proposals. INVEST puts out a lot of subcontract RFPs, and our goal is for the proposals we receive to get better every time.
That’s why we provide substantive, concrete feedback. We offer a debrief to each firm that submitted a proposal, outlining its strengths and weaknesses and offering constructive recommendations.
This can be particularly valuable to organizations unfamiliar with USAID, helping them navigate the procurement process. It’s working: The quality of the proposals we receive has been increasing steadily.
Go the extra mile, but do it selectively
There are never enough hours in the day. But we have found that investing a little extra time at key moments in the procurement process makes a big difference.
First, if you have time to do nothing else, get the scope of work right, even if it means bringing on freelance technical expertise to help inform it or write it up. If you don’t have that expertise, consider using a request for information first to get a sense of the breadth of solutions out there and expand your understanding of the market.
Second, don’t skimp on the feedback you send to people who submitted proposals. If you make a deeper investment in these two points, you can cut corners elsewhere and still get good results.
Tweaks like these aren’t flashy, but they can make an outsized difference. Do you have experience with other ways to improve the RFP process? Share your experience with us in the comments.