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Digital Transformation

Pros & Cons of Using an RFP for Your Digital Transformation 

Learn an innovative way to test and evaluate member management systems using your own data and processes before making a long-term commitment.

More than likely, your Board or accounting/finance department requires you to use a Request for Proposal (RFP) or competitive bidding process for major expenses, such as new association software. And while you probably already know that RFPs (or one of their cousins  a Request for Information (RFI) or Request for Quote (RFQ)  don’t always uncover the right technology solution, you still have to work within the parameters you’re given. But there are new ways to stretch and modify these boundaries to ensure you identify the best member management system for your association. We’ve got thoughts.  


Digital Transformation Defined 

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, “digitaltransformation” is the integration of digitaltechnology into all facets of your organization. An effective digital strategy will improve, advance, and streamline how your association operates and delivers value to your members. It may require a cultural shift and a commitment to continually experiment and challenge the status quo.  

Specifics of your strategy will vary depending on your organization but will likely explore your: 

  • Processes
  • Business model
  • Systems and technology
  • Organizational structure and culture 

The most critical component of any association’s digital transformation strategy is an effective member management system that can support your plans. And finding this system is often one of the first steps in your digital transformation. But how do you know if the system is really right for you? Let’s explore your options. 


Advantages of Using an RFP to Choose Association Software 

It’s what you know. 

You’ve probably been through a member management system selection process before. You form an internal Selection Committee, hire a consultant, and design a lengthy RFP/RFI/RFQ document with all of your needs spelled out using the MoSCoW method: 

  • Must haves 
  • Should haves 
  • Could haves
  • Won’t haves 

You then send it to a list of vendors, receive proposals the size of War and Peace that every Selection Committee member has to review, and then you choose from the top candidates. And very rarely do you find a system you’re excited about 


You build a comprehensive requirements document.

The RFP process forces you to analyze and document your needs in great detail. This can be useful  especially if there are conflicting views of what’s needed or how best to address your challenges. It’s important to understand: 

  • What’s not working with your legacy system? 
  • What do you need to better serve your members? 
  • How can a system help you deliver additional value to members?
  • How will a new system help you pivot and adjust as needs change in the future? 

 Documents with glasses on top


The Selection Committee is typically very inclusive.

When forming your new software Selection Committee, no doubt you invited representatives from all departments that will either directly or indirectly use the new association software. This is a time to include:

  • Executives 
  • Middle managers from every department 
  • Entry-level workers who will use the system every day 
  • IT 

It’s important to get a good mix of perspectives so that everyone feels part of the decision-making process and is more willing to adopt the new system later on. 


You compare apples to apples.

With an RFP, you have a very structured document that solution providers must adhere to. It helps the review process because all responders must answer the same questions, typically in the same order. It is easier for the Selection Committee to compare: 

  • Scope of the solution 
  • Features and functionality 
  • Company history  
  • Implementation plans 
  • Price 

While the documents you receive may be a little overwhelming, they should provide the same information from one to another. Depending on your evaluation process  such as weighted scoring  you are able to give a higher score to providers who address your most pressing concerns. 

Woman comparing two documents 


You have justification for the solution provider you select. 

Your procurement process was designed to ensure a fair, equitable vendor selection that both meets your needs and your budgetary requirements. The RFP and review process will provide all the documentation you need to request executive management/Board approval with confidence.

See our recent blog post, 7 Best Practices to Make the Buying Process Less Painful, for helpful insights.


Disadvantages of Selecting a Member Management System with an RFP

It’s the same process that found your last disappointing association software system. 

While the process may be familiar to you, your staff, and potential solution providers, it doesn’t mean it’s the best way to find the system that’s right for you. No doubt you used an RFP to find your last member management system and if you’re like most associations, it did not result in a system that met all your requirements  at least not without extensive customization. It’s time to look at a new way of doing things. 


It’s expensive and time-consuming. 

Some RFP processes can take a year (or more!) from start to finish. That is a huge investment of staff resources to: 

  • Gather your requirements 
  • Prepare the RFP documents 
  • Identify qualified solution providers 
  • Sift through mountains of proposal documents 
  • Watch endless demos that aren’t relevant to the way your association operates 

Time spent on this initiative takes staff away from other important activities and can put a strain on the entire organization. It can also be expensive: if you hire an outside contractor to help and the process continues for months on end, the costs will add up quickly.  

Man looking at documents 


Some Selection Committee members may not be qualified to make technology decisions.

It’s important to have representatives from each department involved in the RFP process to provide vital information  you need the perspective of the people who are going to use your member management system every day. However, when it comes down to accurately rating the solution providers, some of your Selection Committee members may not have the technical knowledge to properly evaluate them. As a result, poor-performing providers might get a high score while great companies might be marked down because they don’t fall neatly into cookie-cutter approaches.   


Vendors may not tell you what you need to hear.

An RFP is usually very structured and solution providers are asked to answer extremely specific questions. However, this stilted environment doesn’t give responders the flexibility/opportunity to help you understand new approaches on the market that might work better for your organization. An RFP doesn’t lend itself to a creative response  which is exactly what your organization might need. 


The “price” may not be the real price.

RFP pricing is typically based on exactly what you’ve asked for. If the vendor varies from the formula and provides pricing for what they think you really need, they can often get penalized in the ranking process. You need to dig down with the solution providers to fully understand the licensing fees as well as what the system is going to cost you to operate over the next several years.  

Clients have reported customizations and other hidden expenses caused them to spend 3X the original price quoted for their last system over the first 3 years. 


The best solution provider for you may not want to go through an RFP. 

RFPs are awesome!  Said no one, ever. They’re excruciating for everyone. And more and more providers are declining to respond to RFPs because they are so time-consuming. A vendor might have a 10 - 30% chance of winning an RFP bid and some believe it may not be the most cost-effective way to win new business. So, by solely using an RFP to find a new system, you may be missing out on the perfect solution for your association. 


It’s a poor predictor of success.

Finally, the most important reason to reconsider using RFPs is because they rarely help you select the right solution for you. Most of your time is spent on internal processes and very little time is spent getting to know the vendor and the solution. An RFP is great at helping you select the same sort of system that let you down before. And before that. And before that. Your grandfather’s way of choosing association software just isn’t going to work in our fast-paced technology environment. 

According to Gartner’s B2B Buying Journey, buyers spend only 17% of their time meeting with potential suppliers. 



A Better Idea: Association Software Previews

A system preview allows you to test the solution provider’s offering in a real-world environment using your own information and processes to see what you can realistically achieve  before making a commitment. The entire cost of one of these previews can be less than what you might pay a contractor to develop an RFP — and it’s a much better predictor of your success. 

As part of the system preview process, the solution provider should: 

  • Identify your most pressing problems 
  • Help you get organized 
  • Save you time and money by employing proven best practices 
  • Lower your risk of investing in the wrong technology assets 
  • Keep you from being disappointed once again because you did not achieve the expected return on your investment 

While each process is a little different, here’s how it works: 


Vendor selection phase 

Established association software vendors should be capable of conducting an in-depth preview of their system using your own processes and data. If they can’t, you may need to question if they have the right expertise for your organization. Start with a vendor offering a solution that’s purpose-built for associations  such as an Engagement Management System  so you’re not reinventing the wheel. If you’re unsure where to begin, use your IT consultants to help you identify the top 3 vendors that can meet your needs and choose one for the preview. 


Discovery phase 

In this phase, the vendor should collaborate with your executive team to assess your current situation. They should evaluate the four most important areas that contribute to your association’s success:  

  • Recruiting members
  • Engaging and retaining members
  • Measuring your performance
  • Increasing your growth  

This analysis will benchmark where you are today versus where you need to be  it should identify operational gaps that may be hindering your optimal performance.  

This phase typically takes about three hours of executive time. 


Consensus and preview phase 

Once your benchmarks are in place, the vendor should:

  • Work with your executive team to identify key strategic targets 
  • Work with your operational team to define key requirements 
  • Preview the system using your data and processes  so there is no guessing about how the association software will or will not work for you
  • Prepare a detailed, personalized business performance improvement plan documenting all your requirements

This phase should take no more than 2 months. 

Vendor showing clients their platform on a desktop computer


Informed decision phase 

After completing the preview, you can decide whether the member management system will address your challenges and help you meet your goals. If it can’t, you will still have highly detailed documentation you can use to assess alternative association software 


Alternative phase 

The preview option is clearly the better way to find your next system. But if your organization still requires a formal RFP, you can use the detailed requirements document created in the system preview to build a highly targeted, streamlined RFP that will speak to your specific needs and will be much easier to review.


Take Aways 

  • As part of your digital transformation process, you need to look at new and innovative ways to bring value to your members. Does it really make sense to use an outmoded process to choose the latest technology to take you into the future? 
  • The advantages of an RFP  a systematic process, comprehensive requirements documentation, side-by-side comparisons of features and functionality, etc.   are all qualities that can be part of a modern selection approach to help you find the best association software for your organization.
  • By using a system preview, you can essentially “try before you buy.” You can assess how your data and processes will work with the association software before making a commitment.
  • The entire cost of a system preview can be less than what you might pay a contractor to develop an RFP — and it’s a much better indicator of your success.

Looking for more help? Check out The Association Exec’s Guide to Improving Organizational Performance book with great advice on how to ensure your business strategy drives your technology decisions.

Book: Improving Organizational Performance


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