Three tips for funders on designing an effective bid process

Fiona Sheil was responsible for co-ordinating NCVO’s programme of seminars, training and advice work on public service commissioning and procurement. Fiona left NCVO in October 2013 but we have retained her blog posts for reference.

A short while ago we successfully bid for a piece of capacity building work. Not only were we successful: but the piece of work was genuinely good. Why? Because the bidding process gave us time and stimulation to think. So for funders and commissioners, here’s three tips on how a good bidding process helps both sides, and leads to better work:

1. The funder spoke to the market while designing the bid

This enabled us to discuss rationale and make suggestions about what they should seek to fund, and how they should then manage the successful project to get the most of it.

Now, lots of people would squawk at this and claim ‘conflict of interest’. But like most people, my job is to be honest and to see the best possible information being used to produce the best results, whether we end up being the provider or not. So we gave the best advice we could, and the funder seemed happy.

NB: If your procurement team say pre-engagement isn’t allowed, rubbish! Unless that’s stipulated in your internal financial regulations, the law does allow it. What matters is probity (so fair treatment to all) and transparency. These are easy to achieve, not hard.

Through these conversations we felt we were coming at the problem from the same angle as the funder. It felt like there was a productive relationship to be had if we were to bid and when.

Then the bid came out: it wasn’t what was expected.

In fact, it was so different (in principles, not in activity) that we debated long and hard over whether to bid.

2. There was sufficient time  to make sure the bid was a good fit

As we now had two very different impressions of what the funder wanted (FYI – this isn’t good practice!) we had to work out what seemed most true – and therefore, whether it was a good fit.

This is important. It matters that the right people bid – the people who are most suited to the work and most suited to having a constructive relationship with you and will therefore produce the best results. Commissioners have told us lately that they’re getting less bids in lots of cases as organisations have less time and are feeling risk-adverse. It matters even more then to give them the space to take opportunities and work with you if they can.

The three months or so allowed to complete the bid gave us time to speak in depth with other agencies and work out which of our two impressions of were correct. After umming and ahhing, we decided to bid. Importantly, we did it knowing the pros and cons in full, and having had the chance to bid, knowing we felt we added something valuable. In this case, we actually didn’t really bid against the brief we had, but the brief we felt we should have had.

3. We had time to develop partnerships

Again, the long schedule allowed for this. We put a range of options on the table. As it was a new area for us, we looked around (felt through some of Rumsfeldian unknown-unknowns) and as we did so were able to go into sufficient depth that we gathered new knowledge as an organisation. So irrespective of whether we bid or not, we learned a lot and we explored potential relationships – and this all has value in itself for the next bid, and for having better bidders.

For interest, a 2012 blog post I wrote on top tips on how to write winning bids.

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