Helpful Hints: Writing RFPs So Real Businesses Can Respond

Signing documents

If you have a hand in contracts for crowdsourcing initiatives and challenge and prize competitions, here are some helpful hints for you. We’ve gathered this list from the expert businesses that provide competition services. Haven’t heard about that? See GSA Schedule 541-4G.

Background: Over the last two years, competition providers and consultants have become more specialized in niche areas where they have expertise, access to specific solver communities, and experience in driving outcomes based on the competition structure and goals. This is no longer a broad, catch-all space.

The problem: Contracts for competition services are being written so broadly and asking for so many parts that a shrinking few companies can respond, and sometimes mega-corporations without expertise do respond and then have to sub-contract to the smaller ones, leaving potential gaps in expectations and deliverables.

Suggested Solutions

Gap Analysis

Determine where you need the most support. Challenge services can involve a broad set of tasks. Determine the scope of work (SOW) appropriate for your challenge and consider what you can do in-house and what services you’ll need a vendor to provide. Prioritize the tasks where you need the most help. The tasks below have been included in past challenge procurement SOWs, though you may not need all of these:

  1. Project management
  2. Consultation on challenge definition and incentive design
  3. Training agency staff on challenge management
  4. Drafting legal rules for the challenge
  5. Drafting challenge briefs and marketing copy
  6. An online challenge platform
  7. Access to an existing, skilled community
  8. Marketing the challenge to appropriate target audiences
  9. Assistance recruiting partners, sponsors and judges
  10. Support for participants and the public
  11. Reviewing entries for eligibility
  12. Facilitating evaluation by judges
  13. Verifying the eligibility of potential winners
  14. Paying out cash prizes
  15. Organizing events, such as an award ceremony
  16. Authoring reports
  17. Helping further advance solutions post-challenge

Submission Types

Beware of asking for multiple submissions types.

All too often, agencies leave open the types of submissions they will require or they include a series of challenges with multiple submission types.

Learn about potential vendors and craft your scope of work to fit with the services that are offered. Many vendors focus on a specific community for good reason, because specialization brings about the best challenges and solutions. Vendors may provide some but not all of the services you want.

You may want to divide a challenges series into smaller scope procurements, cut some tasks from your SOW, or make some tasks optional to get qualified vendors to respond. As mentioned above, most companies that provide a challenge platform and access to a solver community specialize in certain challenge types (e.g. software, ideation, design, video, science & engineering, etc.). These vendors may not be able to support a series of challenges with different solution types. In addition, small businesses may focus on a limited set of services and may not have the resources to perform your ideal scope.

An RFI can help with your market research but may not be necessary. Research the companies on GSA Schedule 541-4G and find out which companies worked on challenges similar to yours and what services they provided. You can also tap into the Challenge & Prize community of practice (600+ members in federal government), contact the team or the team at NASA’s Center for Excellence in Collaborative Innovation, for more information on potential vendors.

Marketing Strategy

Think through your marketing plan. Lots of challenges get launched and no one hears about them. Reaching the right target audiences is the toughest part of running a successful challenge. We recommend scoping out your challenge marketing plan, even if you have marketing channels lined up at your agency.

Here’s what a vendor can provide to help promote your challenge:

  • Subject matter and communications expertise to help you design a challenge that is compelling and marketable to the relevant solver audience. Challenges ask people to invest time and resources without a guaranteed financial payoff. The way you craft and communicate the challenge is critical.
  • Access to an existing, skilled community or network. Ideally, a vendor should expand your marketing reach to potential challenge participants. If they’ve already built a network, it means you’re not doing it from scratch when the challenge launches, or you’re at least reaching a larger audience. Several challenge vendors focus on specific challenge types and have existing networks of skilled participants (e.g. designers, software developers, engineers, etc.). Look for vendors that have run challenges similar to yours in the past and have connections with potential participants.
  • Promotion Experience. Challenge marketing involves manual, targeted outreach: pitching press and blogs; utilizing social media; contacting influencers, educators, and organizers who can help spread the word to their networks; and sometimes attending relevant events. Look for vendors with experience promoting challenges to your target audiences and the public.

Facilitate teaming

Consider facilitating teaming or subcontracting, especially if your scope includes a broad set of tasks and/or multiple types of challenges.

  • Provide adequate time if teaming is necessary. Teaming arrangements can be very time consuming and hard for vendors to finalize, if the proposal response period is only a few weeks.
  • Many challenge procurements require a unique mix of services and expertise. Vendors may have to connect with new partners during the proposal period in order to respond to your requirements.

Encourage broad participation

Challenges are about crowdsourcing innovation and creativity, often from people or organizations you wouldn’t expect or don’t know about. Consider applying similar principles to your procurement of challenge services. The organization best qualified to help you design a compelling challenge and connect with the right crowd may not be one you’ve heard of yet, or may be a small business. Select a procurement process that encourages diverse respondents.

Finally, when you are writing your RFP, take a step outside your usual way of doing business and ask yourself, can an innovative small business that’s not focused on government contracting understand your procurement requirements, team with a partner, and develop a proposal by your deadline?

The fine print: Schedule 541-4G is under advertising and marketing solutions, but many of the challenge companies are science and technology-based companies. We’ve heard often that agencies are using Schedule 70 and missing the experts available here. We acknowledge that this is an imperfect system and are working to get the word out, so contract officers have up-to-date information. These suggestions are not intended to be a replacement for the rules that guide procurement and contracting. You must consult with your contracting officer and office of general counsel.

Many thanks to the experts who have provided their feedback, especially Peter Robinson and ChallengePost, the long-time platform provider for