The great proposal debate: Why consultants eschew RFPs

The call comes in. A prospective client needs you – immediately! – to help with an urgent project. They’re unclear how to resolve the issue, but they believe you can help. Simply draft a proposal describing you’re recommended course of action and be sure to include your proposed fees. Days – sometimes weeks – later, they’ve curiously decided to complete the project themselves.

I was recently faced with this dilemma. Although I cannot be certain, I believe this particular organization has – instead of hiring me or another consultant – simply decided to implement themselves the ideas I presented in my unnecessarily comprehensive proposal. So, I turned to my colleagues in the consultant community (via ASAE’s Collaborate site) for some sage advice.

Following are the curated highlights of the more than 20 responses I received. To protect the innocent, I’ve removed identifying information from these comments and recommendations. Nevertheless, the contributors know who they are – and I’m extremely grateful they took the time to respond. Organized by topic, following are the lightly edited insights:

Case studies

These examples seem to indicate I’m not the only one who’s been on the receiving end of a shady business deal over the years.

  • Some years ago, I developed and implemented an online event for an organization that attracted hundreds of attendees around the world.  By all measures, it was quite successful. They then decided to use the same software and do it themselves. It was not successful.
  • I had this happen to me many years ago – not in a proposal, but in an “exploratory meeting” where I naively gave away the store. Never again!
  • One of my MBA students this summer was asked to write a marketing piece to replace existing (and terrible) website copy as part of her job interview process. I advised her to put her copyright very clearly on it – seemed like a potentially very underhanded ploy to me!
  • I’ve also heard of cases where the proposal outline is handed to another consultant for execution.
  • A person who is a constant joy and inspiration to me is Hildy Gottlieb. Please read her story about a blatant incident of plagiarism that turned out to be a gift.
  • I did have a circumstance where an organization asked if I would like to bid on a project. They’d already gotten at least two proposals. When they then sent the RFP, they also sent the other two proposals. I declined to submit a proposal, noting they’d shared the other proposals. I’m not sure they really understood why that wasn’t okay.
  • I had a circumstance where I spent time discussing needs with an association only to have them then send me and others an RFP based on what I had suggested. Frankly, I think I just missed the cues they were trying to scope a project.


The form and substance of proposals seems to be changing. Many consultants appear to be reserving detailed work plans until after an agreement is reached.

  • I don’t respond to proposal requests where I don’t have any direct contact and I try to outline an approach making it clear that the specifics of the plan are the first phase of the project. I’m always amazed at how many organizations don’t understand that developing a specific plan for their situation is part of the work.
  • I strive to avoid offering written proposals. I’m a big believer in the writings of Alan Weiss and Peter Block as they pertain to coming to agreement with a prospective client through discussion and mutual exploration based on value and outcomes.
  • I now make clear in my proposals that specific recommendations can’t be made until we’re actually working together.
  • I hate responding to RFPs. I have had prospects invite me to preliminary talks with clearly the purpose to pick my brain and figure out how to do the project themselves – using my ideas.
  • I don’t compete in cattle calls; many of my clients, maybe most, are previous clients and friends. Increasingly, I don’t do proposals, but offer a scope of work.


Several individuals recommended charging for proposals and exploratory meetings as a means of fairly compensating consultants for their time and intellectual property.

  • I’ve heard of some consultants charging for proposals and refunding the money if a group booked.
  • It took me some time to charge for exploratory meetings. I had to be taken advantage of several times before I offered to attend only if I charged for my attendance. Surprisingly, I’ve had little pushback to the idea when I’ve presented it.  That may be because I still offer free initial consultations, but repeat consultations, without an engagement, are a different matter.
  • One negotiating tactic might be to offer a discount or credit should the exploratory meeting result in an engagement of sufficient size and scope to warrant such consideration.
  • Renata Rafferty had a great way of dealing with the tire-kickers. Renata advised high net worth donors on philanthropy. One day, an acquaintance asked her to go to lunch with her and a couple of friends to discuss philanthropy strategy and kick some ideas around. Renata said, “I’d love to! To whom should I send the bill?” Very light and positive, but also definite. Needless to say, the lunch never happened. Coincidentally, the first edition of Renata’s book was titled, “Don’t Just Give it Away.”

Intellectual property

For those who do prepare written proposals, several consultants recommended protecting these documents (including all intellectual property) with copyright language.

  • I have been influenced by so many brilliant and creative people that I often wonder if I’ve ever had an original thought. Yet, I have. My synthesis of information is unique, my conclusions are mine, and how I perceive and convey information is from my brain.
  • If you do present written proposals, include intellectual property protection language in the text.  One example I’ve seen is the following: “Proprietary Proposal. This proposal is the property of [the consultant] and may not be distributed beyond the staff and leadership of [the prospective client] without written permission. Unauthorized use may be a violation of federal copyright laws and the federal Economic Espionage Act of 1996.”
  • Unfortunately, it has become almost necessary practice to clearly state your documents are the intellectual property of the author. In my experience, if a potential client asks that your proposal become their intellectual property, I will not work with them or provide them anything.
  • While we never have had theft or misuse of our proposal ideas, we always specify in our proposals that they are copyrighted, that they are the intellectual property of [consulting firm] and that violations of these assertions may be a violation of both the copyright laws and the Federal Economic Espionage Act of 1996, which carry significant penalties.
  • I believe intellectual property law, especially when it comes to copyright law, protects the expression of ideas, but not necessarily any ideas themselves. There’s the rub.


Thankfully, an outline alone is not sufficient to successfully execute a project. Consultants responding to this discussion were quick to point out that their value lies in implementation.

  • I take comfort in knowing that my value is not just outlining an approach, but knowing how to actually implement it successfully.
  • Organizations that try to implement your plans are likely to fall short, that’s why they needed you to do the plan. They don’t have the expertise. I try to make my plans detailed enough to enable the client to make a decision, but there’s a lot more detail required to actually do the project.
  • Many consultants can recount times a prospect “stole” their ideas to do it themselves. But rarely is the prospect successful in their project. A few times they brought the consultant back to fix the mess.
  • Your service isn’t the proposal/blueprint – it’s your professional ability to assist in implementing the blueprint and, thereby, add value to their organization.  It’s easy to say, “This is what to do,” but often difficult to execute the plan.  Let them try.  Sometimes, they may even come back and say, “Oops, we need help after all.”


As I initially raised this issue as an ethical dilemma, the topic of ethics was referenced a handful of times throughout this discussion thread.

  • If a potential client acts unethically and chooses to implement your ideas without your participation, let them go. Clients such as these are not worth your effort, as they will find other ways to sacrifice long-term gain in a misguided attempt to save a few bucks or otherwise game the system to their advantage.
  • ASAE has a (revised over four years by the Ethics Committee and approved in August 2011 by the Board) Standards of Conduct that, for the first time in ASAE’s history, applies to all three membership categories: association professionals, consultants and business partners. It is aspirational vs. enforceable; however, the CAE Commission is reviewing it to see how to make it enforceable for CAEs.
  • In the National Speakers Association, there is a clear code administered by an ethics committee, and members can file complaints.  If someone is found guilty of violating the code against another member, it is publicized along with the penalty (usually suspension from the association).


Sometimes the answer really is more education. Several consultants recommended educating the offending parties (one-on-one) as to their unethical mistreatment of intellectual property. Other, more proactive strategies included industry-wide articles.

  • I believe we can all make a difference if whenever we face the challenge we call attention to it in an effort to slow less scrupulous clients.
  • The idea to develop an article providing more exposure to the issue is a good one.
  • Sometimes plagiarism of one’s ideas is unintentional. Sometimes it is blatant. In either case, it’s worth a phone call. Each of us is responsible for protecting what is uniquely ours.


Finally, on a positive note, it’s clear to me that those acting in a dishonest manner are the exceptions, not the rule. And to all of you, we owe our unconditional thanks.

  • The positive side is that most prospects are honest, ethical people that hire us after reviewing our proposals.
  • The vast majority of the groups I’ve worked with have been respectful of my materials and work.
  • Most potential clients are ethical and above-board. Some of the remainder are ignorant of contracting/consulting issues, not evil.
  • There are no guarantees in a world of total access, loss of privacy, diminution of civility and moral neutrality. Still, naively, I believe that the people who are my clients and potential clients are ethical.

So, my question to you is this: How do any of us determine if our ideas (intellectual property) are being used exactly the same way we intended vs. in some other way? Does it matter? With the advent of virtual communities where all of our ideas spread like wildfire, is there really any privacy of ideas? How does your organization utilize RFPs to select consultants – and has this practice changed in the last decade?

5 Responses to “The great proposal debate: Why consultants eschew RFPs”

  1. November 8, 2012 at 10:26 am

    A majority of the responses I received from the consultant community (via ASAE’s Collaborate site) were extremely supportive. There was one individual, however, who was kind enough to play devil’s advocate. I’ve included those insights below:

    Some of my own thoughts on the “ethical dilemma.”

    First, I think a more accurate description than “ethical dilemma” is, “I gave them a bunch of free information and the jerks actually used it.” Personally, I don’t see this as an ethical dilemma, but a client prospecting and sales challenge. If you spoke at a conference and they used your idea, would it be “stealing” it? You gave it to them for free at their request.

    Second, I can guarantee you that accusing every organization that dares to use the free information you give them of “unethical behavior” is a good way to ensure you go out of business very quickly. When people use your ideas, it’s a compliment, not necessarily unethical behavior. For long-term business success, giving some free advice and being happy that people use it will get you way further down the road than worrying about “unethical” behavior.

    Third, is there a pattern of organizations continually using what’s in your proposal without hiring you? If so, you’re putting too much information, analysis and solutions into a document that is supposed to be selling. The entire goal of your proposal is to get business, not prove to the client and your Mom how smart you are. It’s a delicate balance based on what you provide and with whom you compete.

    Fourth, if their problem was so easy that the cursory information you provided in a proposal solved it, they didn’t need a consultant in the first place and you just saved yourself a bunch of time and hassle.

    Fifth, the sales qualification process is designed to ensure that you only attempt to get business that you can serve profitably. While others on this list don’t respond to RFPs, that is not our philosophy. We respond to RFPs we can get. It isn’t the client’s fault they can’t articulate their needs and potential solutions sufficiently, that’s why they need a consultant in the first place. Also, after a while in business you’ll get a sense of organizations “kicking the tires” or, more commonly, just unsure of how they want to proceed and what they’re willing to invest. Be patient with them and with the sales process. They don’t call it a consultative sales process for nothing.

    Sixth, the proposal is designed to act as a communication document that outlines your understanding of their problem, introduces how you would solve it and at what price, and positions you successfully against the clearly incompetent idiots you compete against. Nothing else matters. If they like you and trust your competence, they’ll overlook all the stupidity in your proposal and find a way to work with you.

  2. November 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    Thank you for doing such a good job of summarizing the issues and challenges, we often face as consultants, along with suggestions for how to improve our approach to resolving them.

  3. November 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    It’s my pleasure, David!

  4. November 10, 2012 at 8:19 am

    Well I definitely hate RFPs. I was quoted in the Associations Now Supplement article about them (that I think came out the same day you posted this). But my issue was never “what if they take my ideas and do it without me.” I give away ideas all the time. I wrote a book that is chock full of ideas about how to run organizations differently, and I WANT people to buy it, because I think it increases my chances of getting consulting business. Because clients see those ideas, but they need my help in making them happen. If people can implement your ideas without you, (as the devil’s advocate suggested), then no, you shouldn’t put them in the proposal. It’s like someone wanting “consultants” to help them develop a new soft drink, so in the RFP they ask Coke, Pepsi, etc. “please include a copy of your secret formula.” Bottom line for me is, if what you’re truly selling is just ideas, that’s a different business model than selling consulting. And for me, the clearer I got on what the consulting is that I, personally, am selling, the less sense it made for me to respond to RFPs.

  5. November 12, 2012 at 8:05 am


    Thanks for commenting! A couple of thoughts:

    1. I give away ideas all the time, too. I think that goes without saying. It’s part of our culture. What really resonates with me is the difference between ideas and consulting. What I did was willingly give away in my proposal some ideas of how to get from Point A to Point B. What they didn’t get, though, was my support and expertise in carefully traversing their nuanced journey.

    2. Writing a book to drive a consulting practice is akin to associations offering quality professional development experiences to drive membership. It’s all content marketing. In both instances, an investment is made in hopes of some future payoff. Ultimately, I think this is different than being asked to draft a proposal (as a formality) for a job you believed was already yours.

    Have a great week!


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meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

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