Protecting your ideas in your RFP response

Developing a proposal often means exposing your unique ideas to customers who aren't likely to forget them, even if they don't accept your proposal. You have to know how to entice the customer while safeguarding your ideas.

By Karen Ann Kidd

Responding to RFPs, government or private, is new to many consultants who largely ignored them during the IT boom of the 1990s. The plenty-of-work and "stupid money" atmosphere of the period meant many consultants didn't have to bother with RFPs. Then the IT bubble burst, the scramble was on for the dollars that were left, and RFPs started looking more attractive as sources of work.

Developing a proposal often means exposing your unique ideas to customers who aren't likely to forget them, even if they don't accept your proposal. Outright theft of ideas from proposals submitted in response to RFPs is rare. What most often happens in the case of idea theft is that the customer incorporates parts of a proposal's ideas into the final project of the person whose proposal they do accept. And it's not a good feeling to work long and hard on a proposal only to see your ideas co-opted and handed over to a competitor.

Idea theft is not just a private-sector issue. Government agencies are bound by very strict confidentiality guidelines. However, much of that confidentiality drops as soon as the contract is awarded. At that point, your work likely will be made public, usually as part of the procurement process. And once it's made public, anyone can see it.

So, you want the contract, but you want your ideas to make it through the ordeal intact. Nothing is ever guaranteed, but there are ways to protect to your ideas when you respond to an RFP and strategies to see some gain in exchange for submitting a proposal.

Watch for warning signals
Sometimes clients give off warning signals that tell you that your ideas may be in jeopardy or you may be wasting your time even responding. Beware of these tip-offs:

  • The RFP is unusually vague.
  • The RFP is anything but vague.
  • The client is hesitant to answer questions about the RFP.
  • They client issued the RFP to satisfy legal requirements.

While RFPs are, by their nature, somewhat vague (the clients wouldn't need proposals if they knew what they wanted), there is a point where it's clear that they don't want proposals as much as they want ideas (think "fishing").

By contrast, RFPs that are specifically and very narrowly written could indicate that they've already made up their minds about who they want and you're risking the security of your ideas for a project you definitely won't get. Be especially wary if they don't want to answer questions that arise from the RFP. While it may mean that they really need proposals that badly, it could also mean they're far too interested in what your ideas are and not at all interested in parting with theirs.

And it can be difficult to determine whether an RFP is issued only to cover legal requirements, but it's worth investigating. You don't want to waste time by sharing your valuable idea with a customer interested only in satisfying a subparagraph to Title A.

Use your ideas as bait
Once you've decided an RFP is worth the risk, you have to decide how to present your proposal. You'll find plenty of advice on how to develop a proposal (a few links are included at the end of this article), but none of them will insist that your proposal be detailed. If keeping your ideas safe is a concern, your initial proposal can indicate what solutions your ideas will achieve, and all you need to promise is that more information is coming--once your proposal is the one accepted. This could leave the client breathless for more--not at all a bad thing.

Actively protect your ideas
In addition to keeping your ideas secret, take these two steps to protect them: Copyright every proposal and cover it with a confidentiality agreement. Copyright protection is offered under federal law (Title 17) for original works of authorship. These works include books, songs, and your proposal.

Applying a copyright is fairly simple. On the title page of your proposal, insert the word "Copyright" followed by the day's date and your name. On the next line, insert the words "All rights reserved." You're finished.

Confidentiality agreements provide even greater protection. A confidentiality agreement (aka Non-Disclosure Agreement, or NDA) allows you to share your intellectual property with the private company or governmental agency that issued the RFP but still allows you some assurance it won't be stolen. If you and your customer agree to a confidentiality agreement, you can expect that:

  • Your ideas will not be shared with others.
  • You'll not lose any rights to whatever patents may arise from your proposal.
  • You'll know, up front, what information will and will not be disclosed.

Fair return for your proposal
Many RFPs (government RFPs, routinely) don't allow a proposal author to claim compensation for the time and resources needed to produce the proposal--even if the proposal is accepted. There are, however, ways to recoup some of that work or at least minimize the initial investment.

Don't make the proposal too detailed
Tell your customer what your proposal will accomplish, in general, not the nitty-gritty of how it will be done. This reduces the amount of time you spend developing the proposal so you save that much time--and money.

Add it to your line items
You can try, anyway. You have nothing to lose. The customer may turn down the request but, then again, it may not.

Get the contract and retainer in advance
Yes, this does occasionally happen. And it can take the sting out of developing a proposal.

Bill for discovery charges
Tread very lightly here. This will fly only if the customer is understanding about the value of your time and effort. To promote this understanding, be candid from the beginning of your relationship that, if your proposal is accepted, the cost of you time and effort will be absorbed into the overall project.

A number of resources are available online to help you develop an RFP and keep your ideas safe while you do it. Here are a few: