As accounting professionals in the independent school world, we are on the receiving end of many Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Some of them ask probing questions that help us – and the school decisionmakers – truly differentiate between firms and how they can serve the school. Others are very templated and provide bare bones information that may let the school board make a good fee comparison, but not necessarily a comparison on how well the services will be performed or the experience of the firm in serving schools.
With RFP season upon many schools, we thought it would be helpful to lay out some tips for crafting an RFP that will help your school select an accounting firm that will serve your organization in the best possible ways.
- Be particular about the firms you send the RFP to. Save time in the proposal review and decision-making process by sending RFPs to firms that already work with independent schools. How to do this? First, ask other schools that you respect and that are similar in size and needs to yours. Second, if you have a trusted advisor or a banker, ask them for referrals. Third, go directly to school business officer organizations and seek input. In our experience, accounting firms who have deep experience serving independent schools bring added insights and benefit to what is often perceived as compliance-only work.
- Discuss among the board and school leadership what you are ultimately searching for in an accounting firm. Are you looking for something that is missing in your current firm (i.e., less staff turnover, more responsiveness, etc.), are you taking on a large capital campaign or are you struggling with an issue and need an accountant that can serve as an advisor? There are many reasons for seeking a new firm; defining what that is allows you to ask direct questions to help you discern the best fit.
- Determine if you are asking for proposals simply to see if you are paying a fair market rate for your accounting work. Acknowledging this among your team allows you to scale back your RFP, spend less time analyzing responses and allows competing firms to spend less time digging in deep on other details. While this may dissuade some firms from submitting a proposal, it is actually a good thing. You are not wasting your time or theirs.
- Consider looking outside your direct geographic location. With the ability to work remote through efficient and secure technology, firms like Smith + Howard serve organizations across the country. It greatly expands your options and allows you to find an accounting firm that specializes in independent schools.
- Start with a template and customize it.
- There are many RFP templates available online. We can provide you with some examples – simply fill out the contact form below and be sure to ask for “independent school RFP templates.”
- Once you have a template, add any specific requests that will help you decide if the proposing firms are qualified to fulfill the needs (see 2 above) you’ve established. Also, to ensure both fairness in the qualification process and efficient use of your time, be sure that all respondents provide proposals that follow the RFP point by point. At Smith + Howard, we follow RFPs very literally – using the same section titles and numbering system from the RFP. We have heard prospective school executives tell us that enabling this “apples to apples” comparison really does help.
- Often, schools only ask for information on the audit, when in fact they also need a Tax Form 990 prepared. Without asking for specifics on qualifications to prepare these forms and the approach by the tax team, schools may not receive critical advice and accurate filing of an important, but often overlooked, IRS form.
- One way to ensure your accounting firm has more than a passing interest in serving schools is to find out what school-specific associations they are active in (not just members). The Smith + Howard private school team has found that active participation in school organizations brings them insights they would not otherwise have and levels-up their ability to serve schools.
- Think about the future: might you need services a year, two or five down the road that you don’t need now? The RFP process is a great time to find out about the depth of the expertise and services that competing firms have. Maybe an audit is “all” you need this year, but what about when a cyber issue comes up, when you need input on board and/or executive leadership succession or executive compensation plans? It is helpful to ask for more information on the advisory services available to schools now.
- Do not wait until the last minute to issue your RFP. The decision you are making is not a minor one. Spend time on the front end making sure you have your needs and expectations lined up and try to issue four to six weeks in advance of the timing of the final decision.
- Do give the invited firms adequate time to prepare and deliver their proposals. Unless you are simply looking for fee comparisons, preparation of a well considered proposal in response to your RFP takes significant time on the part of the accounting firm’s CPAs and often their marketing team. Help them help you by giving them as much time as feasible to prepare.
- Offer at minimum a call or Zoom meeting with each prospect firm so that they can ask you additional questions. A good accounting firm will want to review your financials, your web site and additional research and then have a call or meeting to ask questions that came up in that process. This is a great time to learn more about the individuals handling your proposal and how they are approaching serving your school.
- Once you narrow down the list of accounting firms, offer an in-person presentation opportunity to the top three or four firms. Personal chemistry plays a large role in the long-term success of a client/accounting firm relationship. In our experience, an opportunity to meet face to face can make an immediate difference in the decision and in the relationship over time.
- When you make a decision, be quick to let all responding firms know – win or lose. If they responded to your RFP, they are interested in winning your work and should know whether they were successful. If they ask for feedback on why they lost, provide it. We welcome feedback from any lost proposals and use it to make us better.
The above information should help you develop an RFP that serves the ultimate goals of your organization in its selection of an accounting firm. Smith + Howard serves independent schools across the country and welcomes the opportunity to be included in your organization’s consideration. Please use the contact form below to request templated RFPs or to have one of our independent school leaders contact you about your upcoming accounting firm search.