What makes a good & fair tender process?

Standard Content

When commissioning new fundraising projects, services and partnerships, or reviewing existing contracts or consulting, many charities put work out to tender. This means inviting bids from prospective suppliers to identify the most suitable partner to carry out the project. But the tender process differs greatly from charity to charity, it takes time and resources, and can be costly for all parties, so while it is an important process for selecting suitable partners for some projects, it requires complex management and is not always the best or only course of action.

Why is the tender process important?

A good tender process will identify suitable partners that can work well with the charity not only to achieve their objectives, but those that will be a good fit with the team, culture, ethics, working practices and budget.

It will help charities identify risks and mitigate against them, ensuring they can make informed and responsible decisions on expenditure, while also protecting their reputation and ensuring quality of service is maintained. Ultimately, the process should ease decision-making, ensure value for money and reduce administrative burden.

Of course, tendering is a two-way process and it can help suppliers to identify whether the project and the charity is right for them, just in the same way as charities will use it to identify the right partner for their roster or project. A positive, open and accessible tender process will inspire healthy competition among a small group of well-suited suppliers, encouraging innovation and creativity.

A tender can be a great way to identify a supplier with strong partnership potential, but it’s important to remember that a tender is not the only path to take. Tendering often requires a great deal of commitment and resource from both sides of the table. If you’re going to put work out to tender, you’ll need to ensure you are clear about your objectives and the process you will follow, and that you have the time and resources needed internally to facilitate it and to guide potential partners along the way.

Scott Gray, head of payments at The Access Group and chair of CIOF's Partners Forum

What does a good tender process look like?

  • Clear and well-structured, outlining what is required at each step of the process
  • Open and accessible to a range of suppliers
  • Clarity of brief, setting out the work required, budget and timescales
  • Transparent, highlighting prerequisites for successful applicants at the outset
  • Aligned with internal policies and ethical values
  • Scalable, with the process and resources appropriate to the size and scope of the work
  • Streamlined to minimise bureaucracy
  • Fair, giving all potential partners an equal chance of winning the work
  • Consistency of scoring method and evaluation
  • Honest and timely feedback provided for all parties

When is a tender process needed?

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to tendering and one organisation’s view on when a tender process is needed might differ widely from another. As such, a charity’s approach is often set out within a procurement policy or strategy, defining if and when work will be put out to tender, and when it may not be necessary. The process itself needs to be appropriate to the size and scope of the work being commissioned.

While it’s important that organisations take a consistent and fair approach, there needs to be a degree of flexibility to reflect a charity’s changing needs as fundraising programmes evolve and to reflect the differences in tendering for various kinds of provision, for example a new CRM system versus a creative agency or merchandise supplier.

For small charities and those with low budget projects, tendering may not be necessary or appropriate and a simpler strategy of securing competitive quotes may be sufficient. In such circumstances, the work required for agencies to complete the tender process may outweigh the advantages of winning the work. Conversely, for the largest projects, a tender may be too sizeable to manage in-house and specialist tender or procurement agencies may be brought into play. Many organisations have a threshold where the tender process only kicks in for projects above a certain budget level, or when particular circumstances arise.

From a charity’s perspective, whatever approach is taken to tendering, it’s important to be clear about when a tender is required and when alternative measures may be sufficient, such as a straight-forward pitch presentation, securing competitive quotes and carrying out due diligence checks, or even agreeing to undertake work on a trial period.

For existing supplier relationships, where both parties are happy with progress to date, an audit or review prior to contract renegotiation may negate the need for a full-blown tender.

We’re aiming for an environment where suppliers, partners and agencies alike will all feel like they are part of the same team; with shared values and a sense that they are all working towards the same goal. Having a relationship focussed approach should be a fundamental part of the process, and that means taking an open and supportive approach to appointing partners.

Adam Bryan, director of partnerships, Chartered Institute of Fundraising

What will the tender process cover?

A charity’s tender process should be clear, open and transparent, seeking to identify who can deliver the work and at what cost, establishing potential partners’ availability, capacity and competence to fulfil the contract. The goal will be to secure a partner that understands what is required and is both willing and able to deliver it – whether alone or in partnership – at a fee that works for both parties.

The tender may well be the first step in a long-term relationship, so it’s important to invest time in getting it right, finding not only the correct solution, but also a good fit.

At the end of the day, selecting an agency to partner with, is about finding a strong fit, alignment of values, understanding of the business, chemistry between the organisations and teams, just as it is about the ability to do the work.

Charity fundraising director

While the tender process will vary, typically it will include a brief for the work required, a proposal request[1] from prospective partners and submission of tender bids or presentations from a selection of applicants. It will also incorporate due diligence checks, such as establishing credentials and that the organisation is financially secure, its compliance measures (both in terms of regulatory requirements and best practice as set out in the Code of Fundraising Practice), references from other clients, and final selection. When it comes to tendering for creative work, prospective partners may well be asked to complete a relevant strategic or artistic task.

A pre-qualification questionnaire or other qualifying stage may be introduced ahead of the formal tender to gauge interest in the work, quality of potential suppliers and to shortlist applicants. Some of the largest charities will ask new prospective partners to tender to join an organisation’s roster of prospective partners for future work.  

Collaborative procurement is becoming more common across the UK and can help to make tendering more efficient for all parties, while offering combined purchasing power. This approach can add to the complexity of the tender process while streamlining it for multi-disciplined campaigns that require multiple partners.


[1] Proposal requests might take the form of an invitation to tender (ITT), usually for projects/contracts with specific technical requirements, or a request for proposal/information (RFP/RFI), which is often a broader and more detailed process.

As campaigns are getting more complex and integrated it's rare that one agency can do everything. A collaborative response to a brief means that like-minded and compatible agencies can provide a united response. In our experience when this happens, when agencies work together and think together, the end result is bigger and better. Of course, there will be an element of creative tension but that can be healthy. What you won't get is politics, land grabs and rivalry. What is there not to like?

Tim Longfoot, managing director, Open

Managing the tender process

Consider how you will manage the tender process internally, balancing the need for expertise on both the procurement side and from fundraising and other related departments. It’s important to have a clear understanding of who will be responsible for doing what, ensuring that decision-makers in the fundraising team and other related departments are involved and have opportunities to feed in and meet the prospective teams.

Don’t say what you want, say what you want to achieve. The suppliers are the experts and that’s why you’re asking them for help. If you’re too prescriptive you’ll likely end up with exactly what you asked for, rather than the supplier having the opportunity to identify and deliver possibly a better solution to meet your needs.

It’s always a good idea to do some soft market testing before a full tender process, informally engaging with suppliers to see what they suggest and to use your findings to convince trustees on your next steps, whether that’s to stay with the current, successful incumbent or that you really need to move on. After all, the cost of moving to a new supplier can be tremendous.

Peter Lloyd, procurement manager, Commonwealth War Graves Commission

As with all organisational policies and processes, a charity’s approach to tendering will need to be updated and reviewed from time to time. It’s helpful to have a set procurement policy and tender process in place, but one that has some degree of flexibility, taking a common-sense approach to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy, recognising when a full tender is not required and what alternatives may be considered.

What to include in the tender brief?

There is no singular approach to tendering for work and the brief for prospective suppliers will differ depending on the nature of the work required, but there are some key elements you may wish to consider. This includes making it clear what the charity is looking for from potential partners, identifying any priorities, setting clear timescales, and explaining how suppliers will be evaluated.


The brief will likely include (as relevant):

The thinking that charities put into the tender process at the front end and the clarity of the brief can make a huge difference to the quality of responses received. Alongside this, ensuring there is a clear approach to evaluation and decision making based on the charity’s priority needs, rather than consensus, means that organisations will be appointed who will deliver in line with priority areas and campaign goals.

Allan Freeman, chair of Remember A Charity and director of Freestyle Marketing

What are the principles of a good tender process?

While charities’ policies and processes for tendering for work will vary, there are some common principles that can help to ensure that any tender is not only comprehensive but draws out the best from participants and encourages a strong and successful partnership.

Open and clear

The tender process should be open to all prospective partners with the appropriate skill set, credentials and experience. Charities will need to be clear about how their process works and what they are looking for from the successful party. Additional support may be needed for small businesses, individual consultants and those new to the tender process.

Fair and inclusive

To ensure the tender process is accessible and that everyone has a fair chance, prospective partners should be treated equally throughout the process and this means being given access to the same information. This can be challenging when one of the applicants currently works with (or has recently worked with) the charity, but it’s important that every effort is taken to even up the odds.


A robust and comprehensive process will seek to identify suppliers that can meet charities’ needs, while also ensuring they have the right skill set and experience to deliver quality results efficiently and to mitigate against risk. How charities go about this might include checking credentials and references from current or past clients, and face-to-face meetings with the team that will be responsible for carrying out the work, which may differ from those involved in the pitch process.

Due diligence will also include taking steps to ensure that any fundraising partner is committed not only to acting legally, but to complying with the standards set out in the Code of Fundraising Practice and that they will positively represent the charity.

Honest and ethical

A tender process can be both intensive and costly to all parties and, for this reason, it’s important that charities and potential partners approach it with honesty, integrity and respect. Once a decision has been made, charities should be clear about what that is and why, providing considered and constructive feedback to all participants.

Tips for a good and fair tender process:

  • Prepare to give it time - Even if you have a dedicated procurement team or individual looking after the task, be prepared to give the tender process your time and brain space to give you the best chance of selecting the right partner to meet your needs.
  • Start as you mean to go on – Be approachable and answer questions from potential partners, supporting them in completing a strong submission. Ideally, all decision-makers will meet the team who will deliver the project before decisions are made, giving you a sense of how well you might work together in the future.
  • Make it a fair competition – Ensure you treat all potential applicants fairly, consistently and be transparent about what you’re looking for or how to ‘win’. Be aware that a lengthy or overly bureaucratic process may leave smaller suppliers or those who are new to the process out of the running.
  • Set a scoring system that reflects your priorities – Make sure that your evaluation of tender submissions includes a scoring system that reflects your priorities, making it easier to determine which partners will be able to deliver against the most critical aspects of your brief, in line with your values and organisational policies.
  • Carry out due diligence – Consider what checks you can make to ensure that the organisation or team you hope to appoint will be able to complete the task. Ask to look at examples of their past work, to speak to former / current clients and to check what standards the organisation is committed to maintain.
  • Stick to the timeframe – Set realistic deadlines for each stage of the tender process (including feedback) and be sure to stick to them.
  • Be decisive and give feedback – Let potential partners know what you liked about their submission and what improvements could be made in future.

What to avoid:

  • Putting work out to tender where there is a simpler or more appropriate process, particularly when it comes to smaller contracts
  • Inviting too many parties to tender
  • Being overly specific about how you want the objective reached
  • Asking too much from potential partners during the pitch or tender
  • Having unreasonable deadlines or budget
  • Giving a competitive advantage or additional information to one prospective partner during the tender process
  • Including too much or contradictory information in the brief

CASE STUDY: London Air Ambulance

London’s Air Ambulance Charity was looking for an experienced telephone fundraising partner to support a new mass market fundraising campaign. It was important to get the right support in place – an agency that the charity could trust with its brand, who offered a genuine partnership approach and mirrored the charity’s values.

The charity requested all compliance documentation ahead of the pitch meetings so that it could be reviewed as part of the shortlisting process, allowing the pitch meeting itself to concentrate on the approach to the specific campaign and the team chemistry/fit. After the pitch meetings, the decision makers independently scored the responses against a fixed scorecard and met as a group to discuss which agency to appoint.

We spent considerable time writing the tender brief to ensure it provided a clear outline of what we were looking for and the timeline that we needed to follow. We asked specific questions to understand the values of the tendering agencies that would allow us to assess suitability and fit with our ethos, requesting written responses in the first instance. These were to be completed in an identical format by each party, making comparison straightforward.

We followed the timelines outlined to ensure that all tendering agencies had a good experience in tendering with us and tried to give constructive feedback to the unsuccessful agencies, as well as the successful one, so that they could take this into future pitches.

Anne Weatherill, head of individual giving at London’s Air Ambulance Charity

The pitch was friendly, with all relevant stakeholders in the room. Questions were relevant to the work on offer, and the team was open and honest about their expectations and requirements. We talked openly in the pitch about the costs and we were able to negotiate based on knowing more. The charity came back to us really quickly with confirmation we had won the tender, followed up quickly by a site compliance visit from them.  It was an easy, open process from start to finish.

Helen Mackenzie, founder and CEO of Purity Fundraising

Members Only Content