David Saint

Feb 8, 2018, 10:41 AM

Procurement Obscurement?

Does your organisation have a Procurement Department? If so, it might be worth taking a close look at their brief, to make sure they are really working in your charity’s best interests.

Action Planning is frequently invited to tender for pieces of work – sometimes in formal processes, sometimes less formally. But when these invitations come via Procurement Departments they are often more trouble than they are worth. Indeed, our experiences with two large international charities have been so bad that we now never put in a tender to them.

For example…

Three experiences will serve to illustrate some of the challenges we come across:

  • We were invited to submit a tender to an organisation via a County Council ‘portal’. The documentation requirements were demanding, but we went through the process nonetheless. We then received an email via the portal to tell us that because none of the tenders were within the available budget, the contract was not being awarded to anyone – unless we would like to submit a revised tender within 4 days! After a bit of work on Google I managed to find the name of the person ultimately commissioning the work, and phoned him up. “Could you tell me what the budget is” I asked “so that I can submit a revised tender within that budget?”  “I wish I could,” he replied “but the Procurement Department has told me not to”!
  • Over a period of time, one INGO sent us several invitations to tender for several pieces of work related to a specific fundraising income stream. After a while we realised that each of these pieces of work formed part of a much larger project. But the Procurement Department (unknown to the Fundraising Department) had decided to break it up into a number of smaller projects. The outcome was that different parts of the project were awarded to different consultancies, with the result that the delivery was disjointed, and each consultancy had to embark on its own learning curve. The total cost of the project was in all probability much higher than if it had been awarded to just one agency.
  • Another charity invited us to tender for a piece of work. I phoned to get a bit more background information, and learned they had simultaneously sent the invitation to tender to 85 other consultants! Needless to say, we did not submit a proposal!

A very different experience

Contrast the above experiences with a current process. At the time of writing I don’t know whether we will win the work – but even if we don’t I will feel we have been fairly treated, and that the client has a good chance of getting a good service, no matter who they pick. This process is with one of the largest charities in the country. The Invitation to Tender was a four page document, clearly setting out the requirements, and giving us two weeks to respond. (Four weeks would have been better but two weeks was OK!) No budget figure was given but we were assured that price was not a consideration – the job would go to the consultancy most likely to do a great job. We were offered the opportunity to have a detailed telephone conversation with the person managing the project – which resulted in a great deal of additional information, to help us write a proposal that really addressed his main concerns.

Procurement Departments came into being to streamline the buying of goods and services at the best possible price, and to carry out the buying process as objectively as possible. Unfortunately, some Procurement Departments have taken it upon themselves to see the supplier as ‘the enemy’, to be kept at arm’s length, not to be trusted, and to be cowed into bidding at the lowest possible price. 

Of course Procurement Departments have their jobs to do, and of course they generally do it thoroughly. But if you are buying through a Procurement Department, do make sure they really know what you want, that the requirements in their Invitations to Tender are proportionate to the size of the project, and that the way the project is described and scoped is likely to meet your needs. 

If, despite all the whingeing above, you would like Action Planning to tender for a piece of work, do please drop me a line at david.saint@actionplanning.co.uk. And let’s work together to design a cost-effective solution to your needs.

David Saint


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