User-Centered Design Meets the Request for Proposal: Community Alliance with Family Farmers
Flipping the usually burdensome RFP process on its head helped CAFF build a process for the long-haul.
The idea seemed simple enough: the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) wanted to build a software tool that could help schools in California purchase more nutritious, locally farmer-grown food.
Historically, undertaking procurement in school nutrition programs is usually burdensome and time intensive. CAFF envisioned creating a tool that could support a bidding process for finding local products, something that’s important for farmers keeping accurate inventory and schools ordering enough supply to feed their students. Helping schools make more thoughtful procurement measures to purchase from small-to-mid-scale farms is central to CAFF’s mission — it helps build a more resilient local food system and connects the state’s students to where their food comes from.
“We realized there’s a lot of layers to [the problem we were trying to solve], it’s not just a form the schools should fill out,” Yousef Buzayan, farm to cafeteria program manager at CAFF said. That’s when he was connected to U.S. Digital Response (USDR).
Building Capacity by Learning to Fish
To help set up government and nonprofit organizations for success, USDR works with their partners to ensure that the tools being built have a sustainable structure in place. For CAFF, the most promising option to ensure the features they needed and to receive ongoing support was to hire a software development firm to build the tool, meaning they would need to go through a Request for Proposal (RFP) process to find the right software developers for the job.
“The original idea for the project was too bespoke for USDR, and ultimately wasn’t the best use of CAFF’s funds or time. Instead we asked: What if we teach you to fish?” Waldo Jaquith, an advisor for USDR said.
Jaquith saw an opportunity to execute the De-Risking Guide he helped put together at 18F with fellow USDR advisor Robin Carnahan, now the Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration. The Guide documents a process that allows teams to put together an RFP within a few days and have a signed contract in 45 days — a process that can take over a year to achieve using standard methods.
Jaquith pointed out that while CAFF had procurement expertise through their abundant contracting work, they never had been in a position to apply their knowledge to software or technology before. USDR provided a surge of technical expertise to complement CAFF’s experience by introducing CAFF to agile software development, product thinking, and user research. For CAFF, having a partner that not only understood tech but also how nonprofits work made all the difference in how they built their RFP.
“We have such finite resources for this project. There’s a lot of pressure to perform at a very high level with the limited funding we have,” Ben Thomas, Farm to Market Program Director at CAFF, said. “Since this was our first time doing this, we could have wasted a lot of resources, but instead we got to start off with our best foot forward.”
USDR and CAFF structured their engagement together to build capacity; USDR guided CAFF to create an RFP that fit the needs of their specific product at this moment, and also to understand best practices when working with a technology partner in the future and why the work should be open source.
“We helped them all along the way, but they could do this themselves next time,” Jaquith said. “I love that aspect of working in the open: the work is good for CAFF, it’s good for kids in schools that need good food in schools, it’s good for family farms who need more time to farm, it’s good for any organization like CAFF that wants to use the software, and it’s good for vendors.”
Mission-Driven and User-Centric
Buzayan says that the user-centric approach USDR taught CAFF not only helped them create a better product, it helped remind them to keep their mission top-of-mind.
“I really appreciated that the partnership wasn’t just transactional, it was very mission-focused. It helped us take a step back and remember our mission. USDR is the ideal bridge between the nonprofit and the software development worlds. It was wonderful.” Buzayan said.
CAFF has already selected what they view is the perfect vendor for their project and have been working hard on building their tool. In a few weeks, the team expects to have a minimal viable product in the hands of school districts.
“The way that USDR showed us their commitment to figure out how to get our project off the ground,I knew right away that we’d immediately be better off than our previous approach,” Thomas said.
“It’s almost like democratizing software development,” Buzayan added.
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