Selecting a collections management system (CMS) can be a daunting task. One way to make the selection process easier is to create a detailed Request for Proposals (RFP) and send it to the suppliers you have shortlisted. This will help you compare suppliers, as well as their service and software offering. An RFP, along with a comprehensive demonstration, will give you all the information you need to make a successful software acquisition and implementation.

This guide presents strategies and guidelines for creating an effective RFP to select the right CMS for your institution. A successful RFP process will include these three steps: carefully defining your needs, issuing the RFP, and evaluating vendors. Spending time creating the right process now will save time in the long run and help you make the best decision.

1. Define Your Needs

Create a selection team to own the process of selecting a new museum software solution. Establishing a team will help streamline and drive the process to completion. The team will be responsible for determining the scope of the project, involving key stakeholders, defining the exact requirement of the system, writing and evaluating the RFP, and making the final recommendation to management.

The team needs to collect system requirements by assessing your current system or process. What is working well and what is lacking in your current software? Talk to your various users and departments and document what processes your current software does and does not support and note their work around processes. For the RFP document you will need to detail the missing software features as well as all features that are in place and working for your business.

At this initial phase it is also helpful to look at what other software is available on the market. Talk to other museums or people in your organization that have used other software. Ask them how the system works for them and see if you can get a demo. This is an excellent way to get a feel for your options and see how the various systems address different tasks. It is also a good time to get baseline ideas of the costs to make sure it aligned with your budget.

Once you have looked at your existing software and done some market research it is time to create a framework for your RFP. Start by listing out what your system must do and what features are required to support your processes. Detail out which requirements you must have covered and which are nice to have but not necessary.

Traditional RFPs are often large spreadsheets with a list of features and functionality that vendors answer yes or no on each feature. While you can still create an RFP that way, we recommend that you focus more on what solutions you need. So instead of asking do you have module ABC, ask how does your software handle XYZ process? This allows the vendor to explain how their system addresses certain processes, which might be in a different way than your current system. They might also have suggestions on alternate ways to solve challenges in a more efficient or economical way. In this way instead of looking at the actual product features, you are learning about their collections management system‘s benefits and how its features will apply to improving your collection and organization overall.

It can be helpful to group the solutions under two main headings, functional and non-functional.

Functional requirements focus on what the system must do and are best described in non-technical ways. It is useful if you can be as specific as possible in the descriptions. For example: instead of ‘the system should enable us to add object numbers to be batch updated’, your requirement would be ‘the system should enable us to add and unlimited number of object number to be batch updated’. It is helpful if you can provide some scoring transparency to the vendor. Consider assigning a value for importance to each functional requirement, possibly 1: it doesn’t matter, up to 5: it is extremely important. Adding scenarios or examples can help clarify your needs and supplement your requirement list.

Non-functional requirements would be the section where you learn about the look and feel of the software. Along with the look and feel how usable is the system – does it need to be easy to learn or quick to use? Ask about performance and any operational or environmental requirements. And don’t forget about security, make sure the software supports your confidentiality, legal and auditing requirements.

Be specific on your requirement documents and include all of the critical functions, including any you think are unique. Provide a space for your vendors to detail if they can fully, partially or not at all address each requirement and how much work is needed to fulfill the requirements. For example, is it is a simple configuration setting or is it a massive programming effort. This will tell you what you are getting for your money and how much additional functionalities will cost you.

Tell the vendors which features are critical versus nice to have. If you are using a points system, you should also share how you are weighing the different features. Being upfront with your vendors will enable you to better align your needs to their offerings.

It is also recommended for museums to follow Spectrum operational procedures. Spectrum is a collections management standard that is used worldwide by museums, which is divided into 21 activities or procedures. Ensuring that the CMS solution accommodates these specific needs of your organization is a crucial step which should be identified early on, and which of these 21 activities should be supported by their future collections management system.

Gallery Systems is one of the few collection management systems that is a Spectrum partner, which would ensure your museum is covered in these operational procedures which might be most important to your collections organization.

2. Develop and Issue the RFP

This step is all about giving enough information to the vendor so they understand your business and your needs. The vendor in turn needs to show you how their software addresses your needs. It is important that you create the RFP so you can gather key information and easily compare it with other vendors.

Start with some background on your business and needs:

  • What is your institution’s history?
  • How many objects, media files, etc. does your collection currently have?
  • What growth do you expect in your collection year over year?
  • What else do you need to track? Items such as people and artists, loans, exhibitions, excavation sites, conservation, or documentation?
  • What is your desired timeline for implementation?

Explain your current situation:

  • What are the main tasks you want managed?
  • What are your requirements?
  • What database/CMS are you currently using?
  • What data will be need to be converted to the new system?
  • What does your IT infrastructure look like? Are there other systems you will need to integrate?

Include a contact name and number so vendors can ask questions or get clarifications.

Explain your future situation:

  • Who will be working with the new systems? For example there might be one administrator, several curators and a three person exhibition team
  • Which reports will be required
  • What training you will likely need

Set clear expectations of what you want to see from each vendor:

  • The due date for the responses
  • List of all documents you require to be signed and returned

Ask for the specific cost breakdown to ensure you understand your complete up front and annual costs. The price for software usually entails license costs, annual maintenance, training costs, configuration costs, and possibly data conversion as well as reporting costs.

3. Evaluate RFP Responses

Once all the RFPs have been returned, you need to evaluate them and compare how they meet your functional and nonfunctional requirements. If you have a grading system, it is time to run the numbers to give you a baseline comparison.

In addition to functionality you will also want to compare costs. Costs are usually made up of one time license fees and annual maintenance fees. You likely will need to add set up costs for initial configurations, data migration, and training of your staff. It is helpful to add all of these costs together to get a multiyear comparison of costs. A higher upfront cost may be offset by a lower ongoing costs.

It is now time to arrange a live demo of the systems, ideally with mock data that resembles your own. That way you can get a feel for the look and feel for how the program works and how it will meet your needs. It is the best way to compare the user experience and how the system will fit for your needs.

Also check references and talk to those that are using the system. Talk to those with similar businesses and requirements and talk to them about their experiences. It is also helpful to ask about what additional costs as well as pitfalls they encountered in the first few years.


The RFP process is not a simple task, but done right will help you purchase the right software to match your needs. At Gallery Systems we have provided collection management software (CMS) to a wide variety of museums and private galleries worldwide. If you would like help developing an RFP, we would be happy to guide you through the process.

Click below to download the detailed guide “How to Write and RFP for your New Collections Management System”:

Partnering with Gallery Systems

To help make better collections management a reality and strengthen public engagement in your collections, Gallery Systems offers software applications and services to help you manage collections of any size or type, and allow you to dynamically publish information to your website, intranet, and kiosks. We have assisted many institutions with their successful grant applications and we would be happy to guide you through the process. Contact us to learn more.

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