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Request for Proposals: Communications Agency Consultant

Contact: Maura Daley, maura.daley@aspeninstitute.org 

RFP Issue Date: October 9, 2023

Proposal Deadline:  November 20, 2023


About the Stevens Initiative

The Stevens Initiative is an international leader in virtual exchange, which brings young people from diverse places together to collaborate and connect through everyday technology. Created in 2015, the Initiative invests in virtual exchange programs; shares research, resources, and promising practices to improve impact; and advocates for broader adoption. Learn more: https://www.stevensinitiative.org/

What is Virtual Exchange?

Virtual exchange connects young people from around the world for learning and collaboration, immersing them in digital spaces to gain practical skills and build friendships along the way. Watch this video to learn more.


Virtual exchange is an ever-evolving field with great potential for practical application in nearly everyone’s life. But the field, overall, has not been as successful as it could or should have been in its efforts to articulate the potential and power of virtual exchange while also generating excitement and demand from broad audiences. For example, the field of study abroad was successful in building a recognizable brand identity that broadly translates to a variety of audiences — when you hear “study abroad,” you understand what it means, how it works, and the impact it has. This has not been the case with virtual exchange, even though it’s been in existence for more than thirty years. 

Virtual exchange has long been tethered to the international education and exchange space, but the Stevens Initiative firmly believes its relevance transcends any one particular field, specifically that of traditional educational institutions. It’s also been traditionally bogged down by rigid terminology, technicalities, and pedagogies — diminishing its appeal to general audiences with very little existing familiarity and overcomplicating an experience that, at its core, is about driving authentic connections on a large scale. These circumstances and more have presented persistent challenges for the Stevens Initiative as a leader in the field, especially when developing a communications, marketing, and outreach strategy. As a leading organization in virtual exchange for nearly ten years, the Stevens Initiative is currently in a unique position to assess current trends and ideologies and to shift the field’s overall brand identity in a direction that truly reflects its full potential, now and in the future.

Project Goals and Objectives

The Initiative is seeking a consultant with proven creativity, a passion for executing fresh, unexpected, and inspiring ideas, and the experience and ability to take calculated risks that push the boundaries of what is expected in the field.

A successful consultant will demonstrate experience in and a thorough familiarity with the social impact sector, along with a genuine interest in virtual exchange and the work of the Stevens Initiative. To successfully complete a landscape assessment of the virtual exchange field and support with rebranding and reaffirming the Stevens Initiative as a driving force, the consultant must demonstrate an ability to navigate the nuances and complexities of various field audiences and stakeholders. 

Questions that will need to be explored include, but are not limited to: 

    • How is virtual exchange currently defined? 
    • What is its perceived value proposition? 
    • Does the name “virtual exchange” resonate with key priority audiences (as defined in the audience segmentation section)?  If not, what does?
    • Does the name  “virtual exchange” accurately represent the work? If not, what does?
    • What messaging currently best resonates with various audiences, especially around impact?

In addition to reframing the virtual exchange field, the Stevens Initiative is committed to growing its network and increasing engagement with existing and new audiences, with a larger goal of developing a strong brand identity overall. For instance, over the last several years, the Initiative has become recognized as a prominent voice within the virtual exchange field but has not yet gained universal awareness of its brand as a driving force while simultaneously creating demand and increased engagement. 

The Initiative aims to ensure that everyone around the world knows what virtual exchange is and the role that the Initiative plays as a leader in the field, while also converting awareness into action. What would it take to have virtual exchange be as widely understood as study abroad or prestigious exchange programs like Fulbright? The Initiative seeks support redefining the field and creating greater awareness and interest through a cohesive and cutting-edge communications approach.

The selected consultant will be expected to achieve the following objectives:

    1. Conduct a comprehensive landscape assessment of current communications and marketing of the virtual exchange field, including messaging, key players, trends, challenges, and opportunities — specific to how communications is built around virtual exchange. 
    2. Based on landscape assessment findings, create updated messaging to reflect the future state of the virtual exchange field.
    3. Build field-wide buy-in for new virtual exchange messaging through targeted dissemination strategies.
    4. Rebrand the Stevens Initiative, including a new visual identity, messaging framework, and positioning within the virtual exchange ecosystem.
    5. Develop tailored communication strategies and materials for various target audiences, including educators, youth participants, potential partners, donors, and policymakers, while incorporating the Initiative’s broader audience and communication priorities and specific programmatic priorities. 
    6. Create and execute fresh and trailblazing communication campaigns and projects that elevate the Stevens Initiative’s brand and increase demand for virtual exchange programs.
    7. Provide recommendations for ongoing communication efforts and strategies to maintain and build on the rebranding efforts.

The Initiative expects to be a trusted thought-partner in every area of this work. The consultant will work closely with the Initiative’s communications team on the foundations of a communications plan and would like to build on existing knowledge and expertise to better execute on different digital and media strategies.

Scope of Work

This work is divided into two phases, along with ongoing support. Work on Phase II is contingent upon suitable completion of Phase I work and deliverables and on successful engagement with the consultant during that period. The consultant should provide a budget and timeline that includes both Phase I and Phase II.

In alignment with the Initiative’s data-driven approach, the consultant will provide recommendations, build strategies, and develop deliverables that pull from Initiative analytics, research and insights from industries on the periphery of the virtual exchange field, and proven industry standard.

Phase I

Below is a list of Phase I projects the consultant will be responsible for executing, including:

Landscape Assessment

    • Conduct research on global awareness of and demand for virtual exchange, utilizing polling, focus groups, and other communications research with a focus on how virtual exchange is currently messaged and branded, and where there are gaps in understanding and awareness.
    • Research interviews that include Stevens Initiative staff, partners, and grantees so as to get input from collaborating stakeholders in the field, to understand their perspectives on the challenges of awareness building and demand generation faced in the field, and the potential opportunities to overcome these challenges together when communicating with the different audiences and sectors.
    • Identify key messaging, trends, challenges, and opportunities in the field.
    • Analyze the competitive landscape, including the positioning of other organizations and initiatives in the virtual exchange space.


    • Formulate a revised branding and messaging framework for the virtual exchange field with recommendations and strategies to achieve universal understanding and adoption while generating global demand.   
    • Develop an elevated brand identity for the Stevens Initiative that creates universal awareness of the movement, and the field of virtual exchange, to support generating demand, building supply, and creating an enabling environment for the field.
    • Conduct an Initiative-wide brand audit to ensure that the Initiative’s identity is consistent and effective in reaching its goals, making suggestions to fill any gaps. 
    • Identify specific collateral (videos, blogs, one-pagers, etc.) that would most effectively meet strategic goals.
    • Develop a compelling way to articulate and amplify the value proposition of virtual exchange and how the Initiative fits into this work, particularly to audiences with little knowledge of or experience with either. 
    • Create a messaging framework that includes evergreen and impactful messaging (both general program messaging and targeted messaging for specific audience groups) that is interesting and relevant to the Initiative’s diverse audiences.
    • Scope a framework for when messaging should be updated to reflect the growth of the Initiative’s work.

Audience Segmentation

    • Aligned with the Initiative’s overall messaging, branding, and communications deliverables that are relevant and compelling to all audiences, develop tailored communications strategies and outreach plans for identified targeted audience segments, including:
    • Educators (such as teachers, professors, administrators) from around the world representing different age levels (K-12 and higher ed institutions), content expertise, and familiarity with virtual exchange.
    • Practitioners (including partners, grantees, thought leaders, implementers, researchers) in the virtual exchange field
    • Practitioners and professionals in related fields and networks, including study abroad, EdTech, education (this may overlap with other audience groups)
    • Corporations and companies (entities to potentially engage in workforce readiness/development campaigns)
    • Policymakers (at the federal level, such as elected officials/U.S. Congressional members; state level, such as state departments of education; and local level, such as school boards, etc.)
    • Stakeholders (funders, strategic partners)

Phase II

Below is a list of Phase II projects the consultant will be responsible for executing, including, but not limited to:

Communication Campaigns

    • Advise on a broad communications strategy to launch the rebrand of the virtual exchange field to build universal awareness and generate demand for the future of the field.
    • Identify imaginative communication campaigns and projects that showcase the Stevens Initiative’s impact and relevance, and address specific goals that may require more targeted approaches, including targeted outreach to specific audience groups. 
    • Develop both online and offline campaign strategies and approaches to launch new branding and messaging for the field.
    • Support the Initiative with announcements and releases, including grant competition and partner announcements. 
    • Work with the Initiative’s communications staff to determine where key announcement support is needed and support with partner coordination, developing social content, and other communications activities. 
    • Identify opportunities for targeted outreach when crafting larger communications campaigns and other deliverables. 
        • For example, the consultant may recommend certain targeted outreach approaches during a broader communications campaign push. 
    • Execute campaigns and monitor their effectiveness.

Email Engagement

    • Recommend specific email engagement opportunities as part of larger campaigns or projects to increase awareness and engagement.
    • Assess the Initiative’s monthly email newsletter plans and propose a roadmap for refreshing content and strategy, providing a set of recommendations to improve open and click rates.

Social Media

    • Conduct a profile assessment and audit of current Stevens Initiative social media profiles and platforms (LinkedIn, X, Facebook), including a content analysis, audience analysis, partner analysis, engagement metrics, follower growth, hashtags and keywords, branding consistency, platform-specific analysis, content calendar review, paid advertising analysis, ROI assessment, and recommendations for:
        • Ways to better promote the Initiative’s existing content, especially videos and publications, that will lead to a sustained increase in engagement in the long-term.
        • Creating new digital content such as video clips, GIFs, graphics, etc.
        • Social media platforms to prioritize based on audience and current trends.
        • Ways to strengthen engagement with various audiences and grow followers.
    • Additionally, the consultant will work with the Initiative to design specific digital marketing campaigns (standalone or as part of a more comprehensive campaign plan), and provide guidance to the Initiative communications team for successful implementation.

Data Collection and Integration

    • Create a framework for data stream collection, including:
        • Website analytics (Google Analytics)
        • Social media platform data (Facebook Insights, X Analytics, LinkedIn Analytics)
        • Constant Contact 
    • Integrate data from multiple sources to gain a holistic view of the Initiative’s online presence
    • Create the framework for customized dashboards and reports to provide consistent insights into online performance including:
        • Audience insights like demographics, interests, and behavior
        • Segmented audiences for targeted communications strategies
    • Complete a trend analysis and identification of emerging topics and discussions relevant to the field and the Initiative’s brand on social platforms.


  • Provide recommendations for ongoing communication efforts to sustain and build upon the rebranding efforts.
  • Offer insights on emerging trends and strategies in communication and branding within the nonprofit sector.


Communications Support and Strategic Counsel

    • The consultant will conduct regular check-ins (frequency to be determined) with the Initiative’s communication team to coordinate plans, allocate responsibilities, give regular updates on deliverables and progress, and brainstorm, plan, and make decisions in partnership with Initiative staff. 
    • This ongoing support and strategic counsel will be guided by the priorities listed in this RFP, and Initiative staff will lead on day-to-day implementation of much of the strategy and plans developed in partnership with the consultant.

Opportunistic Support

    • The consultant should be nimble in identifying opportunities for support that fall outside the scope of the tactics listed above and proactively trigger the Initiative to take strategic advantage of timely news or relevant developments that require a quick response.  

Proposal Information and Requirements


The Initiative’s budget range for this contract is negotiable based on the proposed scope of work and engagement proposal for the project. A budget will not be disclosed during the application period, but the range will be shared with finalists. 

Proposal Requirements

The proposal should include:

    • A description of approach and process to communications and marketing (400 words max).
    • Statement of interest in social impact and the Stevens Initiative and/or a detailed description of existing knowledge of virtual exchange (400 words max). 
    • Two references, including one past client with a portfolio similar to the Initiative’s.
    • Two examples of prior work on similar social impact projects.
    • List and bios of team members that will be involved in the project. 
    • A detailed, one-year timeline with specific steps, deliverables, and deadlines for the completion of the project. It should list the amount of time that will be needed for each component of the project, including calls with the Initiative team. The timeline should account for all phases included in this RFP, in addition to the below:
        • (For applicants with no knowledge of virtual exchange) An appropriate period of time to learn more about virtual exchange prior to beginning other areas of the project. 
        • A plan to provide metrics and insights throughout the duration of the project. Upon project completion, the consultant will create a dashboard summarizing analytics relevant to the work completed. 
        • A method of measuring success.
    • A budget detailing all costs, including the costs for each specific deliverable and the method of billing for work. 
    • Diversity and Inclusion Statement: Applicants should include a statement that describes their individual/team background and how their inclusion in this effort would further the inclusion and representation of traditionally marginalized communities.


The Initiative seeks an established communications and/or marketing firm with a diverse portfolio of experience in social, multimedia, graphic design, and other areas. The firm will have specific experience leading in the social impact sector.

The Initiative is seeking a consultant with experience working with clients that have both a domestic and international audience and has a genuine interest in learning more about and supporting the mission of the program. 

Consultants based in any location are encouraged to apply. No restriction is placed on the geographic location of applicants for a proposal to be eligible for review. Applicants should have demonstrated expertise in U.S. and international learning/education contexts, ideally with existing knowledge of international exchange and/or virtual exchange.

Following our commitment to principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion, we invite proposals from firms that are led by or include significant contributions from individuals who represent traditionally underrepresented communities, including women, racial minorities, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and individuals with disabilities, among other traditionally marginalized communities.

Applying and More Information

Please submit your proposal to maura.daley@aspeninstitute.org by 4pm U.S. Eastern Time on November 20, 2023.

For more information about the Stevens Initiative or this call for proposals, see https://www.stevensinitiative.org/ or email stevenspartnerships@aspeninstitute.org.

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