Don’t just hire the best agency. Hire the right agency… for you.
From Shellie Speer, Executive VP/Client Strategic Development, Brewer Direct
Did you know that the average client-agency relationship lasts only 3 years?
I would guess there are many, many reasons for such short tenure, but I think the bottom line is this: Many organizations don’t know how to hire the right agency… for them.
Notice I said “for them.” That’s important. It doesn’t mean they’re not a perfectly fine agency for others. It just means they’re not the right agency for you. Too many organizations select agencies that turn out to be not a good fit with their culture, vision or expectations.
One reason it can be hard to choose is because of the very nature of agency selection. For most nonprofits, their daily life is lived in the numbers: managing budgets and expenses, and evaluating ROI, revenue and the average gift. To be a nonprofit that not only wants to survive, but thrive, means focusing on the quantitative aspects of your work.
But agency selection is so much more than the day-to-day numbers and data. Any nonprofit selecting a new agency should look at that agency’s culture, their capabilities, what they can offer – quantitatively, yes, but also creatively and in their level of service. I’ve even heard this as a reason from a nonprofit: “We just like you.” The selection of an agency is intuitive, personal and highly qualitative.
This is the balance that nonprofits have to be conscious of when selecting an agency: Paying attention to quantitative results and expectations PLUS the more instinctive, qualitative considerations that make a great partner.
If you’re having trouble navigating the often troubled waters of hiring the right partner, here are 5 considerations when hiring a new agency.
Define your expectations.
With your leadership team (and if appropriate, with your Board), define your short- and long-range fundraising expectations. Try and be in the position to clearly communicate your fundraising objectives to potential agencies.
Hire the core values.
When you envision working with a partner, be specific about the core values that are most important to your nonprofit. Your core values should be reflected in the agency’s RFP, on their website and even in your conversations with them. A great way to get insights on this is to hang around their office – the energy and tone of the office will tell you a lot about the culture.
Assess their strengths and weaknesses.
Prepare a list of questions that allows (even forces!) the prospective agency to reveal their strengths and weaknesses. The following questions are examples of what I’ve found to be helpful:
- Will you share specifics of your experience with clients similar to us (in terms of marketing, fundraising challenges, strategic creative solutions, etc.)?
- Tell us about your failures and how you recovered – what did you learn from those experiences?
- Tell us about failures where you could not recover – what did you learn from those experiences?
- Will you introduce us to the team that will be partnering with our development staff? (This should include day-to-day account service, creative, digital, media, research, etc. Get an idea of the kind of talent they hire.)
Don’t choose by brand name or price alone.
Brand names and price are definitely important factors, but don’t let either drive your decision when hiring an agency. Finding the right agency, not the cheapest or the most well-known, should always be your main goal.
Think big picture.
The right agency doesn’t just have past success. So it’s important you also understand their present operations as well as their vision for the future. The following discussion topics are helpful in getting the full measure of a potential partner:
- Tell us about your agency operations, such as what systems you use for producing assigned projects.
- How financially secure is the agency?
- Tell us the story of how this agency started and how it’s changed.
- What’s the background/experience of your key leadership?
- Do you have an outside board of directors?
- Where do you believe the industry is headed in the next 5 years?
- How are you implementing new media and technology into your client work and your corporate operations?
- What extended capabilities do you provide beyond direct marketing/fundraising?
That last one will also tell you a lot about an agency. When you assess a nonprofit fundraising agency, you want to know whether they have an integrated strategy that includes direct mail, newsletters, digital marketing and media, and consulting/expertise on areas like community relations, major donors and staff training with development teams, just to name a few.
Hiring an agency is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as an organization. These partnerships can be fulfilling for both sides and will often take your fundraising and marketing to new heights. But these partnerships fail miserably when expectations, core values and vision aren’t part of the initial conversations.
By taking these 5 considerations above into account, I’m confident that you’ll find the right agency (for you!) – and that your partnership with that agency will last well beyond 3 years.
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