Grab Your Partner!
Since my move from client to agency, I've become something of an unofficial therapist for folks looking for perspectives from "the other side." Here are a few of the questions I've been asked. Any of them sound familiar?
I work for a major nonprofit that serves children's issues. We recently RFP'd the direct-response program and selected what we thought was a great partner — until our first meeting, where we spent the first two hours talking about our messaging.
Our founder always used a few key phrases during his years building the organization, and we've always honored him by carrying those through. Our new agency told us specifically that we couldn't get a direct-response program to work if we didn't use stronger language, tougher imagery and a complete departure from our core values. We were not expecting this, and the conversation left all of us feeling a bit let down.
The account executive continued on and on, even saying, "Let's just test it." In the end we finally said that "this" was an organizational decision and we'd have to just work hard to keep raising funds while we kept our core values intact.
How do you get that relationship with your agency to the point where it trusts that you know your organization and count on its fundraising expertise to help take the message you want to possible donors?
— Charity Girl, Pennsylvania
Dear Charity Girl:
That's a tough one. I know consultants and partners just want to see you raise more money and fund your amazing programs even better. But sometimes those consultants need to take a moment to remember you know your organization better than anybody.
Start by having that open and honest conversation early on with your partner; it sets the tone for the success of the program. Start with the ground rules about tone, organizational messaging, what you can/cannot do in terms of your brand.
But as the program and partnership builds, trust your consultant. Be willing to test and push out to help the program. The best creative and campaigns are developed in partnership — and on both sides you learn, grow and share all the successes and "less than successes" as well.
Our firm has been working with a nonprofit for a little more than a year now. We handle all of its direct mail, including on and offline. The people there are a great group and do fantastic work, but they have a small staff and limited resources like many nonprofits. They wear a bunch of different hats and are working very hard for the amount of work we do with them.
It's a good partnership except for one area: approvals. Because they are small and lean and their executive director likes the opportunity to review and approve all e-mail/direct-mail pieces, we find ourselves pushing our vendors and missing print deadlines.
We've worked to build in tons of extra time into the production process and do our best to keep things on schedule, but it seems we are always playing catch-up or asking a printer or the lettershop to do "one more favor." Without question, they are the clients and we'll work to make sure we keep projects and campaigns moving and on schedule. We always approach partnerships with that attitude. Except, we now have a few lettershops and printers who indicate they don't want to work on this particular client anymore because of some of these issues.
We don't want to lose the client, but we also have to find ways to keep our other clients moving on time and keep the lettershops of the world willing to work with us. Any ideas?
— Proof-less in Utah
Common problem. We've all seen it from both sides of the table. The old adage "the client is always right" certainly applies here, but at the same time, what happens when you run through vendors yourself and compromise your reputation?
There must be a middle ground! Be proactive in helping partner with the client on a tool kit that helps everybody in the long run: Develop a fundraising/editorial calendar before the end of the fiscal year.
Drop in all the core appeals like spring wrap, annual fund in March and the like. Fill in as many blanks as you can. It's OK to have a few TBDs, since things change. But working from a document like that, it helps your day to day as well as your client's leadership plan its year and be prepared for times of heavy approvals, new packages and the like. When there are things like the tax e-mail that will be evergreen for the most part, make sure everybody knows it will be an easy turnaround so you're helping be a partner in managing the work.
No matter how hard you try, there will always be last-minute things. And nothing ever goes as smoothly as we'd like. But providing a few tools in the end will help you both be better partners!
And a few of the one-offs I've heard to round out what you already know …
● Going to the agency side isn't always going to the dark side. Consultants are people too.
● Clients are smart — some smarter than their consultants — but both sides of the table have superstars and "not so super" stars.
● It isn't always personal when they don't like your copy or creative — on either side! Sometimes the best concepts come out of robust discussions and debates over messaging and branding.
● Consultants are just as passionate about the causes as those who work in them. The great part of consulting is you get to work on multiple charities at once. You can learn, adapt, share and help make the fundraising industry better overall. The bad part is sometimes the charities don't see the passion, and it's hard to get on the inside.
● A production schedule isn't science fiction. We do our best to base it in fact and then write new chapters if it goes off track.
● He/she/they don't know us as a charity and won't listen, so how can they fundraise for us?
● He/she/they hired us for our expertise in fundraising, but won't let us do what we know how to do.
● Comic Sans does not inspire confidence or professionalism — for either side!
● All of you — take those photos in HIGH RES from the beginning. You know we're just going to ask for them again.
The best advice I can give for folks on either side of the table: trust, listen, learn and do your job. No matter what that job is, own it and use the role to further you organization, your charity and make the world a better place in general.
I'll have the support group up and running by June. In the meantime, I'm available for Skype or online chat sessions. Good luck out there. Changing the world isn't always the easiest job, but solid client/agency relationships can help. FS
So, I'm a fundraiser having a mid-life crisis. And that's perfectly fine with me.
I am taking time to look around, lift my head and find REAL people who really want to change the world. And people smart enough to do it. Join me in this fun journey. I have no idea where we will end up - and that is the beauty of it. I'm nonprofit passionate, a hopeful world changer, and always ready to share what I know, learn what I don't, admit when I can't, and ask the hard questions.
While you're looking around for other areas of inspiration, check out The Moth Project at themoth.org (the podcasts are AMAZING), TED talks (doesn't matter which ones - find topics that interest you) and Volunteer Voices (again - love the podcast) written by volunteers from the Peace Corps. Don't see the immediate connection to being a better fundraiser? Just listen, you'll hear the message ...