Is “the best” always best for you?

Would you guess that the average client-agency relationship is longer or shorter than the average first marriage of a Hollywood celebrity?

If you answered that it’s shorter, you would be right. And maybe you’re as shocked as I was learning that clients and agencies typically only work together for about 3 years!

Though there could be numerous reasons for such short tenure, I think the bottom line is this: Many organizations don’t know how to hire the right agency… for them.

Emphasis on “for them.” 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. Or all of the above.

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 thrives means keeping a firm rein on the quantitative aspects of your work.

But agency selection can’t be distilled down to just facts and figures… you have to factor in feelings. 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 – just like any other trusted relationship.

This is the balance that nonprofits have to be conscious of when selecting an agency: Making sure it checks off all the boxes in your rational brain PLUS trusting what your gut is telling you.

If you’re having trouble navigating the often troubled waters of finding the right partner, here are 5 considerations when hiring a new agency.

1. Don’t settle for less.

With your leadership team (and if appropriate, with your Board), define your short- and long-range fundraising goals. Clearly communicate any and all fundraising objectives to potential agencies so they know your expectations upfront.

2. Make sure you’re both in the right place.

When you envision your ideal work partner, be specific about your nonprofit’s core values that are non-negotiable… and must be shared. Your core values should be reflected in the agency’s RFP, on their website and in all your interactions with them. If you can hang around their office – which might not work in this time of COVID – seeing the energy and tone will tell you a lot about their true culture.

3. Get candid about their pros and cons.

Prepare a list of questions that allows (even forces!) the prospective agency to reveal their strengths and weaknesses. The following questions can get the conversation started:

  • 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 challenges?
  • Will you introduce us to the day-to-day team that will be partnering with our development staff? A consultant provides objectivity.

4. Don’t let labels fool you.

Sure, something seems more valuable when you put a fancy brand name or high-end price tag on it, 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 goal.

5. Picture your future together.

The right agency doesn’t just rely on their past success – they’re still pursuing big dreams. So it’s important to understand their present operations as well as their vision for the future. Here are some discussion topics to determine the full measure of a potential partner:

  • Tell us the story of how this agency started and how it’s changed.
  • What’s the background/experience of your key leadership?
  • How financially secure is the agency?
  • 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 can take your fundraising, brand and relationships to the next level.

When hiring an agency partner, you should be just as picky as you would be in selecting your significant other. These work relationships can take up a good portion of your daily life – and great ones take your fundraising to new heights. Partnerships fail miserably when your expectations, enthusiasm and ethics don’t align, so set yourself up for success!

Keeping these 5 considerations in mind should help you find the right agency… for you. And hopefully your partnership with that agency will last much, much longer than a celebrity marriage!

Brewer Academy – led by Shellie Speer – offers personalized guidance, training and mentorship on issues like development and key messaging.

And that help is just an email away! Email Shellie now>>

  • Shellie Speer

    Shellie Speer-Burnett, Senior Vice President, BDI Academy

    With over 30 years of partnership in Rescue Missions and nonprofit organizations, Shellie Speer-Burnett brings her expertise, counsel and philanthropic-centered passion to assist in furthering the work of BDI’s Rescue Mission clients. For 22 years of her career, she served as the Founder and President/CEO of her own agency, ENEX Group, which helped her clients capture hearts and donor loyalty in their communities.

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