Financial constraints have changed the way charities contract work. Lisa Clavering offers some advice on getting the best out of your agencies, in straitened times.
For most charities, our agency partners are absolutely crucial in helping us to raise funds to carry out the work we do. But in the current financial market it has been increasingly difficult to commit to long-term relationships. Instead lots of work is done on a job-by-job basis and lots of planning is short-term – a year at best, in many cases. And in terms of direct debit recruitment in particular, changing recruitment trends mean most charities are reliant on cost-per-donor models to generate new supporters for their cause.
None of this is necessarily a bad thing – but if we’re not careful it can lead to the commoditisation of our agencies and the services they provide. It’s in everyone’s interests to make the best of these relationships – and ensure that we’re running successful campaigns that raise as much money as possible. Here are my key tips for making that work.
Ensure your agencies know your key priorities
Never mind if your strategy has changed three times in the last five years – there will definitely be some key objectives that you are working with in terms of your fundraising programme. Tell your agencies them! Even if it might not seem relevant to the campaign they are working on. Are you looking to grow existing campaigns? Engage more new supporters? More value from existing ones? Looking for new ideas of income generation?
Even if you have only engaged an agency for a particular piece of work, there is value in sharing the overall direction of travel. They may be able to provide insight that will help you; they’ll know not to talk to you about new ideas if you have been straight that there’s no test budget right now and that focus is on improving the existing programme. It will save crossed wires and wasted time and may help to improve your fundraising in unexpected ways to boot.
Build a relationship!
To a degree, if you’re paying an agency a fixed cost per donor on direct debit acquisition, it’s easy for this to become a broadly transactional relationship. Once you’re up and running, they send you your data and you pay your invoices. But a bit of extra work can go a really long way.
For example, do you share your attrition stats with your dialogue fundraising agencies? If not, why not? We all know that face-to-face and door-to-door in general have higher attrition rates than traditional channels – but are you working with your agencies to ensure they are aware what the variations are around the country? Your agencies will be flexible and will be keen to work with you on making improvements, given half a chance!
And what of those hardy souls spending their working week phoning your supporters, or engaging with new prospects on your behalf? What do you do to make them feel part of your organisation? Do you meet with your frontline fundraisers to hear what they have to say? Do you share interesting news from your organisation? They will represent you and your values in a much more authentic way if they feel more like part of your it. And that will translate into more engaged supporters too. It takes more of your time to do these things, but it’s worth it.
Ultimately, the less you think of it as an “us and them” relationship, the better the results you will get – on every level.
Engage other departments in your agency work
Chances are you need other departments to be involved in some way or another to get your campaigns up and running, whether that’s a brand team, key stakeholders to sign off copy or content, or something else. Are those people within your organisation really clear on what they are being asked to work on? For example, script approval for a telephone campaign is a very different beast to copy approval for a mailing. Have you sat down with them and explained how the materials will be used? Chances are there is context you can offer that will change the way they feed back. Tell them this beforehand! It will make your sign-off much smoother and it will minimise any tension.
It’s also really important that as project manager you can act as a filter in this sphere. By explaining context you can minimise changes requested; you may also be needed to de-dupe contradictory feedback (yes, agency-side I had many a script which seemed to want me to do entirely opposite things simultaneously!). Your agency may be great but they probably can’t work miracles!
Be open and honest
It’s a funny relationship, the client-agency one, and sometimes there will be tensions or challenges. I firmly believe that it’s absolutely fundamental to be upfront about these. If there are things that you’re not happy with – talk to them. Give constructive feedback on where you have been disappointed and give them a chance to come up with a solution. Whilst it’s easy to say that it’s their job to ensure you’re happy – if you aren’t speaking up then they don’t know anything needs fixing! Clients all have very different needs, based on not only the organisational objectives etc but also personalities – and unless the agency is aware what you want, they can’t provide it.
If you’re testing with new agencies, don’t be afraid to say this. We’re all grown-ups and these days it’s not uncommon to have multiple suppliers. It doesn’t have to be an awkward secret – honest conversations about this will help your relationship, and may highlight gaps or areas of dissatisfaction that can be addressed.
And if they’re doing a great job – tell them that too! We all know that people are more disposed to complain than to praise so make sure you’re actively working to buck that trend.
In summary it’s a simple and as complicated as working as a team. It sounds so obvious, but it doesn’t happen automatically and takes work – on both sides. But the benefits of embracing and really working with your agencies are enormous.