Throughout my career as a nonprofit communications specialist and leader, I have hired and worked with an array of creative types: photographers, graphic designers, writers, strategic branding agencies, and web developers.
So, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to create the best working relationship with people outside your organization, and how to get the results you want.
#1 Be prepared to spend
I say this with all knowledge and respect for how much an agency costs and deserves to be paid, but one thing I have discovered to be universally true: Creative outsiders charge more than you might guess if you have never hired one before. Best to know that going in.
Depending on the project—and depending on where the agency is located—hiring a creative agency can cost anywhere between several thousand dollars to several hundred thousand dollars. My team and I once met with a big-city agency that wouldn’t work with us for anything less than a 2-year commitment of at least $1 million.
Some agencies (independent vendors and larger organizations alike) will offer nonprofit rates, and it’s perfectly fine to ask if your prospective partner does. That said, it’s disrespectful to ask the agency to do your work pro bono just because you are a nonprofit. While some agencies might gift a limited amount of work to one or more organizations, they carefully choose their pro bono clients based on their own goals.
#2 Know what you want—or at least have a good idea
I’m not being specific here—like you need to know exactly how a new logo should look.
But you do have to be very clear on what your endgame is. Do you want to promote a new initiative; launch a new campaign; significantly increase your membership; or address a particular social issue in a powerful way? Engagements can become very expensive, and their success less certain, when the agency has to help you define your organization’s objectives.
Agencies are most productive when they have a clear understanding of your desired outcomes. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of working with a funky cool creative agency and to think, in all their hipness, they will know how to solve all your problems. They won’t! You need to do your work internally to figure out what exactly what you want to achieve before you spend time and money with the firm itself. This strategy will be your touchstone in the weeks and months ahead as you get further into design and development.
#3 Get the leadership, committee, and key stakeholders you need onboard first
I’ve seen great ideas fall apart at the eleventh hour because the president or chair of the board changed his mind or was never entirely on board to begin with. Wasted money, wasted time, and heartache ensue.
You don’t have to let this happen. Get buy-in and enthusiasm for the project goals before you spend money. Start with your allies and believers and work your way up to the other stakeholders who can make or break your initiative. This may take time and it will take work, but it’s worth the effort.
Clearly present your strategic goal and what achieving that goal will do for your organization. Be prepared to discuss why this cannot be accomplished in-house. And show examples from your chosen agency’s portfolio that most align with your organization’s requirements. Give details about the outcomes you anticipate.
#4 Give your committee something else to focus on
This is probably the hardest part of this process.
Unlike with any other skill set, many people in an organization (leadership, volunteers, colleagues, donors, board members, the clerk in the mailroom) believe they are better writers and better creative minds that the creative people hired to do the creative jobs. Do everything you can to redirect this energy.
A creative project produced by a committee of noncreative people accomplishes one thing only: it makes the drafters feel good. (If that’s your only goal—and honestly, in some organizations, that is the goal and that’s ok—then make that single person the final arbiter and deliver the thing that makes them most happy.)
But let’s say your goal is to boldly raise the visibility of your organization in a brand new way in order to raise more money, increase membership, or address a particular social issue. In that case, do not let the ego of a board member lasso the creative agency you’ve hired to accomplish that goal. It’s a waste of money—donor money.
If people in the organization want to feel they’re contributing to the project—and they have appropriate right to involvement—find a way to structure their engagement. That will have to be customized for your organization, but you could, for example, invite the agency to include those people in the early discovery stage so they feel they’ve been given an opportunity to express their ideas and concerns. But above all, make sure it’s clear who are in advising roles, and who holds the final decisions.
#5 Allow your agency to do its work its way
Don’t be a helicopter parent over your creative agency. Be open to new ideas, both in creative presentation and business dealings.
Many agencies are transparent about the different components of their work plans. This does not mean that they are giving you an a la carte menu that you can choose from. For instance, you likely can’t delete ‘project management’ from the work outline because you think you can do that yourself. They know what they are doing and how they operate. Trust them.
Likewise, be open to your agency talking with members of your organization—at all levels. Stakeholder interviews with leadership, board members, service recipients, and others allow the agency to get a full picture of what you are all about. That 360-degree view will let them see your organization from a perspective that you can’t see yourself when you are embedded every day.
Okay…one more: #6 Communicate, communicate, communicate
Ideally, your agency will give you updates along the way and have a good, open level of communication about their findings and their direction. They should also be open about how they are meeting their benchmarks and deadlines, and what they need from you in order to meet them.
If you’re not getting this information from them, ask.
If you really don’t like a direction they are taking or you think they’re missing the mark, say so—as early and objectively as possible.
Your agreement with the agency should accommodate at least one major revision, if it is not already structured in development stages. Also, your agency, depending on your agreement and the amount of money you are spending, should show you more than one approach or solution.
The more you openly communicate with your agency and work with them as partners committed to achieving your goals with you, the more productive your relationship with the agency will be, and the happier you and your organization will be with the final products.