A sector divided

If you ask anyone who works in direct marketing for a nonprofit organisation the chances are they’ll have some experience of working with an agency. And for good reason. Have you ever tried to start up an in-house telemarketing team? What about an in-house face-to-face team? I’m exhausted just at the thought of it.

Written by
Alison McCants
Added
December 17, 2013
Make sure you’re both heading in the same direction: fundraisers need to learn how to successfully work with agencies.

As for direct mail – who has the time, skills and disposition to be data analyst, strategist, planner, fundraiser, copywriter, designer and print specialist? Don’t even mention trying to plan several well-crafted, well-targeted direct mail appeals alongside running any of the other kinds of direct marketing activity.

Let’s face it, there’s a lot of investment of both time and money to set up an in-house team of any sort. So most charities will work with agencies at some point in their fundraising lives.

So the obvious question (to me) is – how are fundraisers trained to learn how to work with agencies? How do we know how to get the most from an agency? And, dare I say it, how do we know when they’re not doing the job well enough?

Now hold on. I’m not so embittered that I swear off all agencies (and believe me, I know a few people out there who do...). I understand that an agency is a business in-and-of-itself. The account directors have budgets, too. And I’m sure they want the best for their clients, but I’m not going to be so naive to assume the agency doesn’t get some sort of profit. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s more than OK. We need these agencies to make money. They will only succeed, in the longer term, if we as their clients succeed. It’s a win-win for us both.

But there are price inflations here, a little added on the top there, ‘nickel-and-diming’ as we say in the US. There are head-to-head appeals where the in-house test pack blows the agency pack out of the water (and yes, I must admit, vice versa). Agencies do sometimes undermine the relationship of trust...but so do their charity clients.

I myself am guilty of it. I’ve harangued, threatened, accused, gotten my back up unnecessarily and generally created a spirit of discontent. Admittedly, I’ve only realised all of this afterwards; at the time I thought I was doing my job to protect the charity from unwarranted costs. I felt I owed it to my charity’s beneficiaries. Service cuts, closures, and vulnerable people left unaided because of lack of funding weighed heavily on my conscience.

And therein lies the problem. Charity workers are constantly torn between our donors (who expect us to raise money from zero investment), our target beneficiary group (who naturally want to be helped and treated with respect and dignity) and agencies (who expect us to be willing to risk investment on a new creative or concept or approach – where we bear all the burden of risk on our shoulders). But there is no formal training, no academia, no fundraising institute’s best practice guide to help us navigate the treacherous or highly rewarding path of agency relationships.

If I ruled the world (or at least the charity sector), I’d add ‘working with agencies’ to every professional development course. I’d create a best practice guide and I’d add at least one session on the topic to every Resource Alliance, Association of Fundraising Professionals, Institute of Fundraising convention or conference in the calendar.

This article was originally posted on A K McCants: thought alchemy.

About the author: Alison McCants

Alison McCants

Alison McCants is a fundraiser with a passion for charities. Currently Alison is Direct Marketing Manager at The Brooke, a leading UK charity dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules (all views are her own). She is a member of the Institute of Fundraising (IOF) in the UK and holds a Certificate in Fundraising Management MInstF(Cert) from the IOF.

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