Charities and agencies – how to form a perfect marriage

Charities and agencies – how to form a perfect marriage


How can charities find the right agency to work with? These 5 tips will help you feel confident you're investing in an agency that will deliver returns, whatever your budget. 

By Kirsty Stephenson


Let’s face it; charities and agencies need each other. Agencies wouldn’t exist without a client and charities couldn’t achieve their fundraising goals without the skills and strength of external resource.

So why is it all too often, when the going gets tough, they are willing to throw each other under the bus? More often than not it is the agency that takes the hit first.

But they need to work better as a partnership, to collaborate and get the best from each other for the interests of both parties, but also for the supporters. Here are my top tips for a successful charity-agency relationship:


1. Find the right fit


Who will be the right fit as a partner for you and your charity in the long term?

It is patronising to suggest any charity client would get swayed by looks (cool / funky / stylish office) or location (East London?) alone – isn’t it?

It also goes without saying that it is important to do your due diligence. You need to understand their experience, their history, their results and track record.

But if you are going to be together a while it is also important that you like and respect each other. Not necessarily on an individual basis, as after all, account managers change and clients move on. But you need to like what they stand for. Don’t just rely on the first date PowerPoint – we all know that is just a method of securing a second date!

Natalie Jones, head of individual giving and legacies at VSO International advises:

“Talk to them in detail about what processes they have in place to ensure they are compliant with fundraising regulations, and what quality control procedures they have to ensure their fundraisers – who will be representing your charity to the public – conduct themselves professionally. Ask what are their policies regarding vulnerable people?

“It’s also important to understand their complaints policy – how quickly will they respond to a complaint? What steps do they take to investigate? What actions do they take according to the nature and severity of different complaints?”


2. Get to know the family


This should be reciprocal. From a charity’s perspective, ask the people who know the agency the best – other clients. Get some first-hand testimonials; call them yourself and quiz them.

Hang out at the agency for a while and see how they work. Don’t get palmed off with a quick tour and relegated to a meeting room for a couple of hours of statistics before signing a contract.

By meeting the people in their own environment – senior management, back-office staff, face-to-face fundraisers – you will get a better understanding of their ethos and ways of working.

Equally an agency needs to understand the client, the charity and their supporters as well as their ambitions, aims and what you are looking for in an ideal partner. Charities should welcome agencies into their world and, where possible, into the field. Inspire an agency in the same way you inspire your supporters with the great work you are doing. Make them want to do their best by you.

Fire each other up ready for an exciting future together!


3. Agree and understand the processes


So you have found your perfect partner. Of course is all very well believing in the same things but let’s get practical. Now it is time to invest in the pre-nup.

What is the cost of this relationship? What will the return be for both parties? Do you both have a realistic understanding of targets, timelines and deadlines?

“Once you think you have found the right partner, you should run appropriate credit checks to ensure their solvency”, says Natalie.

“Involve a member of your data team to ensure the agency can work with your data processes and requirements.

“You need to ensure the terms of the contract protect your charity sufficiently (financially but also in terms of your reputation, your data, your brand, among other issues) and have this checked by your legal team, or seek outside counsel if you don’t have that resource. This is an important relationship, and it is worth getting this reviewed by lawyers who understand the charity sector.”

Goals, targets, messages to supporters all need to be agreed up front. This gives you a good structure to work within together, provides benchmarks of success and helps avoid a board room slanging match if the going gets tough or a disagreement occurs.

It is also absolutely vital that good monitoring processes (shadowing fundraisers, listening to calls, satisfaction surveys with donors) are in place as well to ensure that the agency is compliant with the necessary regulations and codes of practice.


4. Maintain regular communication


Don’t be strangers, meet regularly to discuss the results of your campaigns or monitoring activities – the good, the bad and most importantly the ugly. It is how your deal with the most difficult issues that will strengthen your relationship.

Paul de Gregorio, head of mobile at Open, says:

“It might sound like a cliché, but it is all about communication, partnership and trust. The best client/agency relationships are more than a financial transaction. It’s when both parties inspire each other to do the best work possible. It’s also about room to screw up from time to time (from both sides) – it happens. Don’t blame. Resolve.”

Keeping in touch, and having those frank discussions, will also help you eliminate the issues that could evolve into something more serious.

Ben Oliver, business director of the face-to-face fundraising agency Appco Group, says:

“The rule of thumb for us – the better the relationship, the more positive and open it is (and this is relevant in terms of the charity and the supporter), the better the fundraising results.

“Don’t make the relationship one-sided. It shouldn’t be about client and supplier. It should be a solid partnership that has a mutual goal and understanding.”


5. Work at it


As your grandma probably told you: good marriages and relationships are hard work. You need to believe in them and invest in them. They constantly change and evolve, and you need to work out how you both find a way to do that together. Don’t stagnate; don’t keep on doing the same thing and then ultimately resent each other. Learn from others, and feed it into your own relationship and behaviour.

Paul Mathews, senior global fundraising manager at CARE International advises:

“You need to be constantly networking and speaking informally with agencies and other clients to find out about results and experiences. Keep your ear to the ground and keep tuning in to current trends, policy changes etc. Things can change quickly these days.”

Informal competitor research is one route, but only part of the jigsaw. Just as important is to keep learning about what drives each other.

Paul goes on to say:

Work out the challenges for each other, for you, your supporters, and your agency partners. Put yourself in the shoes of others so you can understand them more”.


Kirsty Stephenson 
@kirsty is a freelance digital strategy and marketing specialist

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