Finding Your Next Agency Is A Two-Way Interview

May 8, 2015       The NonProfit Times      

Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission (URM) in Los Angeles, advocates for the homeless with fervor and conviction. When he’s looking for a new direct response agency partner, the chosen firm must be able to accommodate that style.

“His voice is so strong and justice-focused, and we need to make sure our writer shares that same type of passion,” said Glenn McKinney, senior vice president of rescue missions at URM’s agency Grizzard.

“We’re looking for a fit on culture, character, capability and what they’re called to do,” said Bales. “I don’t want someone who just wants to add to their business. I want someone who wants to use their gifts to enhance our work.”

Choosing the right partner agency is the reason nonprofits undertake the RFP (request for proposal) process. It’s not as simple as grabbing an RFP template you found online, plugging in some numbers and firing it off to every agency with which you’ve never had any contact.

Mark Rhode, vice president of Russ Reid in Pasadena, Calif., suggested an RFP go out to no more than eight to 10 agencies. “More than eight, you’re really not going to give yourself a chance to read them all,” Rhode said. “Minds melt after you’ve read eight or 10 responses.”

There are no industry standards when it comes to RFPs. Rhode thinks there should be. He would like “to get 10 top agencies and 10 top nonprofits in a room together and put on the table what we all think would be idea standard operating procedures for RFPs,” he said.

He listed some of the questions such a group could hash out:
• How many rounds of an RFP should there be?
• How many competitors per round?
• When is it appropriate to request spec creative?
• When is it appropriate to ask for a donor file analysis?
• Should all applicants be required to perform a file analysis, or only those that advance to a later round?

“If we could get agencies and fundraisers in a room and agree on major parameters of best practices and publish it to everyone, it will save the industry millions per year that could then go to achieving missions of nonprofit organizations, rather than be wasted on extra fees to support extra ad agencies (extraneously included in an RFP process),” he said.

Here are five more tips from direct marketers, on both the agency and the nonprofit sides.

1) Give enough information

McKinney wants the whole “kit and caboodle,” he said. Grizzard, which has offices in Atlanta and Los Angeles, puts forth “an exhaustive data request, something like 10 years of giving,” said McKinney. “We like to look at retention because that can have such a huge impact on fundraising. Then we look at acquisition and conversion of those acquired donors into second and multi-year donors. We look at behavioral metrics in the donor file, and market metrics.”

Michael Burlingame, senior director of marketing and operations for Human Rights Watch in New York City, doesn’t give any information to potential partners, or perhaps he gives them everything. “When I say I provide a lot of information, what I do is I provide an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) and then export our file, so (RFP respondents) can pull it and cut it the way they want to,” Burlingame said.

Rhode said he’d rather have too much info than two little. A two-page info sheet just won’t cut it. If there’s no way to follow up to get more information, his firm will not respond. “If the process is closed, we can’t call (the potential client). If we don’t know their politics, their marketplace dynamics, their history, we’re not going to proceed,” he said.

2) …But not too much

Some agencies don’t want every point of data available. It can start to feel overwhelming, and a lot will be discarded. Sending too much information might be a waste of time.

“Rather than a 50-plus page document, the nonprofit would be much better served by identifying two or three key objectives or problems that need solving,” said Sean O’Neil, senior vice president of new business development for the Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based New River Communications.

It’s important that RFPs are unique to each project, said O’Neil. Starting from scratch should ensure that extraneous or irrelevant information does not appear on the RFP in the first place. “Too often RFPs are cobbled together from samples that the development staff finds online, in their dusty file drawers or through other colleagues. The end result is a ‘camel’ RFP that is redundant and full of information and questions that aren’t really relevant or meaningful to the organization,” said O’Neil.

O’Neil would prefer to get a one-page sheet with no more than 10 questions. The short length would mean every question on the RFP is focused and designed to elicit an informative response. “That way, the RFP process doesn’t become a cattle call or a time-suck on an agency that wasn’t a good fit to begin with,” he said.

3) Be open

You have to know what you want, but you can’t be so specific that the responding agencies can’t breath. Stating your priorities should be “very directional, but not so specific to the destination: ‘We want to spend x amount on acquisition and we need a new website.’ That’s tactical,” said McKinney. “Let the application be an opportunity for the agency to showcase strategies and solutions, as opposed to offering a product list of what’s wanted. You’re limiting the opportunity for creativity by requesting a menu choice.”

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a set of goals, said Rhode. “The RFP should give the background of the organization, outline goals clearly, define the campaign or program under review, provide historical results from the program, goals going forward, and priorities,” he said. Some organizations will want to focus on net revenue, others on gross. Some want a bigger file, some a higher conversion rate. “What are the critical factors by which they measure success or failure?,” said Rhodes. “If an RFP doesn’t give you that, it’s hard to come up with a strategy.”

4) Do your research

Burlingame said that his RFPs previously resembled a “spray and pray,” send as many out as you can and hope for the best. “The one thing I’ve learned over the years is I have to do a lot of work before I send (RFPs) out,” he said. “The process is a lot better if I do work before and look for companies I want to invite.”

He said he’s looking for agencies that work with organizations that are about the size of Human Rights Watch. Burlingame said he looks at agencies’ client lists and watches for a preponderance of medium-sized organizations, with about 250,000 names in their files. But before he does that, “The first thing I do is call my peers” at other organizations to see whom they recommend, Burlingame said. “It’s nice in the nonprofit sphere that we’re pretty open and sharing.”

After you’ve researched agencies, be prepared for the agencies to research you. Agencies will consider, in addition to their own capabilities, what sort of organization with which they will work.

“Our sweet spot in terms of size and capacity,” said O’Neil, “is a mid-size organization with an annual fundraising budget of $2 million and under. We’ll also want to make sure that we have relevant experience working with similar nonprofits or have created the types of specific programs needed, as outlined in the RFP. When we can identify that the nonprofit is a potential good fit, creating the actual proposal becomes much more attractive and exciting.”

5) Be honest

Finally, be honest with yourself and your agency partner about why you’re sending out the RFP and what you expect to get from the process. If you’re happy with your current agency and are putting out an RFP at the behest of your board, consider instead an RFI (request for information), said Rhode.

If your organization is truly not happy with your agency, Bales suggested being as honest as possible to both the current partner and to the RFP respondents about why you’ve sent out an RFP, almost to the point of bluntness.

He recalls a time when his organization made a rushed decision. “That really didn’t work out well because our cultures didn’t match,” Bales said. The biggest mistake a nonprofit can make, in Bales’ opinion, is “not being completely honest with each other about why you’re making a change, trying to be too polite, saying that it’s low acquisition when it’s really a misfit with culture,” he said. “If you’re not honest, people can’t correct the problem.”