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The best direct response agencies take the time to understand their nonprofit clients’ unique culture and needs so they can provide an approach that’s tailored to the organization.

The ideal relationships between nonprofit organizations and agencies supporting them are collaborative partnerships based on courtesy, mutual honesty, and an openness to feedback.

In my experience, the most productive partnerships happen when the nonprofit organization has a desire to grow and able to act on recommendations to pivot, change, and grow. Similarly, the best agencies take the time to understand their nonprofit clients’ unique culture and needs so they can provide an approach that’s tailored to the organization.

In creating and sustaining this sort of collaborative partnership, the process of working together starts to resemble a dance.

How can you make your working relationship with your direct response agency more dance-like? Here are some tips:

  • Communication is key. Agency and nonprofit need to be on the same page about the goals and objectives of the engagement. Are you looking to increase the size of your active donor file? Slow down donor attrition? Or do you have other objectives? Make sure you talk through your needs internally and with your agency. And remember that objectives may shift as the engagement matures and both you and the agency bring insight to the table. Your agency should be asking the right questions to learn about you, your goals, and your pain points, so be sure to be clear and forthcoming. (And if they aren’t asking questions, that’s your first red flag!)
  • Plan (and attend) regular meetings. A good schedule for an average engagement is a biweekly virtual meeting—with regular and consistent communication between meetings. Larger and new engagements may be weekly. On top of that, quarterly meetings to address big picture topics like data trends and overall strategy tend to be in person. Since the production process is time sensitive, it’s important to communicate regularly between meetings. (And if your agency isn’t in touch about production between meetings, that’s your second red flag!)
  • Set reasonable expectations regarding turnaround, including approvals for creative briefs, copy, design, and printer's proofs. Your agency should present you with a production schedule for each campaign, which will indicate how much time your staff has to review material and when your final signoff is due. Keep in mind that the average mail-based acquisition campaign involves at least two different vendors in addition to your agency, and the agency likely also has their own quality control processes built into their schedule. These factors and other moving parts make producing a mailing a complicated process, which is why these timelines are so important. If you have conflicts (for example, you'll be out on vacation during proofs approvals) or you know you'll need extra time, let your agency partner know in advance so that they can make adjustments to help you. (If your agency isn’t sharing a timeline or adjusting to support you, that’s your third red flag!)
  • Conduct thorough onboarding. A good agency will have a thorough onboarding process where your agency will learn a lot about you. That will include gathering background materials, design and branding assets, previous returns and key data, and much else. The onboarding process should also review communication and approval processes: who has to approve what, and who is the main point-of-contact for this partnership. Good onboarding sets the stage for a healthy collaborative partnership. (If your agency doesn’t guide you through a useful onboarding process, that’s your fourth red flag!)
  • Plan ahead and stick to the schedule. It’s much easier to make changes at the beginning of the production process than at the end, which is why planning at the beginning is so important. The creative brief stage is critical to prevent missed deadlines and misaligned expectations down the road. In short, make sure that you are giving every step in the process the attention it deserves and not kicking questions down the road. (If your agency isn’t clear about what’s required every step of the way, that’s your fifth red flag.)
  • Use the data and your CRM. You want to ensure that you have a way of tracking returns by segment within your CRM and that you can access and share your data easily. Reviewing useful, up-to-date returns data that's been segmented appropriately, including past appeals' KPIs, enables your agency to give you solid advice. (If your agency isn’t reviewing returns and analyzing data with you, that’s…)

And here’s one last thought: fundraising sometimes requires stepping out of one's comfort zone or challenging accepted conventions within your organization. This can of course be scary, but acquiring the support you need to accomplish your mission makes it all worthwhile.

Keeping the lines of communication open, doing a bit of coordination in advance, and providing feedback on strategic and creative materials early in the production process can all help your agency partnership run more smoothly, which in turn increases your chances of fundraising success.

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