Evaluating Fundraising Agencies and Consultants

Can I get a few direct mail samples and some pricing info from you?

Ugh.  These questions, more than any others, frustrate me as a nonprofit fundraiser.  I got an e-mail this evening from a well-meaning nonprofit executive who is looking to launch a direct response fundraising program.  As I read the e-mail I was super excited.  The organization does great work in a community that is overflowing with need.  It is also a cause that aligns very well with my personal beliefs.

Then I got to the last paragraph which read: Can I get a few direct mail samples and some pricing info from you?

That’s when all the excitement gave way to frustration.  I literally cringed when I read that sentence.  I’m not opposed to disclosing pricing or sharing creative samples.  Far from it.  So why did these questions make me cringe (and why should they make you cringe a little too)?

This nonprofit director told me she was looking for a direct response fundraising partner, but the only two questions she asked were to see some creative and get a pricing menu.  That’s a red flag.  A red flag because it shows me the person I’m dealing with doesn’t really understand direct response fundraising – but she believes she does.  It also indicates that the organization may view direct response fundraising as a commodity purchase.

Here’s why it isn’t a good idea just to ask those two questions when trying to evaluate a potential fundraising partner:

1) Mail samples are completely useless in evaluating direct response fundraising.  They tell you nothing about how the campaign performed, what the budget was, why certain creative techniques were/weren’t deployed, and who the audience was.

The only thing mail samples will do for you is tell you whether you find my work to be aesthetically pleasing or not.  But honestly, the goal isn’t to please you (or me, or your board – you get the point).  The goal is to get you more new donors and more net revenue than you had yesterday.  Those are the benchmarks, not whether someone somewhere thinks the creative is more “cutting-edge” or “fresh” than what their current agency is doing.

2) Price should be secondary to value.  Here’s what I mean – if you were going to buy a car and all you did was call a few dealerships and say, “I’m looking to buy a car.  Can you give me some pricing?”, you’re going to get all sorts of different responses.  One dealership might quote you a price of $3,500, while another quotes you a price of $35,000.  You might immediately disqualify the dealership that quoted you the higher price.  But the problem is, you didn’t ask enough (or the right) questions to understand the difference in value.  That $35,000 car gets 32 miles/gallon, seats 8 and has a 100,000 mile warranty.  But the $3,500 car has only three wheels, a rusted out frame and needs a new transmission.  But hey, it was cheaper than the alternative.  Great job!

Same thing goes for your fundraising purchases.  If a fundraising consultant or agency that you’re exploring shows you pricing that is 15% above everyone else, but they have a history of delivering 50%, 70% or 100% better results than the competition, you’d be crazy not to spend the extra 15%!  If all you do is ask for pricing without understanding the value differences, you’re probably going to make a mistake (and a costly one).

How should you evaluate a fundraising consultant or agency, then?  By asking these 10 questions:

1. What’s your philosophy of donor acquisition?  Donor relationship management?  Fundraising integration?  Major gifts?, etc…

2. How have you helped another client maximize their new donor acquisition investment in the past to acquire more high value donors?  Please provide results and references.

3. How have you successfully integrated fundraising channels to help a client (or clients) acquire more new donors, raise more net dollars and increase awareness?  Please provide results and references.

4. What tools do you use to analyze fundraising performance and market trends?

5. How does your pricing model work, and how have you helped other clients more efficiently and effectively spend their marketing and fundraising dollars?

6. Explain the collaborative client/agency or client/consultant process for developing and executing a project.  How do you involve clients in the process?  Who has the final say on each element?

7. Who will be responsible for managing my business on a day-to-day basis, and what is their level of experience?

8. Explain the client’s role  in a typical engagement with your organization.  What are our responsibilities?  What kind of time commitments can we expect to make at each phase of a typical project?

9. What happens if something goes wrong?  How do you handle errors?  Where does the ultimate responsibility for the success of my project / engagement rest?

10. What do you see as the greatest opportunities and challenges for our organization in the coming 18 – 24 months?  How would you / your organization help us navigate those challenges and capitalize on the opportunities?

There are probably hundreds of other great questions that will help you better evaluate a potential fundraising partner.  Most of them will help you gain a better understanding of the value an agency or consultant will bring to your organization than just asking ‘Can I get a few direct mail samples and some pricing info from you?

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Posted in Direct Mail Fundraising, Leadership, Multi-Channel Fundraising, Nonprofit, Online Fundraising Tagged with: , ,
2 comments on “Evaluating Fundraising Agencies and Consultants
  1. This is a great column. Not to be cynical, but when I read the “Can I get a few direct mail samples” I thought, “I wonder if they think they’ll just copy the letter style and use the samples to write their own copy?” After all, someone who thinks that you buy on price rather than quality might also think that they could just change around a few stories and write it themselves. I think there are a lot of nonprofits who devalue the writing process and think that they can write a fundraising letter. But, like I said, maybe I’m just cynical.

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