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Look for these 5 blind spots to get more from your vendor relationships

All great relationships are built upon the cornerstones of communication, transparency and trust. This is true whether we’re talking about our personal lives (marriage, friendships, etc.) or our professional lives.

In our industry, we often see nonprofit organizations with long-lasting business partnerships, some that have lasted decades. This can be a great sign of stability and success. Or, on the flip side, it could be a sign of laziness—a relationship that just isn’t fruitful anymore, but both sides have fallen into a pattern of what feels comfortable.

If that sounds familiar, think about it: When was the last time you truly evaluated your relationships with your vendors and agencies? Are they continually sharpening you, pushing you and challenging you to bring out your best, or are they falling short on some of their promises?

Most of us in the nonprofit space are driven by a passion to make the world a better place, but we can’t let that emotion conflict with rational business decisions. After all, nonprofits must be responsible stewards of their donors’ funds.

Let’s look closer at five areas to question to ensure you’re getting the most out of your vendor relationships:

1. Do you trust them?

This is often the first place to start, especially with newer relationships.

Depending on the scope of the vendor’s responsibilities, you may not have a lot of face time with their employees to get to know them. But I encourage you to probe, to ask questions and to take the time to find out what’s motivating them.

You’ll quickly find out whether they’re driven by the success of your organization’s mission or by the success of their bottom line. In fact, we believe in people and relationships so much that we recommend skipping the RFP process when looking for vendors.

2. Are they transparent?

This one can be tricky because some vendors are there to make your life easier and “take care of everything.” But think about how they share information with you. Are they telling you the full story or just what you want to hear?

Here are a few red flags to look for:

  • Reports with hand-selected numbers that fit a narrative vs. full, deep reporting
  • A list of tests that did/didn’t work vs. an explanation of why they did/didn’t work
  • AI-driven models built as a “black box” with no detail on how

If that looks familiar, your agency or vendor may be trying to paint a rosy picture for you while hiding the “bad news."  Or they just didn’t take the time to answer the questions themselves.

3. Are they knowledgeable about the industry?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the last few years—and if you have been, we need to catch you up on the whole pandemic you missed—then you’ve certainly noticed the rapid pace of change in marketing and fundraising.

The digital world moves so fast that it can be tough to keep up, and now a new layer of AI has been added into the mix. You need agencies and vendors who have a finger on the pulse of the industry and can advise you on how to keep growing.

4. Are they proactive about innovation?

What does annual planning look like for you? Same strategy as last year, with a little bump in investment?

Going back to Point #3, that’s not going to cut it in today’s world. You need a vendor who is on the cutting edge of developing new products and approaches that evolve with new technology.

When’s the last time they introduced a new program, product or service? Has it been years? Maybe they don’t have anything new to offer.

Now, it’s worth noting that some vendors can be a bit timid about introducing new products if you’ve rebuffed them in the past. Or they simply don’t want to appear greedy in trying to push more, more, more. If you have a relationship built on trust (Point #1), you shouldn’t run into this problem.

5. Do you clearly communicate expectations?

Remember, communication is a cornerstone of great relationships—and communication works both ways. If you’re not sharing on your end, you could be the problem in the relationship.

For example, if you recently changed a KPI, did you communicate that clearly? Your vendor may still be working toward the old goal, and you may be frustrated by the lack of progress toward the new one.

Be honest about your organization. Share what’s happening and where you might be having roadblocks internally. A good vendor will help you navigate these roadblocks together.


Nonprofit vendors can focus so much on the donor experience that they forget about delivering a great experience for their clients. These five questions are a great way to ensure you’re getting the most out of your vendor relationships.

Lisa Irwin

Lisa Irwin is Vice President, Strategic Engagement, at RKD Group. She has worked closely with nonprofit organizations since 2008 to help them solve their biggest challenges through a combination of listening, engaging and acting. Lisa puts her clients' success first to help them exceed their operational goals and initiatives.

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