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What I wish I had known before switching from nonprofit to agency

I started my career on the charity side, where I spent roughly two decades fundraising for organizations like The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, CARE Canada and World Vision. During that time, I worked closely with various agency partners.

Then, in 2013, I made the leap to the agency side. I thought I knew agencies well, but I’ve learned a lot in my time here. Looking back, I see quite a few things that I wish I had done differently when I worked for nonprofits.

I’m sharing those insights here, and I hope they help you maximize the value of your agency relationship.

1. Share your goals and vision

From the beginning of your relationship, it’s critical that you share with your agency your goals, your plans and your vision. And don’t forget to explain the why behind the vision.

You might be tempted to keep some of your cards close to the vest, but the more the agency knows about the big picture, the more effective they can be in their strategies.

On top of that, your agency team is likely comprised of people who are passionate about working with nonprofit organizations. Your vision can inspire the members of your agency team to become truly invested in your mission and your success.

2. Open the door to communication

Once you’ve inspired your agency, you can work on the finer details, like setting clear expectations for roles and communication. And it’s critical that communication is open, honest and candid.

From your perspective, don’t be afraid to negotiate or ask for a rationale behind a particular tactic. Ask about the details, give honest feedback and make sure any strategy or campaign is the right fit. You are the buyer, after all.

On the flip side, give your agency the freedom to question you.

Be open to the possibility that your plan is wrong. Some of the best organizations I work with now aren’t afraid to ask a simple question: “Is this a dumb idea?” Sometimes, the answer is yes, and you’ll be saving yourself a lot of trouble.

Through this kind of refreshingly candid relationship, both sides will benefit in the long run. As the saying goes, iron sharpens iron.

3. Collaborate, but don’t interfere

Once you’ve shared your vision and provided clear expectations, there comes a point where you must rely on trust.

Trust in your agency is certainly earned over time, but remember to trust yourself as well. You picked this agency for a reason, so it’s time to let them do what you hired them for. Let them prove you right.

You don’t need to get into the weeds of why a particular phrase or image was used over another, or why an email is set to go out at a certain time or day of the week. Trust that there’s reason behind it.

I struggled with this early on when working with my agency partners (some of you who know me might say I can be a bit controlling at times!) I wanted to be involved in everything, but I discovered that it slowed me down and the agency as well. The best time to dig into areas like this are when evaluating results later.

4. Win and lose together

Finally, when you have success, be sure to celebrate those wins with your agency. As I mentioned earlier, they’re probably emotionally invested in your vision, and they want to see you do well.

By the same token, don’t blame the agency alone when things don’t turn out as planned.

Sure, if the agency made a big mistake—like missing deliveries on a critical year-end campaign—that’s a different story. But if you collaborated on the strategy and the plan, you should share the failure together.

This creates a safe environment that leads to failing forward.

When you combine these four factors of emotional investment, open communication, trust and sharing success, you create a healthy relationship between the nonprofit and the agency. I guarantee that will lead to more wins and more success down the road.

Chris Thomas

As Vice President, Client Strategy, at RKD Group, Chris Thomas brings more than 25 years of fundraising experience working for both agencies and nonprofit organizations, including some of Canada’s most notable NGOs. He served eight years as a Director with World Vision Canada, overseeing areas such as direct mail acquisition and cultivation, child sponsorship broadcast acquisition, Artists & Associates, Chinese Ministries and others.

After World Vision, Chris served as Vice President, Fundraising and Communications, for CARE Canada, where he was responsible for developing and managing brand and generating private-sector revenue from direct response and major gift programs. He previously provided senior fundraising leadership to organizations including Leukemia Research Fund of Canada, Toronto Rehabilitation Hospital and the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo. His background covers a wide range of expertise, including brand management and development, donor cultivation and acquisition, major-gift and legacy programs and new-product development.

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