Is hiring a communications agency right for your nonprofit?

Is hiring a communications agency right for your nonprofit?

As someone who led a nonprofit organization for 25 years, I know what it’s like to have 1,001 things to do every day. You’re called on to develop the board, manage finances, supervise staff, oversee, and sometimes lead, program design and implementation, plan for the future, and market and communicate about your organization and programs in a way that compels people to give of their time, talent, and treasure.

There’s never enough time to get to the bottom of that list, right? And never enough budget to hire all the staff that’s needed to grow and sustain your organization and deepen your impact on those you serve.

People in the sector tell us it hasn’t gotten any easier in the last eight years. But one thing has changed: greater awareness of the important role strategic communications brings to a nonprofit’s mission. Sure, you still think twice before spending money on anything but programs. But investing precious dollars on marketing, branding and other comms functions is no longer recognized as a frill, but a way to increase resources and promote sustainability.

Equally exciting, these days, is the willingness of grantmakers to invest directly in a nonprofit’s communications activities, whether to grow the audience for your services, develop compelling messages, share success stories, freshen your brand, media relations, website development, or social media.

This shift in thinking removes a huge barrier for organizations looking to increase understanding of the important social issues they address or expand or deepen their reach. But other barriers still exist; simply having financial resources to dedicate to marketing and communications isn’t enough.

If you have the money and motivation, there’s still the question of who to bring in to do the work. A threshold issue is whether to add a staff member, assign more responsibility to an existing employee, hire a freelancer part time, or take the step of engaging an agency.

Nonprofits contemplating whether working with an agency is the right approach to meet their public relations and communications needs, should think through the answers to these questions:

  • Do you need deep, strategic communications counsel and planning support or day-to-day implementation of the plans and counsel?
  • Does your communications project or task require a specialty skill or expertise — such as design, branding, web development — that you don’t have on staff?
  • Do your communications needs span several skills that would make the task challenging for one person?
  • Is this a one-time project for which your staff lacks bandwidth, but not big enough to warrant hiring a new employee?
  • Do you need a rapid turnaround?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, an agency partner might be the right choice for you. But that’s not all you need to consider. For the partnership to work best, you also need to be able to answer “yes” to the following:

  • Is there clear understanding of the value of communications and its relationship to resource development, volunteer engagement, and sustainability?
  • Are you sure of what goals you want the communications work to accomplish?
  • Do the organization’s leaders and key stakeholders have time to provide background and feedback, as well as answer lots of questions?
  • Can you respond to requests for information within a day or two, or do you have a multi-layered approval process that would slow things down and drive up costs?
  • Is there someone in your organization who can serve as primary point of contact for the agency partner and act as conduit between the agency and key stakeholders?

These are crucial considerations because a good partnership between a nonprofit and communications consultants is a two-way street. Hiring an agency doesn’t shift responsibility for achieving your communications objectives entirely off your shoulders. As with any successful relationship, a great organization-agency partnership requires buy-in, serious time commitment, focus, and frequent, clear, candid communication between the partners. The highest quality work often is produced via ongoing back-and-forth between client and consultant.

A good agency match will understand the challenges of nonprofits and won’t let you invest in them unless they’re confident all the ingredients for success are in place.

To explore partnering with Taft, get in touch to see how we can help. Send an email or fill out the form below.

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