Relationship Status Complicated? What it Takes to Build a Healthy, Collaborative Partnership with Your Consultant

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 edition of Nonprofit Pro

Today, understanding donor and constituent behavior requires an entirely new level of knowledge and skillsets. With the onset of data and more complex applications of technology, the influence of social media and the constantly evolving media habits of consumers, maintaining a sense of all that change is incredibly difficult when you’re balancing fundraising and advocacy strategy, donor expectations and board approval. Mix that with the even more complex external factors influencing people, and it’s no wonder nonprofits surround themselves with teams that have expertise all across the board. It’s also why many organizations lean on consultants, like marketing agencies, to help guide them.

But when it comes to having a consultant onboard, collaboration isn’t always so clear cut. It takes extremely hard work to build a strong foundation, and even more dedication over the long term to keep the lines of communication open, values transparent and operations working effectively.

To shed some light on what building a healthy partnership looks like in real life, we heard from both sides of the aisle – Bethany Maki of PMX Agency, a nonprofit client turned consultant, and Andrew Magnuson of the American Heart Association, a consultant turned nonprofit client. Both agreed to feeling fortunate to have seen both worlds, which has resulted in a mutual empathy for the unique challenging and opportunities that often come up throughout the relationships. Particularly when it comes to the big hairy audacious goals, as Andrew puts it, it’s important for both sides to understand what the lift and efforts will be for those bigger objectives, so organization and vendor can align around what success looks like.

Hear what Andrew and Bethany had to say about getting the most out of vendor/nonprofit partnerships:

What is it that makes a partner a truly trusted partner, and how do you achieve that that level of trust?

Andrew Magnuson: For me, this trust is born out of a sense that a partner is operating out of good faith, and acting for the long term good of the organization. And that really requires coming in, and showing an understanding of the organization for all that it is – the strengths, weaknesses, the good, bad and the ugly. Whatever the shortcomings, whether that be a lack of resources or an issue rooted in culture, a partner needs to have that understanding, so we can ultimately approach challenges with a “we’re all in this together” type of attitude.

Bethany Maki: It also allows us, the vendor, to understand what’s feasible from an execution perspective, and we can get much more aligned on the strategic goals front from the start. We need to put in a lot of work in the beginning to cultivate that trust, but the organization needs to allow us the time to do that. In other words, when you hire us, you’ve bought into the fact that we’re here to provide something of value to you. Having the patience together as we ramp up the work, and gaining that understanding of one another is critical to the health of the partnership.

Andrew: It’s impossible to over communicate when it comes to the initial scoping process, too. It’s largely overlooked, but being diligent in that process has a huge predictive effect on the success of the relationship.

What advice would you give around communicating with your vendor, in terms of setting the standards and expectations from the get go?

Andrew: Understanding the scope of the agreement is always helpful for laying out the expectations. No client likes to be nickeled and dimed for every little piece of work, but it’s important to respect the time and resources a vendor puts into the partnership. When you show that level of respect as an organization, it really encourages the vendor to go above and beyond during the situations you really need it.

For goal-setting, every organization has their own ideas of the big hairy audacious goals. But it’s valuable to level set with your partner about what’s realistic, how to get to some of those goals, and sometimes, how to get past the painful barriers to achieving them. Starting out eyes wide open is key.

Bethany: That’s always appreciated on our side. Naturally, we want to move mountains for our nonprofit clients, and we want more than anything to achieve those BHAG’s. But it’s helpful to get a sense of what we can really accomplish, and what we can separate out in terms of it being too much of a reach. That requires some transparent conversations, especially when you get into the regular working relationship, and bigger asks come up. The vendor needs to be able to say, “Here’s our list of tasks, here’s what our queue looks like right now, and here’s where that big ask realistically fits into the queue.”

Andrew: And when we do make those big asks, we recognize that we need to give our partner the space and the runway that the work requires. I’ve seen projects not play out to their fullest potential because the organization wasn’t trusting the expert to do the job. We hire vendors for a reason, whether that’s to fill a gap in expertise, or otherwise, and if we want to conquer some of the big goals, while running a really successful overall program, we need to let them be the experts.

And, what about those seemingly “out of scope” or irregular, day to day asks?

Andrew: I recognize that from an outsider’s perspective, I may not always appear as a rational actor. I ask for things that don’t serve the immediate strategic intent, or things that might be outside the focus of the engagement. But, I know from being on the vendor side, it’s always helpful to understand the spirit of the request. If I have a full context of, what is the fundamental question, or the anxiety, or the solution that the request is alluding to, I can see that maybe it’s not actually so outside the scope.

Bethany: It’s always helpful when a curveball is thrown our way, that we understand the context of the request. That helps us to tackle the ask together.

How can a vendor best get through mistakes made?

Andrew: In the scenario of a mistake, you always want to give the partner a chance to explain their perspective. There can’t be any assumption of mal-intent. Too often, the conversations around mistakes are about finding fault. Acknowledging that the fault is rarely the result of a single issue, and that there were likely other factors involved can help to clarify the situation.

Whether it was a result of a misstep in communication or execution, there needs to be a mutual understanding around being transparent, and owning up to whatever happened. That’s always an important first step in repairing trust that may have been damaged.

Bethany: The faster we can be about addressing a misstep, the better the conversation will go and the better chance we’ll have at mitigating. When something isn’t going right, it’s incumbent upon us to pick up the phone, and be transparent about whatever it is that isn’t going as we’d planned.

Andrew: And then having an honest, post mortem discussion can help us all get on the same page about what happened, and how to prevent similar situations from arising in the future.

In the same vein, what about the situation of, “We love you (vendor), but it’s really not working with one of your team members”?

Bethany: No one goes into the nonprofit world without a meaningful reason to do so, and so no one goes into it with the intent to create a problem. When issues come up with specific team members, we always try to get into the more granular pieces of what’s not working – what’s rubbing you the wrong way. For instance, it could be that the work product isn’t up to par, or the process just isn’t aligned. And there are times when it’s just a bad personality fit. Getting to the bottom of the issue always helps us to best understand how to pivot, and get the right team members in front of clients.

Andrew: It’s so important not to make it personal. The goal isn’t to pass judgement on the quality of a person’s character, it’s just communicating for whatever reason, the resource just isn’t a fit. Handling it with dignity, empathy, and approaching the conversation from a true partnership perspective is the way to get to the best resolution. Any good partner will listen, and even more than that, they’ll often be proactive about identifying whatever nuance may be causing the issue, as Bethany mentioned. Dialing into the specific nature of the concern is important to finding the most productive solution. It’s not just a binary, “You’re hired, you’re fired,” way of looking at things.

How do you handle the inevitable cross sell conversation?

Andrew: It’s really dependent on how the cross sell is made. If it’s obvious that it’s just a short term cash grab, that can really ding the trust. But if it’s really thoughtful, and draws a straight line to a strategic objective of the organization, it’s in our best interest to be open minded about it.

Bethany: We’re proactively thinking about gaps in opportunities, and really solving problems for the organization. It’s really important to focus on the delivery of the cross sell, like Andrew said. It’s about saying, “Hey, we know that xyz is a big priority for you, have you considered these alternate processes to achieve those goals? We think we can help.”

Andrew: And when you approach it that way, vendors show the ability to really tap into the things that we care about that we may have overlooked. We rely on them to be forward-thinking, and we also rely on them to challenge the things that we’re doing with better solutions. That frames it up for working really well together on new initiatives.


Andrew Magnuson serves as National Director of Digital Fundraising at the American Heart Association. Andrew has worked in nonprofit technology and fundraising for over a decade, working on the agency side with clients of all sizes such as the Michael J. Fox Foundation, LIVESTRONG, The Nature Conservancy, and the Anti-Defamation League. Now on the client side, his focus is on the development of an integrated digital direct response program, as well as bringing new strategies to the peer-to-peer events programs within the AHA. 

As Vice President of Nonprofit Strategy at PMX Agency, Bethany works with clients to develop strategies to build optimized digital experiences for constituents that bring the most value to them and the organization. Bethany has been privileged to serve some of the nation’s top nonprofits such as the Alzheimer’s Association, American Diabetes Association, U.S. Olympic Committee, Sierra Club, Paralyzed Veterans of America, American Heart Association, Boys & Girls Club of America, PetSmart Charities, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Metropolitan Ministries, Bowery Mission, Salvation Army, Mercy Corps, COPD Foundation and Children’s Cancer Research Fund.

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