One of the first things I learned when I started working as a fundraiser at a nonprofit organization was that sometimes my organization was unfairly judged by vendors and suppliers based on the actions of other nonprofit organizations. There was concern about paying bills on time, fulfilling contracts and, in short, conducting business as professionally as possible. I learned not to take it personally, but to instead make sure I always represented the best aspects of working with nonprofit organizations.
A few weeks ago, I was burned by a nonprofit organization. That was personally frustrating, but more than that, it reminded me why my peers (now that I am working in the for-profit sector) will sometimes hesitate to work with a nonprofit organization or put more restrictions on the agreements (e.g. payment terms or deliverable dates).
So this week, I am going to step back from my usual subject of fundraising and instead walk into this quagmire. After all, we need vendor partners to complete our fundraising efforts, so doing the best job we can to build healthy, positive vendor partnerships can benefit our organization.
Here are some tips for creating or strengthening your nonprofit’s positive reputation as a customer or client.
1. Be clear in your expectations. “Progressive revelation” can raise costs, delay completion dates and lead to a whole lot of frustration. Know what you are asking your vendor to do and provide that—preferably in writing—as clearly as possible. Answer questions and don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” When a vendor understands what the desired end result is, it’s easier to come up with the most cost-effective solution.
2. Expect to sign an agreement. You may believe that “your word is your bond,” but there’s a good chance that the vendor you want to work with needs something more formal. On the other hand, you should expect to get an agreement that is understandable and doesn’t include requirements not pertinent to your organization. Having a written understanding of what the vendor will provide and how much it will cost can eliminate a lot of misunderstandings in the future.
3. Be honest about any challenges. If you have a tight turn on a project, state that upfront. It’s far better to know a vendor can’t deliver before it’s too late to find a new supplier or adjust expectations. If your budget is tight, let your vendor know that from the start. If it seems impossible, the vendor may choose not to take on the work, or there may be a discussion about what is doable. You don’t want phony promises that someone has no intention of delivering, but your vendor doesn’t want to be aiming for an invisible target either.
4. Realize that a for-profit company has certain costs that a nonprofit does not have, and there are certain expectations on profitability. When I started my business, I learned all about business taxes, insurance, business registrations and other things that I had never considered while working for a nonprofit. I quickly realized that these are not optional. If I don’t stay current on these kinds of expenses, I could be forced out of business. If your for-profit vendor operates like a not-for-profit, he or she will likely not survive. If you think the costs are unrealistic, go elsewhere, but understand that the profit margin is a big factor in a for-profit’s survival.
5. Share outcomes when you have a long-running relationship. If you use a vendor over and over to do a certain project, let them know what’s working and what isn’t. They may have ideas to help you improve your results. Or just knowing the project is helping you fulfill your mission may make them more excited about working with you. You’re less likely to see any improvements from the vendor if he or she doesn’t know there is a problem.
6. Remember that you have unique things to offer as a nonprofit. What is it about your project that adds value the vendor may not have already considered? Don’t be afraid to “sell” your organization and the benefits it offers. In my early days of event planning for a nonprofit, I learned that my business was not always considered valuable to a venue because we did not serve alcohol to our attendees. So I talked to the venue staff to find out problems they experienced with other conventions and used that to determine some plusses we brought to the table.
7. Appreciate your vendors. When you work regularly with someone, let them know you’re grateful for what they do. Sure, you’re paying your bills (on time, of course!), but a genuine “thank you” or a special card during the holidays can help build a relationship that will benefit you when you need something quickly or you have a really tight budget.
This old dog knows that we fundraisers never work alone; we depend on others to help us accomplish our fundraising goals, so our organization can accomplish its mission-related goals. Treating our vendors fairly and with respect can be a small price to pay for a partner who is ready to pull us out when the floodwaters are rising and our survival seems questionable.
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.