If you’re a nonprofit org looking for a direct response marketing agency, you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed. There are loads of agencies out there, and many claim to be the best… the brightest… the one you’ll never forgive yourself for not hiring…

 So how to figure out which one REALLY will be best for your nonprofit? Asking the right questions can greatly enhance your chance of finding the right agency to help drive your best marketing and fundraising efforts.

These questions will help:

“Will we be a high-priority client?” – After sales pitches are made and contracts signed, will you be treated as an important agency client? Will you get their undivided attention and best ideas … or will junior staff be handling your strategy, creative, and analysis? Teams aren’t always completely formed at the pitch stage, and that’s okay. But hopefully you can at least get a good feel for the management side of things. Pitches are too often a bait and switch where sales folks can leave you mesmerized, savoring sophisticated strategies that may be a very real thing for their million-dollar clients but will never find their way into what they’ll execute for you. After the sale, who are the people you’ll be working with day to day on your account? Ultimately, they, not the folks selling the sizzle, are who you want to connect with. Pitches should give you a chance to get to know the agency – but also a chance to see who will actually be with you in the trenches when it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.


“Are they independent?” – Are they a true agency with only your best interests in mind, or are they a printer with an in-house creative team? If so, your interests are not necessarily aligned. For example, they may be predisposed to recommend mailing package formats that they can produce and profit from – rather than using formats that are more likely to bring you better results. You don’t want a partner that is biased toward marketing strategies or tactics solely because they benefit the agency’s bottom line. A disinterested marketing partner will provide you with a range of options and recommend the best course of action based on your specific goals and situation.


“Will they provide multichannel integrated solutions?” – Are they adept at using all channels to engage your donors via postal mail, social media, email, web advertising, and by phone? Most important, are they equipped to guide you in allocating limited resources to each channel as productively as possible? Not all marketing agencies provide multichannel integrated solutions. The value of those that do should not be underestimated. And if you plan to handle certain channels in-house, is your potential agency partner open to aligning their efforts with yours to ensure that your marketing messages work together across channels? And if they recommend against aligning efforts – which sometimes makes sense – do they offer a compelling rationale in explaining, “why not?”


“What does your staff turnover look like?” – When you’re hiring an agency, you want to be sure you’re getting the best possible talent. But even if an agency has a team of rock stars, that team may look very different a year from now. The turnover rate in the agency world is over 30%, which means that for every three people working on your account, one is likely to leave within the year. If an agency has a high turnover rate, it’s important to ask why. Is there a cultural problem that may impact your account? What are the agency’s plans for addressing it? What assurances can they provide that your account will be shielded from the impacts of high turnover? By asking these questions, you can get a better sense of whether an agency is stable and well managed, or if it’s likely to experience changes that will impact you.


“Do they listen?” –  Are they a “we know all, and you know nothing” agency? Or do they understand that you understand your mission better than anyone and have valuable insights to offer? Do they embrace a philosophy that great ideas often come from a mutually respectful collaboration between nonprofit and agency? Successful partnerships are built on a foundation of mutual respect and understanding. You and other internal team members at your nonprofit likely understand your organization, your mission, and your supporters. If a potential partner seems dismissive of your insights or ideas, proceed with caution. Arrogance and a know-it-all attitude are typically bad qualities in any partner – fundraising partners are no exception to the rule.


“Will you get custom creative?” – Any marketing agency worth their salt will offer custom creative solutions, crafted specifically for your nonprofit. One size does not fit all when it comes to the best direct marketing, so be skeptical of any agency that tries to shoehorn you into a generic “one size fits all” appeal. Will the agency only switch out logos, copy, and photos – or will you get a custom program that mixes up messaging approaches, formats, donor involvement techniques, premiums, etc. and keeps valuable donors fully engaged with your work? Look for an agency that will take the time to learn about your mission, your donors, and the unique selling proposition in meeting needs, and then develop a unique approach to engaging support. Any agency worth their money will keep pushing to provide you with creative work that attracts new donors and maintains the interest of existing ones.


“What is their track record?” – Doing your due diligence when hiring a direct response marketing agency is critical to your nonprofit’s success. After all, you are tasked with stewarding donations in a way that advances your mission – not lines someone else’s pockets. You should first make sure to vet the agency’s previous work. It’s important to see if they are able to produce results that align with your organization’s goals. How is their strategic creative? Do their campaigns generate high response rates? Do they have a proven track record of driving donations? The answers will give you a much better sense of whether an agency is a good fit for your nonprofit. In short, hiring a reputable and effective direct response marketing agency can help take your nonprofit to the next level – but only if you do your homework first.


“What is their approach to data?” – In direct response marketing in 2022, creative is important, but data is king. That’s the straight-up truth. Mediocre creative isn’t ideal, but the best creative in the world can’t overcome bad use of data. A good marketing agency will understand this and use data to inform their strategies and tactics. Before you choose an agency, ask them about how they collect and analyze data. Find out how they use it to identify their audience and shape their creative and their offer to supporters. The best agencies will be able to show you how they use data to develop targeted campaigns that get results. In addition, they should be able to provide case studies or examples of their work that showcase their data-driven approach. Choose an agency that relies on data to power their work, and you’ll be taking a giant step toward achieving your fundraising goals.


“Do they understand your audience(s)?” – Having a clear understanding of your target audience is essential when planning a direct response marketing campaign. The best marketing agencies will take the time to get to know your nonprofit and your supporters. They should be able to identify your unique selling points and craft messages that resonate with each audience. In addition, they should be able to develop targeted campaigns that reach your supporters where they are. For example, if you are trying to reach millennials, you’ll need a different approach than if you were targeting baby boomers. By taking the time to understand your audience(s), a good marketing agency can help you create effective campaigns that raise money and strengthen the bond between you and your donors.


What is their fee structure? –  As a nonprofit, you know that every donated dollar counts. So when it comes to choosing a partner agency, it’s important to find one that shares your values and will be a trusted steward of your resources. One key consideration is fee structure. Make sure you understand an agency’s fee structure before entering into a partnership. Is the agency charging a fair monthly retainer fee? What is their project rate? What other costs might be involved? And make sure the arrangement is clear and transparent. You don’t want any surprises down the line. By answering these questions, you can begin to identify agencies that have the experience and expertise to help you achieve your specific goals. From there, you can start to develop a partnership that will help your nonprofit thrive for years to come!


This list of questions isn’t comprehensive by any means, but it will get the conversation going. As you hear the answers you’ll get a sense not only of the agency’s substance, but of their style. Don’t expect to find the perfect partner – we all know what happens in life if you do. But don’t just settle. Ask yourself, “Do I like these folks?” “Are they honest about their strengths but also about any weaknesses?” “Do they have the tools, a track record, and the team to help us succeed?” Like any big decision in life, picking an agency partner can be a little scary, but ask the right questions, listen for answers that resonate with you and your nonprofit, and your chances of successful collaboration go right up. Good luck!  

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