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We’re good at hiring fundraisers: we need to be as good at hiring agencies

Howard Lake | 23 October 2014 | Blogs

Anyone who has recruited staff will have followed a process something like this: identify the role, write a job description, get it approved, advertise it, go to recruitment agencies, shortlist, first interviews, second interviews, references and then (finally) a job offer. That’s nine stages. They take months and they cost thousands. And why? Because salaries are expensive and we can’t afford mistakes.
Fundraising and marketing agencies are expensive too. Management fees, creative fees, mark-ups and more: One large campaign can cost as much on an agency than someone’s salary. Just one campaign! I know a charity that spends more on its direct marketing agencies than it does on the payroll of its entire DM team.
I’m not saying that it’s wrong to spend on agencies; good ones should deliver payback way above what they cost. But are we making the same extraordinary efforts to find the best agencies as we do to find the best staff?
I worry that the answer, all too often, is no we’re not. We hire and fire with casual abandon, blissfully unfettered by employment law and little by way of the science we deploy to finding our own fundraisers. I’ve known people to ask a mate for a recommendation and then part with vast sums on the back of it. We’d be crucified if we tried this with staff.

First principles

Trawling the market can be a long and difficult job but I suggest that a few basic steps will make it easier. First, unless we know what we really need from the agency how do we know which agency we need? Or if we need two or more for different things? This depends in large part on in-house skills and the gaps we’re trying to fill. Not all agencies are the same and not all are good at everything and we can’t even think about shortlisting without being crystal clear what to shortlist against.
Secondly, we need to recognise that agencies are collections of people and not all the people will work on our account. We need a match not just to an agency but to the people in that agency as well. And to try and get these people to work for us: A world class planner sounds great but means nothing if they aren’t our planner.
Thirdly, whilst there are many good agencies who work in the sector there are many others not so well-known. Widen the search and we might find a firm that doesn’t go in for lavish sponsorship or rain down speakers across the conference circuit but which may still be stuffed full of bright and talented people just right for us.

A question of morals

This all sounds very well, but who’s got the time and money to do it? Well maybe we need to make time and find the money. Or outsource the job, as we do with so many other things. There’s as much legal and moral obligation to get payback on agency spend as there is with any other bit of the fundraising budget and it seems reckless to take so little care with it when there’s so much at stake.
The wrong staff mean problems and the wrong agencies mean the same. But just as we reduce the chances of getting the wrong staff by doing professional recruitment surely we can reduce the chances of the wrong agencies in a similar way. Considering what’s at stake, perhaps it’s time we did.
Andy Taylor is a consultant at The Desired Effect and has over ten years experience as a fundraising director in large national and international charities. A direct marketing specialist, he’s a regular contributor to the voluntary sector media.
Photo: selecting a bright lightbulb by Haresh Mamad on Shutterstock.com


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