Friday, March 21, 2008

Working with Web Site Vendors and Consultants

Session description here

Apparently, this unlucky session is competing with free margaritas provided by Democracy in Action.

The session seems to be largely populated by nonprofits--only a few vendors in the audience. The panel includes a nonprofit staffer (Alicia McBride, communications director for Friends Committee on National Legislation), a vendor (Cindy Morgan-Jaffee, COO, Orchid Suites) and consultant (Jessica Harrington, Schultz & Williams, direct mail consultant, sounding board and reality check, as described by convener Mark Graham, who is with the AFSC.)

Alicia started out the session talking about her experience in selecting an email list vendor. Started by asking other nonprofits that do similar things, doing roughly the same task, to build a list of prospective vendors. For FCNL, a major goal was to consolidate email; however, in researching vendors, FCNL found that their new email vendor choice might affect what they were able to accomplish (e.g. they might lose the ability to see when an email spurred a constituent to write a letter to a Congressperson.)

Key questions: is the vendor a good fit for the organization, understand the organization, what's your gut instinct?

For FCNL, had a good relationship with both vendors... though both vendors were very honest about what they could and could not do, but ended up going with the vendor that was more flexible. Think about how you'd get your data out if you go with another vendor in the future. How will the new system affect staffing, support, etc. after you make the decision?

Adoption and Use. In this stage, know what you can expect the vendor, and how you manage the transition for staff. The new technology will probably mean a change in workflow. Manage transition so that people don't focus on the technology (and how much they don't want to use it.) Figure out what role the vendor needs to play, and what role you need to play.

Managing expectations down. "This is what it will do eventually, but right now these parts work really well..."

What would you change? Took too long to make a decision, agonized over too much. Want to be respectful of the vendor's time and dragging the process out longer than necessary.

Cindy Morgan-Jaffee, Orchid Suites. Vendor.
* A good vendor will be focused on the needs of the organization, rather than the technology itself, to be sure the vendor's solution will be a good fit. Needs should drive technology solutions, not the other way around.
* Fit. Personality, organizational philosophies, etc. need to mesh. Cindy compared it to "speed dating." Have a shopping list, and the more detailed your shopping list, the more successful you're going to be. (My note: I'm not sure about this. Sometimes, very specific ideas of how something could be done can limit options, instead of honing options.)
* Support. What kind of customer support can you expect? What kind of relationship will you have with the vendor after the product is built/deployed?

Jessica, Consultant.
* Vendors know product, nonprofits know organization, who you are, what you know about your org, and how to implement, as well as the needs that this technology is supposed to satisfy.
* Decide what you must have now, near future, and future future. Then, buy a system that will satisfy your must haves, and can accommodate the near future needs.
* Create a staged plan that's flexible... so that you don't overbuy and can make adjustments if money needs to be diverted (an issue common among nonprofits.)
* Get ED and Board buy in. If you don't have support from the top, then you need to stop.
* For Vendors: understand what kind of client (e.g. activist organization versus, say, service organizations) you want and would serve best.

Assess infrastructure.
For nonprofits: who is actually going to implement the product? Who will be in charge of the implementation, managing product and training staff? Tech person is good for installation; direct marketer good for managing product.

Do you have the hardware and software to deploy the solution, or does it require upgrades (which will of course increase total cost)?

Do you have the vision and plan to fully take advantage of what you are buying?

Vendor: Do you have the staff to provide the level of support nonprofits often need?

Be honest. Nonprofits: Know where org is right now: capital planning, strategic planning, reorganization. Staffing: adding/subtracting staff? Infrastructure: tell vendor how much time you're going to be able to spend on the product/system. Full staff person, couple of hours a week/day--vendors will adjust support plan with this in mind.

Vendors: staged approach allows for more satisfied customers. Give realistic timeframes. What the product does right now. Notify clients at beginning of a problem--they might be able to help you. Give options to upgrade: an org. may not need it now but they might at a later date.

Contracts. Nonprofits: look for hidden costs. Hardware, software licenses, staffing, training, time frames, software licensing, email storage, email deployment costs, training costs, upgrades.

Look for places you can negotiate; ask for flexibility. Ask about upgrade costs, increases in licensing and maintenance fees.

Vendors: Consider for flexibility-if no other client has asked for it, it doesn't mean it can't be done. Know your limits and what kind of clients you serve best.

Project management. Appoint a project manager who will clearly define system requirements, manage expectations, manage schedule internally and externally; provide what you need to and communicate if you can't; prompt vendor; alert management of cost overrun issues; hold regular status meetings for hte project, both internally and externally; document process in case you leave the vendor org or nonprofit.

Assess how long it will take recoup your investment.

Decide what you want out of the investment: volume, activists, donors.
Include added staff time (and vice versa, saved staff time because of upgrades) to the ROI.

Don't buy into the hype
Don't expect the solution to be a panacea
Social netowrks are not yet raising significant amounts online, and are difficult to maintain and manage
Text messages are not quite here yet

Be realistic
Vendors can only take you so far
Without the basics--promotion, marketing, solid communciation--you'll never increase your online exposure, revenue, email file
Benchmark yourself against like organizations (size, issue area, budget, etc.)

Bigger isn't always better

Tech vendors can

provide expertise/experience
push you to test

Tech vendors can't
run the system for you
make up for mediocre staffing
create an internal marketing plan for you (though they can help)
know your constituents
know your internal organizational status that would affect your relationship with your vendor

Slides included a list of resources.

Tips to get design vendors?: Be specific about feedback; what works and doesn't work; "I don't like it" isn't specific enough.

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