Do you need to hire an outside marketing agency?

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You know you can't do it all. And you know that there is a lot of talent out there who could really help your nonprofit market and communicate itself. But you hesitate. There's a concern about spending too much money. There's a worry about whether the outcome will be what you want it to be. And there's the problem of selling the idea to the rest of your nonprofit at a time when finances are very, very tight. How do you proceed?

Start by setting your priorities. Ask yourself what are the things you need to achieve this year or in the next couple of years. I like making lists. Make one of your own. Put down 10 top things your nonprofit needs in marketing.

Don't talk about the deficits — this doesn't work or that sucks and needs to be replaced. Think in terms of what the outcomes will be — we need more people visiting our website, we need more people in the public recognizing our name, we need more fundraising income, etc.

Sit down with a cup of tea (or coffee) and look at your list. Narrow it from ten to three by asking which issue is the greatest opportunity. An age old military saying is "don't reinforce failure", and it makes good management sense. It is sometimes more effective and efficient to invest in something that will add to success rather than simply fix an existing problem.

Here's the tricky part. Ask yourself honestly what current skills, experience and resources you have to tackle your top three issues. If you're like most, the answer will likely be that you can do something about these issues, but not enough.

Now look at the gap between what you can do and what needs to be done. Is there a place in-between where an outsider could do this work? You're looking here for something that is definable as a project. It has to have a clear mandate, timeline and outcome. Resist the temptation to focus on what is outside your gap analysis. It is all too easy to look at others and do what they do or to look at available packaged solutions and then try to fit them into your analysis. You must hold true to what your organization needs and how it needs it.

By now, you should have one, maybe two, projects for your list. The best way to proceed is to write these up. Describe them in detail, including what you want, how you want it and what success will look like.

The next step is often overlooked. Take your project to the rest of your organization for input and consensus. Maybe there is someone in your organization who can do some or all of this. Maybe there is training available for you or someone at your office to do part of this. Maybe there is someone who has done one of these projects before and who can help with advice. This is also time for you to start building the case for these projects. You don?t want to engage your co-workers on going to an outside contractor just before you do it. Get their feedback early in the process and try to involve them in the project. This way you'll be able to identify opposition and potential support before you commit to a course of action.

Now, you're ready to find out what the market will bear. Remember that there are rules to contracting. If you are funded by or through government, chances are you will likely need to follow their supply rules, and in some cases use their procurement system. Some people think these rules are silly. They read like they were written by someone who had nothing better to do than dream up ways a project could self-destruct. That's partially true. They are about risk mitigation. But they are also about fairness for potential suppliers. They need you to tell them exactly how you want to engage them. Follow the rules as best you can. Ask for help if you don't understand something (don't be too proud to ask — I used to do this all the time).

Here's where the homework you did on your gap analysis comes into play. Very, very clearly explain what you want. I've seen hundreds of requests for proposals (RFPs) and I've only read a handful that actually did a good job on telling suppliers what they really need to know. The most common sin is being too vague. One RFP I read just said the nonprofit wanted a communications plan. That's it. Nothing about their goals, the outcomes, what resources they have now. Zippo. Be specific. Tell suppliers what you want in detail. If you don't know, say so. Tell them you're looking for a creative solution to reach a certain outcome and let them handle the rest.

I strongly recommend that you include a suggested budget range in your RFP. Some people I know disagree with this. That's because if you say your budget is $25,000 then all your responses will be exactly $25,000. They argue it eliminates lower prices. I believe it is better to tell your potential supplier in advance what you can afford to spend.

I've experienced things the other way where a great supplier withdrew halfway through the RFP process after we finally told them how much we wanted to spend. Also, most challenges have scalable solutions. By telling them a range of expenditures you?re giving them the information they need to find a solution that fits.

Finally, don't be afraid to walk away if you aren't satisfied. RFPs are about getting responses. If you don't like what you see, then tell the suppliers and stop the process. You can always go back and do another RFP later. The needs of your nonprofit come first, not the suppliers.

John Suart is a marketing and communications expert with an MBA who specializes in nonprofits. His blog, the nonprofit Marketer, has a host of useful tips and advice on everything from budgeting to branding.

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