My wife's phone conversation led me to believe she was interviewing someone for a high-ranking position in the FBI. Since she is not employed by the 'Bureau', I was inclined to continue my eavesdropping. After about fifteen minutes I realized she was interviewing a babysitter to watch our daughter while we attend an upcoming 'schmooze or lose' work event. I was already impressed by the constitution of the interviewee, who seemed to be holding her own. After a solid half-hour of interrogation, my wife hung up the phone, turned to me, and said, "Okay, we're all set. Your sister can babysit on Friday."
As I replayed the conversation in my head, I realized it was virtually identical to every first conversation I had with membership directors (MDs) in regard to outsourcing all or a portion of their membership operations.
The most effective MDs I have worked with view their constituency as a member of their own family. They are no more motivated to put their children in the hands of a sub-par babysitter than they are to put their members in the hands of a sub-par outsourcing provider. This endearing treatment is many times the sole reason that a member will elect to renew year after year, instead of running away to the provider down the street, which is offering irresistible plush animals with a one-year membership.
Ninety-nine percent of MDs are overworked, understaffed, and underfunded (the same as 99% of all mothers). While they would like to provide a 'nanny-level' of care to each member, budgetary and staffing constraints get in the way. Care of current members can become so cumbersome that new acquisition campaigns get pushed aside in order to catch up with operational activities, thus upsetting the delicate balance of acquiring new, and maintaining existing members. The only alternative becomes to look for outside assistance, and so ensues the search for an organization that can serve members at the same or higher level.
There are thousands of outsourcing providers available, but identifying one that can meet the unique requirements and high standards of nonprofit organizations can be challenging.
The first question I always ask MDs is, "What are you looking for in an outsourcing provider?" While responses vary, there are common elements and guidelines used by the most effective MDs. The following top ten list has been aggregated from discussions with top MDs, and can serve as a starting point for evaluating an outsourced membership solution provider, but it is certainly not an ending point. The investigation of these providers should be an ongoing process, even after a selection is made. No different then my wife calling our babysitter every half hour to "just check in".
Before starting your search, make a list (or add to the one below) of what you want from an outsourced provider relationship. For each criteria, apply a grading scale that will allow you to judge each company side-by-side upon completion of your interviews. While you may not base your final decision on this, it will provide you with a good look at who is providing the most of what you want.
1. Keep it in the family
You are not the first organization to search for a membership outsourcing provider, so make it easy on yourself. As competitive as the nonprofit world can be, there is also a strong sense of community. Find an organization you admire and put a call in to their MD. Chances are they will take some time to speak with you, and maybe even call you back! Ask them about the process they went through to choose their provider and who that provider is. There is a good chance you will not only find a reputable provider but also garner some lessons learned. Make sure to call multiple organizations to diversify your search. Set a goal of identifying three organizations that you think can meet your needs and get in touch with them.
2. Meet the parents
During your interview process, ask to speak with a member of the company's senior management team. If after you place the request, their CEO flies out to meet you the next day, this may be an indication that the company you are looking at REALLY needs your business, maybe a little too much. If you don't get a response to your request for a week or so (without good reason), it is a good indication you fall low on the priority list of that company, as will your members.
3. Process makes perfect
Ask the company to give you an overview of their project methodology. How do they plan to transition your in-house operations out-of-house, or how do they plan to transition you from another outsourcing provider? Lack of a sound transition process should be a concern. Competent outsourcing companies should be able to provide you with a project plan that gives an overview of tasks, timelines, and involved parties.
Transitioning to an outsourced provider should be a seamless process to your constituency. Make sure the provider you choose explains to you how this will be accomplished.
4. Check those references
There is no substitute for experience. Make sure the company you are interviewing has performed the same or similar functions for numerous other nonprofit organizations. Outline your questions in advance of your reference call, and be sure to cover all of them. Request multiple references, and if there are specific organizations you would like to speak with, ask to do so.
5. Quality is job two?
Let's hope not. When discussing how they are going to handle your account, the company you are interviewing should be speaking about Quality Assurance (QA) from day one. If they don't, ask them where it exists in their operations. Good outsourcing firms have QA built into everything from the transition process to the daily activities they perform for you. Lack of a QA process should be a major red flag.
6. Pay less
Outsourcing should not cost you more then it would to perform the same functions in-house, by hiring staff. Ask the company you are interviewing to provide a Return on Investment (ROI) analysis for you, if you have not already done one internally. Be prepared to provide the company with all data they will need to complete your request.
7. Back it up
Ask the company what they do in the event of an emergency. If they are housing your database, how is that protected? If half of their staff gets sick, who processes your membership and fulfills your premium gifts?
Can the company you are interviewing provide more then one outsourcing function for you? If they can, you can save yourself a lot of time and headache associated with managing multiple point vendor relationships. They will also be able to provide all your data in one consolidated location, instead of having to house it in disparate databases, and trying to integrate it all together.
9. Talent pool
Whatever function you are choosing to outsource, ask about the people that will actually be performing this action for you. How many are there? How long have they been with the company? What is the turnover rate? Inquire as to how these people are trained. How will they be educated about your organization? Is there a continuous training program for them?
Have your tech team interview their tech team. If you don't have a tech team, make sure you inquire about this area of expertise in your reference call.
Ask about the security of your data, and how they will protect your members' personal and financial information.
David Larkins is managing director of sales and marketing at HomeEarth, Inc. In that role he has worked to build service solutions for over 30 nonprofit organizations in the areas of outsourcing, fundraising, membership, technology development, and consulting.