Fundraising operations has grown increasingly complex over recent years due to advances in technology and the need to support multichannel fundraising initiatives.
Whether the topic is cloud computing, crowd fundraising, text-to-give, or a CRM upgrade, the choices for platforms and support are numerous and sometimes dizzying. With this complexity, many organizations turn to outside support for implementation to provide strategic advice and increasingly do so through multiple consulting partners.
Historical Vendor Relationships
Just a few years ago, institutions expected technology vendors to be one-stop shops. Companies such as Blackbaud, Datatel (now Ellucian), Sungard (now Ellucian), DonorPerfect, and others created, sold, and supported fundraising software in proprietary fashion. Systems were not designed to interact. Support mandated esoteric and proprietary knowledge that eventually drove you back into the vendors’ arms.
Times have changed and projects have grown increasingly complicated. One of the biggest changes is the number of vendors creating software on cloud-based development platforms. Additionally, modern software can no longer operate in a vacuum. More and more vendors are offering open API platforms for their software that encourage interoperability and additional development opportunities. New fundraising platforms, such as crowd and mobile fundraising software, are entering the market with greater frequency. This pace, complexity, and fluidity can present serious strategic challenges for organizations.
Progressively, organizations are turning to consulting vendors to assist with large projects, such as system implementation and strategic decision-making. And not just one vendor partner. Vendor “teams” are increasingly common, especially in larger organizations with complex technology ecosystems. Within these particular teams, vendors may be contracted to play specific roles:
- Software Vendor. Typically, this is the proprietor of the CRM software, which usually provides additional services such as project management, installation, customization, and ongoing service and support.
- Technical Implementation Specialist. Implementation specialists will typically have expertise dedicated to a particular product or service area. Many times, staff may be former employees of a software vendor and have in-depth product knowledge. These specialists may be used for implementation projects in tandem, or in lieu of, the software vendor.
- Project Managers. External consulting partners may be employed specifically for project management on larger projects. These partners may have a limited role in implementation, instead providing an independent voice dedicated to the organization and ensuring task completion and risk management.
- Strategic Partners. Strategic partnerships often grow from prior relationships or engagements and provide an independent and trusted voice for an organization. Strategic partners help guide organizational technology decisions, provide other overarching functional project-based expertise, and serve as a sounding board for executive leadership.
Vendors and consulting firms can often fill one or many of these roles, allowing institutions more flexibility, choice, and potential value. However, building a successful multi-vendor team must be done intentionally and with a clear division of roles, responsibilities, and expectations. Next, we will explore some topics that organizations should be aware of when considering multi-vendor partnerships.
Considerations for Multi-Vendor Partnerships
The reality of the “magic bullet.” Too often organizations believe that if they can just outsource a complicated project to the right vendor, all their problems will be solved. Especially with large, complex projects, it is increasingly likely that a single partner may not have the staff or expertise needed to complete all aspects of the project. Good vendor partners will be honest about any knowledge gaps they may have so that clients can address potential shortcomings. Often these vendors will have relationships with partner organizations that can assist in fulfilling needs.
Product agnostic versus product specific. Software vendors are invested in selling their products, servicing those products, and promoting additional products and services specific to their product lines. While this can work well, many organizations value the outside perspective of a partner that is not benefiting directly from the sale of any specific product. Technology agnostic consulting partners do not directly benefit from the sale of any specific software and can therefore offer more independent advice.
Spreading risk. A common justification for engaging multiple vendors is to spread the potential risk for a high-value project. With multiple partners, there is more likelihood that potential problems can be identified and addressed before they become larger problems. Additionally, if one partner falters at a task, there is a higher likelihood that another partner will have resources that can fill the gap. And finally, in the case of a catastrophic failure, should one partner not work out for an organization, an existing partner may able to be elevated to fill the role without losing valuable time onboarding and familiarizing individuals with the project.
Communication and coordination. Often the most difficult part of any project, multi-vendor partnerships can produce unique communication challenges. It is often hard enough to coordinate communication and activities between an organization and one vendor partner, let alone getting multiple vendor partners to coordinate with each other. However, this challenge can be mitigated with coordinated project management. Oftentimes poor communication and coordination of tasks can be reduced to unclear roles, which can exist equally in single or multi-vendor partnerships. The key is to have a solid communications plan with defined ownership in place for any large project.
Management authority. When utilizing multiple partners, clear lines of communication to management and decision-making authority are imperative. When vendors have multifaceted lines of communication to executives, partners are more likely to position themselves for increased influence and participation. Duplicate decision-makers within a project can lead to conflicting strategies and project conflict. Organizations must provide clear management of vendor relationships—successful organizations manage vendors; vendors do not manage the organization.
Finding the right fit. The search and bidding process to find a single vendor partner can be daunting, and a multi-vendor strategy further complicates the situation. For organizations that have no existing partners, the challenge may seem insurmountable. Logically, this is why many strategic partnerships evolve out of existing long-term engagements where mutual trust has been built over a period of time (sometimes years). However, for those choosing a partner, some foundational questions still hold true:
- Do I trust this partner?
- Can I work with the partner closely over a long period of time?
- Does this partner have a verifiable history of success with other clients?
- Does this partner have demonstrated experience with my particular need?
Availability and responsiveness. Your project partners will often have limitations on schedules and resources, just as you do internally at your organization. By overlapping multiple vendors, resource allocation is often easier. If one partner has a deficiency, another partner can often step up to fill a gap. Additionally, as projects often have defined stages, these stages can be more easily coordinated to fit available resources if there are multiple partners available. The ability of a partner to react quickly to any given situation is of critical importance to most technology projects. Recent surveys indicate that this can be the top influencer for organizations that have trusted collaboration partners.
Expense and business case. Undoubtedly, engaging multiple vendor partners has the potential to increase the cost to an organization. If an organization is considering a multi-vendor strategy, it is important to have clearly defined roles for each partner to reduce functional overlap, which can add expense to the project. It is important to get to know each potential vendor partner well in order to identify strengths and have a clear understanding of what each partner will bring to the potential project to make the case for short-term cost versus long-term project return on investment.
The promise of platform interoperability. As cloud computing becomes more mainstream and fundraising CRM vendors increasingly develop for these platforms, the opportunity for development and interoperability increases. For organizations, this opens up an entirely new network of development vendor resources previously unknown to them due to the proprietary nature of older software platforms. Short-term and project hires for project-based work is a reality and increases the probability of partner interaction in your organization.
Summary of Pros/Cons
|Potential Pros||Potential Cons|
|Risk and Failover Avoidance||Redundancy|
|Focused Expertise||Business Case Justification|
|Increased and Scalable Resources||Communication Difficulties|
|External and Agnostic Perspectives||Lack of Coordination|
|Quickly Filling Staffing Gaps||Cost|
What kind of partner do you need?
At BWF, our systems and operations team is involved in projects at a variety of levels; we are product agnostic and do not benefit from software sales. In addition to technical expertise, strategic consulting partnerships are an increasing segment of our business, growing not only from new clients, but also clients we have known for many years. Mutual trust is paramount in strategic partnerships—sometimes this grows quickly, sometimes it takes years to develop. We pride ourselves on being good partners with organizations as well as with other vendor partners an organization may choose to retain.
To learn more, contact Jason Boley, Senior Vice President of Systems and Operations at BWF.