About two years into my tenure at a nonprofit publisher, I realized that while we were really good at creating content we weren’t that good at selling it. Our size had something to do with it. We were a small team, stretched thin by competing demands. Along with a growing catalog of resources that needed to be brought to market, there were three periodicals that vied for our attention and an in-house production schedule that never let up.

Though I was new to the world of publishing, I can remember thinking, “This isn’t sustainable. Something has to change.” We each wore so many different hats, and the system we inherited was draining us of the one thing we couldn’t create more of: time. I knew that in order for us to grow — to break through the revenue plateau we were experiencing — there had to be some daylight in our schedules.

When deadlines are the only thing driving the agenda, creativity suffers; so does our ability to step back and accurately assess what’s working and what’s not. And what our overcrowded calendars couldn’t give us was the space required to rethink our approach. Missing from our week was the bandwidth to brainstorm, to engage in the kind of blue sky thinking that could propel us forward.

Of course, when you’re sitting on unsold inventory and dealing with the cashflow challenges that come with it, your first instinct isn’t to have a strategy session, it’s to move product so that you can make payroll and cover expenses. The whole conversation about having more time seems like a luxury when sales are flat or in decline. The tyranny of the urgent is loud and demanding, especially when your numbers are trending in the wrong direction.

But with growing awareness comes the opportunity for change. When you know there’s a better way to do something but the constraints of your operational model are holding you back, you don’t stop, you look for solutions — a way forward that gives you the greatest chance to unleash more of your organization’s potential. And sometimes that search leads you to an unexpected place.

In our case, we didn’t want to remain stuck in a cycle that left us so busy we couldn’t think strategically or creatively about what we were bringing to market. But we quickly learned that while working smarter matters, it won’t alleviate every bottleneck. Internally, you still run into limits, gaps and deficits — points where your process and your people can’t keep up with the demand. And that’s especially true when your attention shifts, as it did for us, towards building more effective marketing campaigns.

To spur growth, clawing back hours to focus on the big picture is invaluable, but so too is the realization that your team cannot do it all. There will be times when the future you envision is just beyond the reach of their expertise, and yours. Though it can be uncomfortable to admit there are things you don’t do well, having that knowledge isn’t a burden but a gift. It’s what propels you to seek help. For us, that help came in the form of long-term creative partnerships that lifted us to another level.

The results were phenomenal: Revenue grew. Project turnaround times decreased. Staff morale improved. Our overall brand experience was elevated. And our marketing campaigns — and these were the days before social media — took off. For the first time ever, certain products were regularly backordered because we couldn’t keep up with the demand. The change was dramatic — we all felt the impact. Partnering with specialists had proven to be the right decision for our organization. Once we made it, we never looked back.

If I had a chance to do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I would engage the services of a creative agency sooner. Waiting cost us. Instead of augmenting our in-house capacities, mitigating our weaknesses and investing in our future, we limped along, struggling to justify the expense. We thought — or at least I thought — that having more time would solve most of our problems. There’s no doubt it helped, but it also revealed specific areas that more time alone couldn’t improve. Eventually we came around, but not before we were on the verge of decline.

If you’re wondering if establishing a creative partnership is right for your organization, here are some questions to consider:

  • When it comes to your marketing and communications, are there things your team doesn’t do well or can’t do at all? What would it take to reverse that — a new hire, more training, better technology? What will it cost you if nothing changes? 
  • As you think about your nonprofit, are there mission-critical, creative projects that you know your team doesn’t have the capacity to accomplish? How do you plan to get those projects done? 

  • Zooming out, what organizational goals can only be achieved if you engage the services of a creative agency? What impact would the achievement of those goals have on your ministry?

  • If you wait to establish a creative partnership, what do you risk losing? If you engage, what do you gain? At this stage of your organization’s lifecycle, is it more advantageous to wait or to engage?

While partnering with a creative agency has an enormous upside, it's so important to evaluate potential partners based on their experience, track record and overall alignment with your goals and values. Ensuring they’re the right fit for you, your team and your brand is crucial. 

If you’re considering a move in this direction, we’d love to talk.

Tom Ward
Tom Ward Communications Consultant

Tom has twenty-five years’ experience helping organizations reach their goals through strategic planning, fundraising, marketing, and communications.