So what makes you different from everyone else?
Let's start with an important idea: there's more to a nonprofit-focused firm than just understanding how to customize a particular piece of software to the needs of the nonprofit market, or having experience with how nonprofits use data.
Whoa, slow down. Can you explain?
Yes, it's important to have experience with open source tools, data, and how nonprofits use them. But then again, would you work with someone who didn't? It's just the cost of entry.
A nonprofit-focused firm holds a particular set of beliefs unique to working with mission-driven organizations. We're not talking about values like "being an expert" or "treating people well." Those are admirable (essential, really) traits for a professional services firm. But they are not special to nonprofits nor do they describe anything beyond what's necessary for a functioning business relationship.
We're talking about a set of beliefs that apply uniquely to the challenges you face as a nonprofit. Here's what they look like:
Translate for the non-techies
You need someone who, in plain English, can explain to you and your staff what you need to know from a technology perspective so you can make informed decisions. But translating technical ideas into non-technical jargon is not on the services list of most firms. However, it's critical to your success.
Document for the next person
Uncomfortable truth: in 4-5 years, most of your staff will be gone. As sad as that is, it means your communications guru, Sally, will be taking all her hard-earned knowledge with her when she goes.
When you pair that with a complicated, highly-customized website, you have a serious risk. And considering many details of your site are locked away in your vendor's head or shared ad-hoc via email, you need to get that information onto paper so it's available both right now and for years to come.
Don't just build the tech, teach it
It's one thing to build a beautifully engineered open source site. It's quite another to hand it off to the people who will actually use it. And if no one uses your project, it's a failure. You need someone who can take their knowledge and invest it back into your organization so you can use your site to its fullest potential.
Be around for the long haul
What do all these beliefs mean, ultimately? That in a world of constantly-evolving technology and shifting personnel, you need a constant. Not just a quick-fix project, a 6-month relationship, but someone who is committed to investing in your organization week-in, week-out for years.
True, lasting change comes through relationships. And the best relationships require commitment, patience, and a win-win approach so they can not just stand the test of time, but thrive.