Ned Wells

Jun 21, 2021, 2:00 PM

How to select the right web development partner for your charity

In 1693, English playwright William Congreve penned the line, “Thus grief still treads upon the heels of pleasure, married in haste, we may repent at leisure.” It’s as relevant to commercial relationships today as to his audiences back then – and never more so than when charities are setting out to build a new website.

Websites are expensive. As well as the initial cost, there’s ongoing investment, normally, to keep the site in step with your organisation’s needs. Costs can balloon if the relationship with your web developer is poor, not least in terms of your employees’ time to manage the process and fight fires.

This article offers a process to help you select a development partner that’s right for your charity, maximising the chances of getting the best website to raise funds and further your mission.

Process overview

This is a four-stage process that starts with writing a comprehensive brief. The brief is sent to a long list of web agencies, from which three are invited to present their proposal. They are assessed against a set of criteria and one is selected. Finally, terms are agreed and contracts signed.

It sounds straightforward but the devil is, of course, in the detail.

Stage 1: Writing the brief

Web projects are tricky beasts. And they’re expensive! A small charity might get away with spending a four-figure sum on a new website but lots of web development companies will turn down invitations to build those sites. So the stakes can be high. The golden rule to getting it right is to not skimp on the brief. Here’s what to include:

Start with some background and context, including your charity’s mission and size, current environment and your reasons for investing now. This can also be a good place to list your competitors’ websites.

Next, describe your existing website. Include your pain points, current support arrangements and why you’re looking to move.

State your project objectives and success criteria. Include your overall charitable goals and strategy to achieve them. Define your qualitative objectives (how it’ll affect key stakeholders, brand and internal processes) and quantitative objectives (six months after launch, how will you know the project was a success?).

List websites you’d like yours to emulate. It’s incredibly helpful for your potential future partner to understand which websites you admire. Don’t be limited to organisations within your own sector.

Then list the services you need help with, together with those you do in-house (social media?), those you outsource (digital advertising?) and those that aren’t in scope (PR?).

Describe the future solution, with consideration to two areas: people and scope. Regarding people, state who will need what from your new site? This provides the next level of detail of the qualitative objectives. There are lots of ways of doing this; a simple one is to list your ‘use cases’, like this:

As a [this kind of person] I need to [take this kind of action], so that [I get this kind of outcome].”

Regarding the scope, a good – and deceptively simple – way to describe scope is to make three lists:

  • Things you know you need.
  • Things you know you don’t need.
  • Things you’re not sure about and need further clarification.

Finally, the budget. Don’t be tempted to conceal it. You can get a website for a few hundred pounds (I wouldn’t if I was you) and a few hundred thousand pounds (read how much John Lewis spent in 2015 here). Sharing your budget will help your web agency to establish if they’re right for you. Then they can begin to figure out how to give you the best value solution.

The quality of the overall outcome is dependent on this brief, so don’t rush it. Typically, I’d schedule six to eight weeks.

Stage 2: Agency long list to short list

The long list typically comes from three sources: your charity may know some agencies you like and have an incumbent it feels obliged to include; your procurement consultant can probably recommend a few; and then there’s research. The comprehensive brief makes it easier to discover potential partners.

The brief is then sent to nine or 10 agencies, with an email describing the procurement process and that initial responses should be brief. With only a 1/10 chance of winning at this stage, it’s not fair to ask for lots of work. So ask for standard credentials, relevant case studies, some commentary on how they’ll deliver a great website on time and in full, and their views on the budget.

The list is then whittled down to three.

Although selection criteria can vary from project to project, there are always some quantifiable ones (how do you rate their case studies, credentials and what they’ve said about processes to deliver on time and in full? Did they reply on time? Can they meet the budget?) and some qualitative ones (what’s your gut feel – do you like them? Do they sound keen?).

Three agencies are invited to meet for an hour each, including questions and answers.

Stage 3: Agency selection

The selection criteria can vary widely, depending on the charity’s culture and the agency short list. Sometimes it’s very prescriptive, with a senior person just making a decision; and sometimes it’s very painstaking and consultative, with lots of work going into agreeing lists of questions to be asked, answered and scored. The consultant’s task is to guide the process, advise on best practice and ensure fairness.

Stage 4: finalising terms

The amount of external support required will depend on the charity’s skills and experience. Sometimes charities need help with understanding technical terminology and the reasons why agencies have priced things in a particular way.

The agency will now be taking over the relationship and charities can need reassurance. For example, even though a comprehensive brief has been developed, the agency may need to conduct its own ‘discovery’.

In conclusion: there are many ways to select a good web development partner and this process won’t suit everyone. But so far it’s proven to be fair and reassuring and has resulted in some long and happy partnerships.

Do you need help making your website more effective? Please email info@actionplanning.co.uk

As an employee, consultant and founder of two successful marketing businesses, Ned Wells has helped organisations of every hue to define, measure and achieve their digital marketing objectives. Today, he helps social enterprises to build capacity and generate commercial income.