How can you build a strong relationship with a consultant?
Why does good work take time? Farra Trompeter, co-director, and Josh Riman, founder and president of Great Believer, talk about why it’s essential to have mutual trust, kindness, and respect between nonprofit organizations and creative agencies.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner at Big Duck. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Josh Riman. I first met Josh back in 2017, when we were both speaking on a panel about branding with our friends at Whole Whale, and our companies recently collaborated on a project together for branding and a website for an amazing organization called Access Justice Brooklyn. We’ll link to that beautiful website and new brand in the show notes, but Josh and I, today, are going to get into the question of how you can have a great relationship with your consultant. So, for nonprofits out there who are either thinking about working with Big Duck or Great Believer, Josh’s company, which we’ll talk more about in a moment, or you’re just working with another consultant, whether that be in fundraising, communications, organizational development, we hope you will find some great insights in today’s conversation.
Farra Trompeter: But let me tell you about Josh. Josh Riman, he/him, is the founder and president of Great Believer; a graphic design agency for nonprofits specializing in web, branding, and print. After graduating from Syracuse University, Josh spent nearly a decade working in the more corporate side of advertising, branding, and marketing. His quest for more meaningful work led him to the Taproot Foundation, where he joined several pro bono projects for New York City based nonprofits. Those experiences encouraged him to earn a master’s in nonprofit administration from Baruch College and launch Great Believer. Today, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife Missy, two sons, Remy and Otis, and a cat named Sunny. You know I love cat parents out there, so, Josh, welcome to the show.
Josh Riman: Thanks for having me.
Farra Trompeter: So, Josh, one of the first things I learned when I got into consulting was the mythical trifecta of what most organizations want, which is work that is cheap, fast, and good. Unfortunately, delivering on all three of those is almost always impossible. Cheap and fast usually means low quality. Good and cheap usually means it’s too slow. Fast and good is usually too expensive. So, now assuming everyone out there wants quality work, I’d say the biggest conversations I often have with organizations is around budget and timeline. Now, for our conversation, I’d love to start off with that timeline piece. Josh, I know we share a lot of the same thoughts here and I’d love to hear your take. Why does good work take time?
Josh Riman: Well, you’re definitely preaching to the choir. I’m right there with you, and I also understand where organizations are coming from. They’re eager to get the project started and get it done. I’ve got three thoughts on why I think good work takes time: The first is that good work definitely requires research. And by that I mean we need to spend a lot of time with the organization learning about their goals, their mission, and we also want to talk to the organization’s users, the actual people that are benefiting from the organization’s services. If we’re not able to speak with both the org and its users, anything we suggest is hypothetical. So, before we actually start to, let’s say, for a website project, do wireframes, start to design a homepage, we need to spend a good chunk of time upfront doing that research. That’s the first thing. The second thing I’m going to say, it requires marination, and by that I mean: when we show you that homepage design, we’re not going to say “get back to us later today with your thoughts” or “get back to us tomorrow with your thoughts.” We want to give you ample time to consider it, to review it, to share it internally, and make sure the feedback you share is thoughtful and something you’re ready for us to act upon. And the last reason I would say is that good work also takes time because it requires collaboration between us and between the organization. We want to work together, we want to hear your feedback, we want to make sure that the ultimate thing we create, whether it’s, let’s say, a website or an annual report, is something that you can stand behind and you think will be effective both for you and your users. So, we want to spend time on the collaboration point for sure.
Farra Trompeter: I love all of that. And I think through that, we often talk about also, it requires inclusion. So, it’s not just about, for example, collaboration between the consultant you’re working with and the working group or the team that’s reviewing that website design or that new tagline. It’s also about the other folks in the organization or maybe even in the larger community. So, I would just add that fourth point as you’re thinking about that, or, maybe, a sub-point under collaboration.
Josh Riman: Agreed.
Farra Trompeter: Another topic that often emerges in our work with clients is decision-making. Often in branding and communications planning, I’ve heard staff voice concerns or objections based on their personal preferences. In these moments, I know we’ve tried to realign conversations based on brand strategy, which we define as positioning and personality, or more often audience priorities. When you’re working day in and day out for an organization as a staff person, of course, your voice and opinion matters, but in those moments, we’re often noting how important it is to pivot away from just your own perspective and toward your community, those audiences you really want to engage. And I’m curious, Josh, how has this come up in your work, especially around designing and building websites?
Josh Riman: This definitely comes up and before I say anything, I’ll just issue a disclaimer, which is that I totally understand how this can happen and we have had clients tell us their favorite color and ask if we design a website around it. So we’ve definitely been there before. We know how it goes, and I think it’s unrealistic to expect an organization will be able to exclusively focus on its user’s needs. I think intrinsically, it’s hard to not reflexively say, here are my thoughts, here are my ideas for how a website, for example, can take shape.
Josh Riman: So, we’ve started to break things out by goals that are for the organization and goals that are for the users. So, when we, let’s say, do a project kickoff, and do research, and talk to the organization themselves, we learn more about their goals, their likes, and dislikes regarding how, for example, a website can take shape. And then through user interviews, through speaking with different members of key audience groups like, let’s say, donors or volunteers or board members, we’ll learn more about these end users for the website and what their goals are. And by breaking the goals out by organization goals and user goals, we demonstrate that the user focus is important, but we’re also giving the organization a chance to share their thoughts.
Josh Riman: And speaking of those user interviews, we also want to involve the organization in the planning process for them. So, when it comes to determining, not just which audience groups to speak to, so, for example, again, donors, board members, volunteers, for example, but also who in each audience group we should connect with and have a one-on-one interview with or a focus group with. We’d love to involve the organization in that process so they can understand the work and the value behind why we want to speak with different users and balance their needs against that of the organization.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and it’s making me think about another conversation we had recently, where we were also on the flip side, talking about how some of our best client relationships and experiences is, again, with baked in that idea of collaboration and that the relationships that are most likely to produce the best results and motivate both of our teams are those that are built on mutual respect, trust, and commitment. Now, you recently set up a document you call Respect Accord that you have clients sign, and I’m just curious if you could talk a little bit more about that Respect Accord and maybe some examples of what’s included.
Josh Riman: Yeah, I’m happy to. And I would start by saying like any agency, we’ve had fantastic relationships with lots of clients and others where we just didn’t vibe for whatever reason. And what we’ve noticed is looking back at the relationships where the vibe wasn’t there, there were red flags that were there from the get-go, from early conversations, where we are not the right fit for that organization and they are not the right fit for us, which happens. And we understand that and think in that case it’s best that we don’t choose to partner up. So we have a twofold process now to determine who we can work best with, who we can do the best work with, and build the strongest bonds with. And I’ll get to the Respect Accord in a second, but before we use the Respect Accord, we have something called the Client Rubric.
Josh Riman: Based on initial conversations that I or a member of my team have with the organization, we try to measure partnership potential using a rubric scoring one through four across seven criteria. Things like how effective has the communication been in these upfront discussions? How respectful do you feel like the organization is of our process? And how respectful, this is timely, given what you said before, how respectful do you feel the client is of our timeline and how long this project might take? And we actually score each of those criteria one to four, add ’em all up, and if they hit a certain threshold then we move forward. And if they don’t, we just say we don’t think we’re the right fit and we end things there. That’s in the early, early days of even considering working together. And if we share a proposal, if things look good, if the organization says yes, we’d love to work with Great Believer, then we share the Respect Accord and the Respect Accord is essentially a contract in addition to the project contract that details what you, the organization can expect from us and what we can expect from you.
Josh Riman: And it’s all about building mutual trust and respect. And it’s something that we reference in our proposals. And like I said, all new clients will sign this at the same time as they sign our project contract. The actual details of the Respect Accord were something that the team over here hashed out during a company retreat. And I’ll share a few examples. So for example, both sides agree, they’re responsible for ensuring that all interactions are kind, appreciative, and respectful. And then there are other parts of the Respect Accord that are specific to Great Believer. For example, we are responsible for leading a collaborative process that encourages ideas and feedback from the organization. We are responsible for sharing creative work that represents the needs of your primary audiences, which is of reference or a callback I guess, in that we’ve been talking about user interviews quite a bit in that upfront research.
Josh Riman: And we also are responsible for providing clear reasoning when a request made by the organization cannot be fulfilled and offering constructive alternatives whenever possible. And I really love that last idea and it was at a suggestion of an organization who had signed our Respect Accord. We always say “if you have other ideas or thoughts on anything else that can be added to the accord, please let us know.” And that was a suggestion and we love that one. So, that’s in there now. Those are examples of things that we, Great Believer, are responsible for. And then on the client side, we ask that they trust that our proven process and years of expertise will yield the project to successful outcomes. We ask that they appreciate that we work with a range of nonprofit clients at any given point and can’t make them our sole focus. And we also ask that they recognize that we can’t rush the process to compensate for a delay that was caused by the organization.
Josh Riman: And as you could see, or probably imagine, or what you’re guessing is, a lot of the things in the Respect Accord are based on experiences we’ve had where either we have fallen short or we think the organization fell short. And trying to put those things out there really clearly, really articulately, and address these things early and hope that they won’t happen later. But, if they do happen later, then we’ll just be really forthright and address them. And if the client has a concern, we want to hear it. If we have a concern, we want to be able to share it. And so far the Respect Accord is working out pretty well.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, there’s so much I want to dig into there. I mean, one thing I want to note, the rubric piece, I think, is great and it’s one of the things that I often advise organizations who I’m doing coaching with, or even just talking to when they are evaluating, for example, a number of different consulting firms for their rebrand or for a fundraising campaign or other projects we might, for example, be going for. I often encourage them to create a rubric so that you’re not just picking an organization either based on the chemistry you had on that one phone call or based on one example of work they showed you, but that you’re looking at a number of criteria, including things like what you’ve noted in your rubric: Is that consultant getting back to you clearly and effectively? Are they respecting what you’ve said you needed? Can they meet the project you need and the timeline you have? And some organizations can’t. And that’s important to know upfront.
Farra Trompeter: So, I really appreciate that rubric and I think nonprofits can definitely adapt that when they’re picking a consultant. And then similarly in the Respect Accord, I appreciate that it’s a mutual accord and that you’re thinking about what needs to come both from the agency or the consultant and what needs to come from the nonprofit as the client. And one thing I just, there’s a lot there I love, but I particularly appreciate the inclusion of kindness. And that a lot of times I know in our work, and I think in your work too, you’re usually working together for six to twelve months, sometimes longer. And, so, these are relationships that should have boundaries and that should be professional and all of that. But also, we’re working together. There should be kindness and respect that flows through them. So, I just wanted to give a shout-out and appreciation for kindness.
Josh Riman: Right there with you. We have a kindness protocol where anyone we’re considering hiring a Great Believer needs to be kind; needs to be a friendly and warm and welcoming person. And we try to bring those same vibes to each project. And if we find that we are finding ourselves less friendly, less kind, less warm, less welcoming, there’s something that’s not quite right with this client engagement. And we’ve tried to dig into that. And as we worked in the Respect Accord, we looked back at a lot of engagements we’ve had, like “why didn’t this work out? What could we have done differently? What do we think the client could have done differently?” And kindness always rises to the surface. So I echo your shout-out for kindness. We think it’s incredibly important.
Farra Trompeter: You know, I’ve often said that our best work with organizations are those clients for whom we’re treated as partners and not vendors. Where we are working together towards something and not just treated or seen as order takers. And a relationship like that to me leads to amazing results. And it feels like our team becomes almost an adjunct of the nonprofit organization’s team as we’re working together. In those moments, I feel like Big Duck’s strategists, writers, designers, and account managers, become trusted advisors and co-creators. And I’m curious, Josh, how has this shown up for you and your work with nonprofits?
Josh Riman: It shows up a lot, and we agree. I feel like the North star, like, the goal for every project is to be a partner, a trusted partner to each other, to have that mutual trust and mutual respect. And looking back, I think most often when an organization sees us as a vendor, is when they go into the project expecting to hire a vendor. Looking for someone that they can, for lack of a better word, order around and tell what to do. “We want our website to look like this and sound like this and have these colors and feel this way and, you know, this page functions this way and so on.” Less so than “we’re in this together, you Great Believer are bringing expertise to the table. We, the organization, know our audiences better than anybody. Let’s find a meeting of those two points and create something amazing together.”
Josh Riman: When organizations come in, again, with that vendor mindset, it’s really hard to get out of it no matter how much great work we might do, no matter how much trust we build. That perception is very hard to shift if that’s the way the project starts out. I do think though, to your point, when there is that partnership mindset, the results are always better and it’s also a much more fun process. We always say we try to keep the process fun. I think you mentioned before, and I agree, these projects can last a good amount of time, six months, twelve months, beyond. And it’s a lot of time spent together and we’ve found that when organizations have that vendor mindset or perception toward us, it’s not going to be as fun. It’s much more transactional. But, if we’re seeing each other as partners, it’s lighter, it’s warmer, we get to know each other better and the conversations themselves are more fun and the project itself tends to fly by faster.
Farra Trompeter: Again, like, I do think of a client, for example, if I’m a client, I might talk about my love of the color purple, which anyone who knows me or has seen my hair, seen most of my clothes, know that’s pretty transparent and comes through. I think it’s okay for a client to note a specific color, a phrase, or an idea they like, but to acknowledge like, “Hey, this is showing up for me personally. I don’t know if this is right for the project. I’m just putting it out there and being real.” Give a reason behind your feedback. Don’t just say “make it red, make it bigger,” but why. “I feel like this isn’t showing up enough. I’m worried people won’t see that donation button the way it is now. Is there anything you can do to give it better hierarchy or importance?” That type of feedback allows whether it’s a designer, a coder, a writer, to know what they need to work on to know the problem, and then, they can come up with a solution.
Josh Riman: I totally agree with that and I think that organizations we work with should know that we always want to hear their thoughts and feedback and if they have a specific note like “I like this color,” or “here’s a small change I recommend that’s really tiny”, you’re right, we’ll want to follow that up and say, “Okay, tell us more. Why do you want to make that change?” And ultimately try to get to those users, how can they most benefit from that change? And if we ultimately decide, like, that is a totally valid piece of feedback, let’s do it. Or we might decide, you know, “understood, we hear you, but we don’t think that’s ultimately serving the end goals of your website, so let’s skip that one, but please keep sharing your thoughts.” It’s that open dialogue, it’s that trust, it’s that transparency that helps to make those conversations lighter. And we found that organizations understand that we are trying to shift the focus to those users. And like I mentioned before in the Respect Accord, even if an organization shares feedback that we ultimately choose not to move forward with, we’ll always hear it out, understand it, and then try to provide an alternative that still reaches the same end solution but in a way that we think better serves the needs of those audiences.
Farra Trompeter: Great. So, we’re dropping lots of tips and thoughts about how nonprofits can get the most out of working with charming consultants like us. And I’m curious, Josh, before we wrap up if you’ve got any others you want to share?
Josh Riman: I do. I have a couple. The first is: please, please, please, please, please: be honest. And by that I mean, if you don’t like something, tell us. And I’m sure you feel the same way. We don’t want anyone to feel like they need to hold back. It’s actually tougher for us to not get the feedback because then we go down a road further and further and the thing that maybe you were not a fan of is still there. Maybe it’s even a bigger part of the website or the annual report or whatever we’re doing. And if you share that piece of feedback, you know a month and a half after you first had the thought, it’s really hard for us to take those steps backward and account for it. So we want honesty. I think a lot of what we’re talking about is kind of like relationship building and trust and a positive relationship is built on honesty.
Josh Riman: And we definitely want to hear your thoughts. We could take it, we’ve heard everything before, you will not hurt our feelings. It’ll always be for the best in the end. So the first one is, be honest. The second, I think the listeners are probably catching this vibe, but have fun. This is a big investment you’re making when you’re working with us or Big Duck, an investment in terms of time, in terms of money, but we always try to keep the mood light. We think having that partnership mindset tends to allow that to become a reality. And we’re just trying to have fun. We don’t want you to dread conversations you’re having with us. We don’t mind spending the first 10 minutes catching up talking about your weekend, asking how your cat is doing, whatever that little tidbit might be. So let’s get to know each other. Let’s have a good time because we’ll spend a lot of time together over the course of this project.
Josh Riman: And the last one is, if at all possible, avoid the RFP process. RFP requests for proposals for those who are not familiar is a way in which an organization can solicit bids from multiple agencies for a project by releasing a document that maps out all of their goals, all of their needs, all of their requirements for a project. And some organizations have to do it depending upon the size of the project and we totally get it. If you do have to do it, I will plug that we ran a session at The Nonprofit Technology Conference earlier this year called Running a RFP process while keeping your cool, we turned it into a resource. It’s on our website, has lots of different tips and tricks, and ideas for ways to make the RFP process easier for you, easier for the agencies that you’re reaching out to, and ultimately quicker and more effective. So I understand the RFP process can be a necessary evil, but if you can avoid it, please do.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and another shout-out to George and our friends at Whole Whale. I know George recently posted an article, that we’ll share too, about moving to a request for conversation and really starting that process with what we often at Big Duck called a fit call, which is exactly what you were talking about earlier in your rubric. Like, let’s both first see “does it make sense for us to work together? Can we do what you’re looking for? Can we do it in the timeline? Can we do it in the budget? Let’s have a conversation. Let’s tell you about how we work, let’s learn about how you work, let’s see if there’s something there.”
Farra Trompeter: And then, let’s look at what a scope might look like as opposed to putting everyone through the paces of an intense RFP process that, especially for agencies like both of ours, Big Duck and Great Believer who want to spend the time on creating amazing client experiences, being pulled into lengthy RFP processes means oftentimes that we can’t respond and then you’re limiting your pool. So plus one to that RFP tip and definitely something we can talk more about in the future.
Josh Riman: Love that. And I totally agree. I feel like the first conversation or two you, the organization, have with an agency like Big Duck, like Great Believer, it’s like your first date, it’s like your second date. How are things going? How are the vibes? How’s the conversation? Is it flowing smoothly? Does it feel like this could be a good fit? Because ultimately you want to trust your instincts and I think, was it a request for conversation what you said before?
Farra Trompeter: Yes.
Josh Riman: That’s great. I love that. And that’s such a great starting point because on our end, we can then fill out our client rubric and on the organization’s end, they can start to take notes and start to figure out how good of a fit one agency might be versus the other. So, I’m all for that. I think ultimately we want to make sure the organization finds the best fit in the end, whether that’s us or whether that’s somebody else.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, my colleague, Jen Petersen, our Marketing Manager also put together a blog recently that said, “if you are doing an RFP, please include these things in it, including things like timeline and budget.” So, we’ll link to that in the show notes, too.
Farra Trompeter: Josh, thank you so much for being here. If you’re out there listening and you’d like to learn more about Great Believer, check out their website at Greatbeliever.us and you can also find them on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. You can connect with Josh directly on LinkedIn via his full name, which is Josh R-i-m-a-n. Again, Josh, thanks for being here.
Josh Riman: Thank you for having me.