Episode 70

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Drew McLellan is the Top Dog at Agency Management Institute. For the past 21 years, he has also owned and operated his own agency. Drew’s unique vantage point as being both an active agency owner and working with 250+ small- to mid-size agencies throughout the year, give him a unique perspective on running an agency today.

AMI works with agency owners by:

  • Leading agency owner peer groups
  • Offering workshops for owners and their leadership teams
  • Offering AE bootcamps
  • Conducting individual agency owner coaching
  • Doing on-site consulting
  • Offering online courses in agency new business and account service

Because he works with those 250+ agencies every year — he has the unique opportunity to see the patterns and the habits (both good and bad) that happen over and over again. He has also written two books and been featured in The New York Times, Entrepreneur Magazine, and Fortune Small Business. The Wall Street Journal called his blog “One of 10 blogs every entrepreneur should read.”



What you’ll learn about in this episode:

    • Why short term nonprofit projects don’t do much good for your agency or a nonprofit
    • Creating a contest for nonprofits where the winner will become your client for a year
    • How this contest and resulting year-long relationship will bring in a ton of PR
    • How this lengthy commitment with a single nonprofit allows you gracefully turn down other nonprofits that you don’t have time to work with
    • What to ask for in applications to find the right nonprofit to work with
    • How your relationship with a nonprofit can be a great business development opportunity
    • Why you need to get in front of the nonprofit’s board of directors

How this relationship will dramatically change the impact that the nonprofits you adopt can make

  • What your process for setting up this yearly project should look like
  • Why your team will love doing work with a nonprofit



The Golden Nugget:

“Scoring one client off a nonprofit's board is a worthwhile investment.” – @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet


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Speaker 1: If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invest in employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.


Drew McLellan: Hey, everybody, Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. This episode is one of my solocasts so rather than having a guest with us, this is just you and me talking about a topic that I believe needs to be on your radar screen. So, oftentimes, it’s something that one of my coaching clients has asked or one of the topics that has come up in a network meeting where I’m hanging out with agency owners, but this one actually came up on Twitter. So, I had an agency owner tweet me and say, “Hey, Drew McLellan, can you please do a podcast on how to manage and handle nonprofits when they ask us for free work, and how do you say no gracefully?” So, I actually love this topic. And so, we’re going to dig into this, and I’ve got a strategy for you that I think you’re going to love, and not only do you get to really serve some nonprofits in your market, you’ll get to say no more gracefully, and it’s a biz dev opportunity for you as well. It’s packed with goodness.


  So, let me tell you the genesis of this. So, about 10 years ago, in my own agency, like all of you, we get asked all the time to do free stuff for nonprofits, and myself and my team, we all sit on a lot of boards. And so, you just sort of know that that’s going to be part of the gig is that you’re going to get asked to do free stuff, and I don’t mind doing the free stuff. It’s sometimes it’s fun creatively for my team. But what I’ve found frustrating about it was I didn’t really feel like we were having very much impact. The truth is that when you do a logo for an event or a run or you do a brochure for somebody, it serves an immediate need for them, but it’s really not changing the organization.


  And so, one weekend, I was sort of wrestling with this, and I don’t even remember what the triggering event was, but I spent all weekend sort of gnashing my teeth about how to better handle requests from nonprofits and how to actually have impact and how to have a legacy of the agency. And so, what I came up with was this idea of adopting a nonprofit. So, let me tell you about it in broad strokes, and then I’ll give you the actual steps. So, what we did was we created an annual contest if you will, where we reached out to all of the nonprofits in the market. We sent press releases out so the newspaper, the radio stations talked about it. We called our local United Way and asked them to spread the word to all the nonprofits that they served.


  And basically, the message was this, that our agency was going to adopt a nonprofit for one year and we were going to treat them like a regular client. We were also going to tap into all of our vendors and ask them to contribute some of their skills, and we had actually done that in advance. So, in the press release, it says, “This agency is adopting a non-profit for a year. These other companies…” So, an audio company, a video company, a web dev company, whoever you work with that is outside of your core skills, or a photographer, that kind of thing. “These people have also come on board. And so, together, they believe that this adoption,” if you will, and you can use a different word. “But this adoption is going to be worth about a hundred thousand dollars to the nonprofit. And here’s how the nonprofits apply.”


  And we actually made them fill out an application like they were applying for a grant, and they had to turn them all in, and I’ll give you the specifics of what was in the application process. They had to turn them all in, and then we had the opportunity to screen all of them and to select the nonprofit that we were going to adopt. Then as soon as we made the decision, then we sent out another media release and we made more PR. So, we get a ton of PR for the agency around this that here was the winning nonprofit, and here’s what they got. And then all throughout the year, then we would report once a quarter on what was happening with that nonprofit. So, we probably got six or seven media hits sort of cycles out of this one year.


  And then we literally adopted this nonprofit. So, we brought them in just like we would a paying client. We did a discovery process. We figured out what they needed. We figured out what resources they had internally, what they could do because remember, our goal was to adopt them for a year and then, sort of like a baby bird, we’re going to keep them in the nest for a year but then we have to boot them out of the nest because there’s a new baby bird coming into the nest. So, part of what we were thinking about was what could we teach them and what can we do for them that they would be able to sustain after the year was over.


  So, let’s take a step back. So, first of all, what this does now is when any nonprofit asks us for stuff, we say, “You know what? We have invested all of our resources into this once-a-year nonprofit adoption, and so go to our website, you can download the application, and we’d be happy to consider you for that. So, unfortunately, we can’t. We’re so invested in that, we just don’t have the resources to do other nonprofit work.” So, they totally get that. It’s a graceful way to say no. Now, I will say this. For the boards that you serve on and things like that, you’re still going to end up doing free stuff. So, don’t think you’re going to get completely out of it, but for the random calls and emails that you get from nonprofits, this is a really graceful way to say, “Thank you, but no.”


  And then, the other thing is you’ve got all this media coverage. Right? So, now that’s great biz dev for your agency, but really where the biz dev comes in is in the application we ask for a lot of things. We ask for their financials because one of the things we wanted to know is do they have enough resource that they can sustain whatever we do for them? So, yes, we hit up printers and we hit up other people, but at some point in time, some of our ideas were going to require some cash. We also hit up the media so we got them free media exposure, typically for that first year. But sooner or later, they were going to have to be a big enough nonprofit, and I’m not talking like one of the big ones, but they have to have some resource to sustain what you’ve started. But I also want to know that they’re being run well as a business, that they are fiscally sound. I don’t want to invest a year in a nonprofit that’s about to go out of business. So, are they fiscally sound?


  Then we also asked for a letter from the board and the board chair saying that yes, they were open to really looking at things in a fresh, new way and that they really wanted to evolve from where they were at today. So, we wanted to make it very clear that we were going to shake things up, and that we were going to push them, and that we were going to ask them to really stretch and get much better at communicating than they were today before we adopted them.


  The third thing we ask for is we asked them for the list of their board members. Now here’s the biz dev part. One of the criteria for us, so we had a score sheet, which I will share with you in the show notes, but we had a score sheet, and one of them was that it had people on the board of directors that we wanted to get in front of. So, in other words, business prospects for us. So, nonprofit probably is not going to hire us after this year-long adoption and be a paying client. But if they have a board of 12 or 20 people, scoring one client off of that board makes that investment really worthwhile. Right? So, we also looked at the board of directors.


  The other thing that we asked for that we required, and that they had to include in the letter was that we were able to present to their board every quarter and give them a progress report on what we were doing and what was coming next because we wanted to get in front of that board and have them get to know us and get to recognize the work that we did, and the way we thought about work so that they could, in essence… We were, in essence, auditioning for them without them knowing it. Right?


  So, the process was great. And I will tell you this that when I look back on the nonprofits that we have adopted, some were super small, some were larger, some we had to rename and create a new brand, for others, it was just really about giving them some sort of a megaphone so people knew who they were and what they did. But when I look back on that now, I will tell you that in our local community, one of the things that we did for a few of them, and some of them weren’t large enough for this, but we created annual events. So, I can think of one example of a nonprofit that their largest fundraising event prior to us taking them under our wing was about $25,000. And for them, that was a big event. And we helped them create an annual event that nets them over $300,000 a year. And we’ve probably done that three or four times.


  And so, literally, I know that the work we’ve done with the nonprofits that we have served over the course of time, we’re bringing in over a million dollars a year for those nonprofits through the events and activities that we taught them how to do. We’re not involved in any of those anymore. Some of my employees sort of got a soft spot for some of them, and they may serve on a board now, or they may serve on an event committee. But we as an agency, we really are pretty good about taking them in for a year and then sort of releasing them out of the nest, and probably for the next year, they get a little bit of support from us as they sort of learn how to fly on their own. But after that, we really do move on to the next nonprofit. But we’re bringing about a million dollars a year, our efforts, what we taught and started, about a million dollars a year into very worthwhile nonprofits every single year. That’s very sustainable.


  And when I look back on that, it’s one of the greatest legacies I think our agency has in our marketplaces that we have left that mark. We have changed those charities and the people that they serve by really taking them under our wings.


  So, again, the beautiful thing about this is… And it’s pretty simple, but here are some caveats of how to do it. You’ve got to have a place on your website where you talk about it and people can download the application. You need to have an annual cadence. So, every November, the applications go out. You make your announcement in December. Whatever that is for you, you’ve got to have a calendar and you have to stick with the calendar because what happens is the nonprofits start to put it on their calendar, and they start to track it, especially if they’ve applied and they haven’t won, they want to apply again next year. So, you want to make it easy for them to know when to do it, and you want to avoid 8 million phone calls because you’re always changing the calendar around.


  So, you want to have a regular cadence and you want to have a process. You want to really, really, really, and I cannot emphasize this enough, you have to treat these guys no different than a paying client. So, you’ve got to assign it to an account exec. You have to put together a discovery process. You need to have a plan for them, and then you need to execute on that plan, and you can’t push it aside for paying work. You will very quickly earn a reputation in the market of promising one thing and delivering another if you don’t really deliver on this. On the flip side, if you do this well, you’ll be amazed at how this sort of a program elevates your profile in your local market.


  And for those of you that don’t work in a local market, let’s say you work in an industry-specific one, you still live in a community, and your people still live in a community. And I believe that it is very important for us as entrepreneurs and small business owners, for us to recognize that the community that we live in supplies us with a lot of things. It supplies us with a place to do work. It supplies us with a workforce. It supplies us with a quality of living that allows us to attract and keep the workforce that we have. And we have an obligation, I believe, as part of the business community to give back and to make our community stronger and better. And this is a way that you can use your natural skills and the natural resources that you already have in your shop to really improve your community and to improve your agency. So, even if you don’t do local or regional work, I still think this is a viable option for you.


  But if you do serve clients locally, or you serve clients regionally, look at it. If you’re a more of a regional agency, then look at a statewide nonprofit, or look a little broader or bigger, but this is scalable for every agency. So, if you have a couple people, fine. If you have 200 people, fine. This works for everybody, and it is a win-win-win. So, the nonprofits win because even some of the nonprofits who have not been selected tell me that they enjoy the application process because it forces them to kind of get their ducks in a row. They have to tell their story in a succinct and articulate way. They get to have a conversation with their board about, “Are we ready to evolve and grow?” They have to get their financials in great shape to show us. It gets them to think about their own board, and if they’re missing spots or slots on their board that they want to fill. And it gets them thinking about what they want to accomplish in terms of marketing and communications. So, it’s good for the nonprofits, whether they are selected or not.


  For the nonprofit that’s selected, if you do this well, I’m not kidding, you change the trajectory of the nonprofit. We have never had a nonprofit that we have done, and we’ve done this for over 10 years, I’ve never had, at the end of a process, had a nonprofit say and be able to document, “Here’s where we were headed, and now look at where we’re headed.” We move the needle on the chart. We point them in a much higher, better, different direction, just because we forced them, through our discovery process, and the thinking through the year, and the articulating of their message, we forced them to really get clear about who they are, and what they do, and who they help, and what they need from the community to deliver those services. You’re making a really lifelong change in that nonprofit. So, for them, it’s a huge win.


  The media loves it because it’s a great story. It’s a good feel-good story. Believe it or not, your vendors will love it too. They love having someone else quarterback their nonprofit or their giving opportunities. And they too can use this as their reason why they can’t help every nonprofit out there. They can say, “Look, we partner with this agency’s adopt-a-charity program and we give X number of dollars of time, and that’s really all we can do. But here’s the URL for the application, really encourage you to go apply.” And so, again, it’s great for them as well.


  It also solidifies your relationship with them. The vendors that partner with us on this nonprofit adoption are some of our favorite vendors. I mean, they just bust a hump for these nonprofits, and it strengthens our relationship when we are working together on paying work, and it’s also an opportunity, I have them thank me for giving them a chance to give back. So, it’s great for the vendors.


  It is awesome for your team. Your team will love this because they get to stretch. My agency is mostly a B2B agency, so my team loves being able to do consumer-focused stuff and being able to be super creative, and to be able to do a lot of work locally because we don’t do a ton of work locally. And so, it’s a great way for their family and friends to see their work for a change. So, they eat it up and they get to have a say in the nonprofit. So, oftentimes, we will end up selecting, we’ll be down to two or three that meet all of our other criteria. And then, for example, I have a couple of teammates, myself included, who are big animal advocates. So, it might be a charity for something else and then an animal advocacy, and so we allow our personal opinions to make part of the final decision. So, after we vetted them through the criteria, if we have a couple of finalists, then some of the personal stuff gets to play as well. So, they’re doing work that matters. Right? You feel very good about these nonprofits.


  One of the things you’ll recognize is how many amazing nonprofits there are in your market and all the good work they’re doing, but it’s very good gratifying to help someone who is really changing the lives of other people or animals or the planet, whatever the cause is who’s making the world better place, and you get to play a small role in helping them do that in a bigger, better way. That’s really gratifying. And that, as I said earlier, it’s one of my favorite legacies of my agency so far is that we have really, we’ve changed the landscape of nonprofits in our community. I’m proud of that. And that it serves business purposes as well is just an awesome, lucky strike extra. But at the end of the day, now today, 10 years later, that’s why we do it. It’s part of our legacy.


  So, I strongly encourage you to think about how you work with nonprofits, how you can leverage that in a different, bigger, better way to serve them in a more significant way, to serve your agency, and to serve your community. So, in the show notes, I will put for you the application that we use, I will put the criteria that we use, and I will put a copy of the media release that we use so you can take all of those, customize them for yourself, and do this anytime that you want.


  I would suggest that you put together a plan of how you’re going to do it and really have a PR plan around it. So, how are you going to get the word out to the nonprofits that you’re taking this application? Who are you going to align with in terms of your vendors to deliver whatever your clients need? And in most cases, you can anticipate that in advance, but every once in a while, we’ve had to say, “Oh, you know what? They need a this.” I can’t think of what one would be. And then we’ve had to go find a vendor and ask them to join us after the fact. But for the most part, we have the team built before we even put out the application.


  And a lot of the people that we use, they have been on the team from the very beginning. And then other folks have contacted us and asked to be added to the team. That’s how we got our photographer is he reached out and he said, “I see that you’re doing this. I would really love to be a part of it. I would be happy to donate my services.” So, I think you’ll be surprised at how unifying this is and how awesome it is, both internally for your shop and also for your community at large.


  So, I highly encourage you to think about this rather than just doing a logo or a brochure or whatever you’re doing now. I know you’re all helping nonprofits. I know that for a fact. So, why not do it in a way that helps in a bigger way and serves everybody in a more significant way, both short-term and long-term?


  So, that’s it. That wraps up my solocast. Go out there and do some good in your community, leave your mark, and also use it to leverage growing your business. That’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. All right. I will be back next week with another guest who will share with you their expertise and knowledge. In the meantime, as you know, I am very easy to track down, [email protected]. And if you haven’t subscribed and you have just fallen upon this podcast, and this is your first one, your 12th one, make sure you subscribe because that way you don’t miss