As someone who’s focused on managing engagements for technical projects, when I talk to people in the for-profit sector about our work, there’s one phrase that always seems to work its way into the conversation: “Things work a little differently with nonprofits.” While NFPs have plenty in common with other types of businesses, things like the budgeting process, staffing structures, and corporate culture are decidedly different. If you’re a nonprofit looking for a design firm, choosing one that’s well-versed in how nonprofit organizations work goes a long way towards determining project success. An effective partner anticipates constraints, is flexible when needed, and ultimately adds consultative value by providing valuable insights acquired through years of experience with similar institutions.

With this in mind, here are three ways your nonprofit organization can get the most of your relationship with a design firm.

1. Ask for guidance when putting together a budget request

New development projects are often financed with grants or restricted funds, leaving project managers with a chicken-egg sort of conundrum: planning activities represent a significant portion of the total cost, and the remaining expenses are uncertain until planning is complete. How do you put a concrete number on the whole project before you’ve actually started planning it? A good design firm should be able to provide a realistic range based on their experience with similar projects, while shedding light on some of the variables that are likely to push that number up or down. If you haven’t selected a firm yet, mention that proposals will inform the budget in your RFP.

2. Plan together for stakeholder input

Death by committee is all too common with large companies, even more so with nonprofits where collaboration and consensus are so highly valued. It’s possible to give everyone a voice without slowing down the process by involving the right stakeholders at the right times. When you see interim deliverables on the calendar such as “Requirements Matrix,” “Wireframes,” or “Design Mockups,” ask which of your internal team members are the most appropriate ones to give input at each stage.

In general, high-level stakeholders and strategic thinkers are most influential in the earlier stages of a project. In the middle and late stages, when things become more tangible, the focus shifts towards details on your audience and end users that others in your organization can usually run with.

3. Collaborate on appropriate success metrics

In the nonprofit world, where “change” is the mantra, the desired outcome of a project usually extends far beyond “increased revenue.” Whether you’re designing a website for your nonprofit, collateral for a fundraising campaign or even developing a new software application, the results will influence your brand and contribute to your organization’s mission. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to determine how successful a project is when “dollars in vs. dollars out” doesn’t tell the whole story. A good partner can help you determine the appropriate metrics, and will use them to guide their work throughout the entire project.

Leveraging your design firm’s expertise in these ways adds value to the relationship for both of you, and helps turn a “vendor” into a “partner.” In the coming months, I’ll dive into each of these areas in a bit more detail, and share some of the good (and no-so-good) experiences that have taught me valuable lessons along the way.