Cortney is the development director at a mid-sized hunger relief organization and she was not happy.

She had hired a company specializing in nonprofit technology to make some updates to her online annual report and, well, let’s just say there were some big issues and she asked me for advice. Mostly, she just wanted to vent.

I hear stories about rocky projects all too often, so I’d expected her to list things like:

  • Missed deadlines
  • Cost overruns
  • Poor communication
  • Issues with the design

You know, the usual stuff.

But guess what? None of these things were a problem during the project – her issues came from something else entirely!

Here are the things that didn’t work for Cortney:

  • They used the prior year’s report as-is, without making any suggestions for improvement.
  • They showed little interest in knowing why the annual report was important to the organization.
  • They didn’t provide any training, so the staff couldn’t make changes in the future.

After Cortney told me why she was feeling disappointed, I asked her one question that got to the root of the problem.


Did You Expect to be a Customer or a Client?

When I asked her that question, Courtney’s first response was, “I’ve never really thought about it!” But it was pretty clear to me from her gripe list that she thought she was working with a partner, and not a vendor.

And many people don’t realize there’s a big difference.

Honestly, there was nothing wrong with WHAT the vendor did – her disappointment was with HOW they did the work. She had expected to get more advice on best practices about ways to market the new annual report, interesting ideas about how to convey the story behind the report data, and most importantly, more ownership of the project’s success.

Turns out, Cortney wanted to be a client.


Partner?  Vendor?  What’s the difference?

Vendor: A person or company offering something for sale, for example, a trader in the street.
Partner: A person or company who takes part in an undertaking with others, especially in a business with shared risks and profits.

 Let’s take a step away from Cortney’s quickie project, and think about a big, expensive technology project like a website design. If you’ve written an RFP or have otherwise documented your functional requirements well, you might think it’ll be easy to identify the right shop that meets your needs and budget.

Hang on a sec. If your search process includes posting an RFP far and wide, guess what? You’re 100% likely to find both vendors and partners bidding to work on your project. Our nonprofit virtual marketplace is chock full of companies and individuals who are eager to help you with your technology needs.

As one example, the Salesforce App Exchange lists more than 1,000 consultants offering complimentary products, strategic support, training, and other services. That’s a lot of partners mixed in with a ton of vendors.

And here’s a mind blower – cost is NOT one of the differences between a partner and a vendor. You may have worked with vendors that were expensive and partners that had a low hourly rate. It’s not like knowing the difference between apples and oranges, it’s more like knowing the differences between oranges and tangerines. Pretty subtle. And these small differences can have a huge impact on your overall satisfaction.


Am I Working with a Partner or a Vendor?

So how can a nonprofit accidental techie with an aggressive timeline and modest budget make the right choice? Here’s a short list of identifiers to help you find out:


  • Low touch/focused on rapid execution
  • Transactional relationship
  • Takes direction rather than provides direction
  • Works to the letter of the contract
  • Builds trust in the quality of the deliverables



  • High touch/focused on the bigger picture
  • Collaborative relationship
  • Offers suggestions and strategic direction
  • Works to the spirit of the contract
  • Builds trust in the quality of expertise and deliverables

You can see how working with a partner can add a lot of value to the organization (beyond the final product).

Most nonprofit leaders understand that there is a lot to know when it comes to using technology effectively, and they need a trusted source for information and guidance. Creating partnerships absolutely brings more long-term benefits to your organization’s digital and technology projects than working with a vendor. Your partners come to understand your short and long-term goals, capacity, and constraints, and they’ll use that knowledge to deliver a product that is more likely to move your organization forward.

On the flip side, sometimes you’re not interested in a partnership – you need a vendor. I’ve worked with organizations that, for one reason or another, were only interested in getting help with one specific thing. That’s cool too, as long as everyone’s expectations are clear.


To Go Fast, Travel Alone.  To Go Far, Travel Together

How do you find a partner, or transform a vendor/customer relationship into a partnership?

Be upfront about what you want. Tell people that you’re looking for a partnership. Have a conversation about what a healthy partnership would look like for you.

My friend Cortney came to realize that she did not do a great job of articulating her needs and expectations beyond the final product specs. It would have been helpful for her to let prospective agencies know that she was in the market for a long-term strategic partner. Her experience would probably have been a lot closer to those unspoken expectations.


Your Turn!

As a nonprofit accidental techie, you’ve worked with vendors and partners. What do you see as the big differences about these relationships? Share your experiences in the comments!