Relationship Advice: Finding and Engaging the Best CiviCRM Vendor for Your Organization

2024-02-21 13:57
Written by
genadellett - member of the CiviCRM community - view blog guidelines

By: CiviCRM Community Council

As an organization either interested in or already using CiviCRM, you should feel well supported knowing there is a growing community of companies and individuals equipped to support your organization’s technology needs. Finding the right partner can seem daunting. This blog offers insights on how to find, evaluate, and nurture a fruitful partnership with your technology provider to get the most out of your budget and CiviCRM system. 

One of the many benefits of CiviCRM is that it’s open source. It does not "belong" to anybody and you do not have to buy a license to use it. This also means that you’re not locked into one vendor or way of working. 

How to find CiviCRM support provides an Expert directory. You can filter by language, country, services, and software focus. The organizations and individuals in the directory are labeled with a badge. Here’s a recap of what those badges mean:

  • Contributors have made significant and sustained contributions to CiviCRM via bug fixes, coding new features, managing events, promoting CiviCRM, and providing support on Stack Exchange.
  • Partners have demonstrated expertise in CiviCRM and make annual financial donations to CiviCRM to help sustain the project. Partners provide commercial CiviCRM support services, which may be limited to certain types of CMS integrations, geographic areas, whether or not they provide hosting, or their practice focus (e.g. advocacy groups, membership organizations). 

The companies making the biggest financial contributions are generally ones that are substantially invested in the success of CiviCRM because they derive a significant income from providing CiviCRM services. Just because they have significant CiviCRM experience doesn’t mean they have the experience your project would benefit from, or provide the level of service or type of fee structure that would work best for your organization. It’s valuable to reach out to multiple vendors to learn more about their experience, business model, approach and availability. 

Some organizations and individuals indicate that they can support CiviCRM or develop sites that use it that are not in the Expert Directory. Many organizations wanting to use CiviCRM have had poor experiences if their site was improperly created by a WordPress or Drupal shop with little to no experience with CiviCRM. CiviCRM is a large and complex software ecosystem not equivalent to just another WordPress plugin or Drupal module. We recommend in your initial conversation with these folks to ask questions such as:

  • Why are you not listed on the CiviCRM website?
  • How long have you been involved with CiviCRM and how many sites and types of CiviCRM projects have you created?
  • What do you give back to the community?

Why are these questions important? Businesses are free to provide CiviCRM services without community involvement or without giving back in any way. However, engaging in the community, whether financially or contributing code or expertise is what maintains and strengthens the software, making it better for everyone. Working with an organization or individual that gives back in some way to the community is a way of securing your investment.

How to evaluate vendors

As mentioned above, it’s valuable to reach out to multiple vendors to learn more about their experience, business model, and approach. Here is a range of topics you should cover in your call:

  • Length of time working in CiviCRM and types of projects
  • Type of services offered: What is the agency’s ideal client or type of project? What are they best at?
  • Case studies you can review of previous work
  • References you can speak to who are currently working with the agency
  • Communication expectations: How do you submit requests or get support? What is the turn-around time for support? Is emergency support available?
  • Team structure: How does the vendor approach problem-solving? How is work assigned and managed?
  • Organization focus: Some agencies only work with certain types of organizations. 
  • Pricing structure: Agencies will differ in their pricing model and approach. Below are various types of charges the agency may have. It’s valuable to understand their approach as well as how fees can be changed (such as with a 30-day notice or annually).
    • Service initiation fee: a flat fee that may cover onboarding, system migration, and support estimation
    • Subscription fee: a flat fee that provides access to agency-specific services or resources, such as training materials
    • Retainer: fee, often paid in advance, for access to a set of services which are only provided as long as the retainer is paid in full
    • Deposit: funds retained by the agency that remain a liability, but provide a certain amount of protection should you miss or be unable to make payments
    • Fixed Price vs Time & Materials: the agency may charge a fixed price for services broken out into a specific payment schedule OR they may charge for the time required to deliver the services.
    • Emergency Rate: If the agency provides emergency support, that may be charged at a different rate than other services.
    • Add-Ons: The agency may offer a range of “optional” services that could be paid for via a Retainer, Subscription, or Time & Materials billing. 
  • “Break Up” Clause: Down the road if you need to make a change, how easy is it to cancel the contract? Can you easily get your data? How soon do you need to provide notice? Are there financial consequences of contract termination? 
  • Look out for “we” statements. If you are seeking to hire an agency, ask questions in a way to make sure you’re getting the benefit of the full agency and not just one person.

Recommendations for after the contract is signed

Congrats! Now that you’ve chosen a technology consultant, it’s time to get the most out of the relationship. One important step is to regularly engage your stakeholders: the departments, team members, volunteers, members, donors, etc that are impacted by the relationship. It can be risky for agencies when they have to function as the project manager for their team and yours. The more organized you are, the better you’ll be able to request support and hold your technology partner accountable.

The best way to hold your technology partner accountable is by making sure expectations, deadlines, and budgets are documented in writing. Stuff happens and plans need to be changed, but having something in writing communicates expectations, documents decisions, and gives you something to adjust. Also, regularly remind yourself what is included in your contracts so you’re getting the most out of the relationship. 

Agencies that specialize in open-source software development and consultation services understand the competitive nature of software development. If you ever feel dissatisfied with the quality of communication, technical expertise, or pricing structure, you can evaluate other CiviCRM experts without having to give up your software.