April 26, 2019

Working with tech vendors: Do’s and don’ts for nonprofits

Working with technology vendors is essential for many nonprofits. Here's how you can make your engagements more productive.

4 min read

The world of Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D), like the rest of the IT world, involves numerous vendors. These vendors may provide everything from last-mile supply chain management and mobile applications for data collection, to tools for case management and rural market facilitation. There are lots of valid reasons for global development-focused organisations to engage with vendors, ranging from lack of in-house expertise in how to use a tech solution, to lack of internal availability of these solutions – not to mention the fact that software implementation is often proprietary in nature, requiring licensing payments to the software provider.

But there are good and bad ways to work with vendors, and many NGOs and social enterprises don’t recognise the importance of choosing the right approach. So, I have compiled a list of “dos and don’ts” for development organisations to keep in mind when working with vendors. Let’s start with the positives:

What to do when working with vendors

1. Do work through existing framework agreements

In some organisations, such as Catholic Relief Services (CRS), where I work, there are already existing framework agreements established with vendors. These framework agreements make it very easy to engage with vendors – usually by simply issuing a task order. Legal issues including intellectual property, terms of payment and established rates for professional services have all been negotiated and finalised. All you need to do is to describe the work. This degree of ease and efficiency represents the best-case scenario for productively engaging with vendors, and organisations that regularly require vendor services should consider establishing these frameworks whenever possible.

laptop technology workplace_pxhere

Picture courtesy: Pxhere

2. Do reach out to your organisation’s HQ for support 

Even if your HQ won’t be intimately involved in a vendor-driven project, it can often determine if an existing framework is in place, connect you with other projects that have worked with a specific vendor, provide support to your local ICT4D team and, if necessary, suggest alternatives to your proposed vendor options.

3. Do understand that vendors have limitations 

In the ICT4D world, the available vendors are often relatively small companies with more limited resources. Don’t expect them to be able to immediately respond to all your needs. Plan ahead, so your vendor has time to prepare for and adequately address your requirements – or so you can seek out alternate vendors if one can’t meet your project’s needs.

Related article: Technology for nonprofits: Caution against digital evangelism

4. Do be careful about making non-standard requests 

There may be times when the software platform you’re using doesn’t quite fit your needs, and you’ll ask the vendor if they can assist in building out a new module (or something similar). By nature, vendors will be inclined to say yes, as you are a paying customer and they appreciate the additional business. But this may ultimately cause headaches down the road due to delays, buggy implementation and lack of support. Try to use the vendor’s platform and services the way they are intended.

5. Do think about fit 

Perhaps it is a bit more difficult to quantify, but I find it better to think about establishing a constructive relationship with a vendor rather than simply taking a transactional approach focused only on the specific details of the project at hand. Take time to talk with them about their experience, expertise and overall approach. It will go a long way in making sure that your expectations are aligned.

What not to do when working with vendors

1. Don’t assume that because you are working with an external vendor you don’t need any internal ICT4D support 

Particularly in larger projects with complex moving parts and dependences, it is very important that there be a designated person on the organisation’s side who can manage things. At CRS we often have project managers who are responsible for this, but in many cases I would advocate for someone specifically focused on the technology components of an organisation’s overall work. This person can be tasked with managing procurement, establishing standards, coordinating stakeholders, drawing on additional organisational resources, scheduling testing/rollout and thinking through how the technology will be supported, etc. These are critical factors to successful implementation of technology.

2. Don’t get just one quote 

If you are not working through a vendor that you have a framework agreement with, it’s important to get multiple quotes from different vendors, and to ensure that procurement policies are followed. Not only is this important for transparency, it will also improve your chances of finding a good fit and price.

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3. Don’t go with the consultant 

Ok, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but be careful about working with an individual instead of a firm to provide services. This is often a tempting option, because it can be cheaper. But in our experience the quality is usually lower, and there is little thought given to ongoing support and maintenance of the system. Good software costs money (yes, even if it is open source). Trying to pinch pennies by cutting corners is likely to cost more in time, money and frustration in the longer term.

4. Don’t be unrealistic about cost and time 

It can take months to implement a typical ICT4D platform. There is, of course, the time it takes to actually configure a particular platform (e.g. for case management or digital monitoring and evaluation). And beyond that, though most people assume that implementation can immediately begin once a contract is signed, this is rarely the case: First, the vendor needs to ensure that resources are available, to gather and clarify requirements, and to conduct testing and training. All of these pieces together take time – and all of this time will cost money. For reference, a typical engagement with one of our ICT4D vendors at CRS could easily cost over USD 10,000 – and commonly costs over USD 20,000. Set your expectations accordingly.

Working with vendors is a necessary part of the work we do in global development – and when done well, it can provide an invaluable boost to our missions. Hopefully the above tips will help your engagements be more productive and fruitful.

This article was originally published on Next Billion. 

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Nathan Barthel-Image
Nathan Barthel

Nathan Barthel is senior manager of ICT4D Business Development and Program Design, Catholic Relief Services, in Baltimore, MD. He joined CRS in 2013 and currently is responsible for strategically integrating ICT4D into CRS business development activities.