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Choosing the right digital agency or freelancer

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Find out why groups and organisations often struggle to create a good working relationship with their digital agency or freelancer. If you’re about to build a new website or start a new digital service try this approach to get better results.

Problems with the hiring process

Before you recruit a digital agency or freelancer, it’s important to understand:

  • the relationship‍ – organisations and agencies agree their relationship is key. Digital work is a delicate, collaborative process. Both sides must communicate well and be on the same wavelength
  • the hiring process ‍– the way that agencies are hired by some organisations is summarised in the infographic below.
Diagram shows how the journey for charities and agencies getting together is misaligned. Prior to working together, everything is kept at an arm’s length. Once they start working together, everything is much more intimate
Charity and agency journey misalignment

It shows a process that starts at arm's length can cause these problems.

  • A lack of understanding about what the project objective is.
  • Lots of wasted time for the group or organisation creating long written briefs or requests for proposals.
  • Using procurement templates can lead to further confusion, especially when they are not designed for digital projects.

Once an agency sees a brief they aren’t always allowed to ask questions verbally, which causes these problems.

  • Answering questions by written text can be really time consuming (for the organisation and the agency) and answers don’t always add clarity.
  • There’s no opportunity to build rapport and understanding.
  • The agency spends a lot of time writing a proposal, not knowing how many others are doing the same.


  • a small number of agencies get invited to create a presentation and attend a pitching session
  • they spend time producing fancy slides to impress
  • they answer a standard set of questions
  • they don’t get a chance to really show how they work or to establish a chemistry
  • there’s an hour, or less, of interaction before a decision about who to appoint is made.

This means at the next stage, the client and agency can set off talking at cross-purposes. And much time and budget is spent repairing the working relationship.

You can keep fairness in your process and choose a better way to recruit your digital partner.

1. Keep your brief short and rethink what goes in it

Follow this format.

Break it up. Use shorter sentences, bullet points and section headers to make it readable.

Focus on user needs. The person you appoint needs to understand why you want the things you want, so they can ensure you’re asking for the right features. Tell them who you’re trying to help and how. Make it clear that you expect user-led design.

Explain what skills you want from them. You will usually want them to:

Be open about the process. Give concrete facts like project budget, number of other agencies you’re inviting to bid. Then agencies know where they stand.

Include conversations as part of the process. Build opportunities to talk into the change to respond. You don’t want to be trading big documents back and forth. Talking is the best way to communicate the essence of a project. If you need to follow procedure for fairness then you can share the important facts from these conversations with all bidding agencies.

2. Create a shortlist

You’ve got a good brief. Who are you going to send it to? How do you create a strong shortlist?

  • Use a curated directory of agencies working on social impact projects. Try the Dovetail directory.
  • Ask someone who works in a similar organisation to yours who they’ve worked with on digital projects.
  • Take suggestions from Tech for Good group meetups. These are networks of experts who want to build digital solutions to meet social and environmental challenges.

3. Use a light touch process to narrow down your shortlist

  • Send the brief to the shortlisted agencies, ask them to reply with a short email confirming if they’d like to be considered and why.
  • Arrange a short chat with four or five agencies that seem to understand your needs well and have the right kind of experience. Ask questions about their previous projects, and how they work.
  • Choose three to write a short proposal with indicative budget and day rate. You want to see they’ve reflected on the conversation and shown you how they’d work with you. Give them a word limit (say 500 words), to help prevent them from putting too much time into this phase. Let them know if you want to use the budget at this stage as part of getting 'quotes for comparison'.

4a. If possible, invite your two favourites to run a workshop

Consider allocating a portion of your project budget to pay two shortlisted agencies for a day of their time. This isn’t about asking them to pitch or present. It’s about testing their understanding of your brief and if you can work together.

Invite them to run a two-hour kick-off workshop with a brief to imagine they’ve won the project and how they’d start.

What can you expect from this?

  • They’ll show you their main ways of working - these could be very different across agencies. Some may start with data, some may start with design, others may start with user stories.
  • You’ll start talking about the project - can the agency take on board your thinking? Can you understand what they’re trying to say?
  • You’ll develop a much better gut feeling for who’ll help you realise your objectives.
  • You won’t discover how they’ll run the rest of the project so don’t forget to leave time to ask some detailed questions about that.

4b. Or replace a 'pitch and present' session with a structured conversation

  • Ask detailed questions about how they’d deliver what they promised in their mini-proposal.
  • Probe into any areas you don’t fully understand.

Next steps

Once you’ve chosen the right partner you need to keep the right conversations going to put together a contract. Read this guide on how to have great conversations with digital partners.

Last reviewed: 02 March 2021

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 02 March 2021

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