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Writing the Right Brief for Your NFP Digital Needs

6 October 2015 at 9:38 am
Ellie Cooper
Preparing a brief for your Not for Profit to step into the digital world or deliver a one-off project need not be so daunting if you following a few simple tips, writes digital consultant Brendon Hillermann.

Ellie Cooper | 6 October 2015 at 9:38 am


Writing the Right Brief for Your NFP Digital Needs
6 October 2015 at 9:38 am

Preparing a brief for your Not for Profit to step into the digital world or deliver a one-off project need not be so daunting if you following a few simple tips, writes digital consultant Brendon Hillermann.

So you’ve made the decision to start a digital project.

It may be a simple website, it may be a complicated web application or internal organisational software. Maybe you’ve been given the vague instruction of, “We need an app, can you find someone to build it?” Maybe you’ve been told that you need a digital presence, and you’re not sure where to start, or how to get value for money without knowing everything about digital.

There’s a large amount of perceived risk in going into the unknown with a bucket of money and hoping you end up with something valuable. Perhaps you’re a long way down the digital path already, and you want to augment your capability or free up your IT department for a transformational project.

All of these scenarios mean that you need to approach a digital agency. And that means writing a brief, or an Expression of Interest, RFP or similar. This can be a daunting task, especially if there’s an understanding of what you want as a result of the project, but not the shape and size of the project needed to get you those results.

Writing a brief doesn’t have to be a herculean task to undertake. There are various approaches you could take, but from our experience there are some guidelines you can follow that make these documents easier to write.

Following this approach will also help your agency by making your requirements much easier to understand and respond to. The person writing the brief doesn’t even have to be very technical.

1. Start by explaining why your organisation exists

Sharing your organisational mission will help your digital agency understand the long-term outcomes that your organisation is looking for. There are often many ways to achieve a given outcome, but a clearly defined vision and mission allows the agency to take a long term view to the advice it gives.

If you don’t already have these statements, then we strongly suggest you formulate them. Your vision statement defines the “future world” your organisation envisions. Your mission describes what you’re doing to build that future world, who you’re going to be doing it with, and how you’re going to make it happen. They help provide direction to everything an organisation does, a “north star” to measure project success against.

An example of a vision and mission statement:


-We envision an Australia where organisations for social good are leveraging digital technology to achieve maximum impact and drive positive social change.


-Our mission is to enable the Australian social sector and for-purpose organisations to fully harness the power of digital innovation.

What does this have to do with your app or website? A lot. It helps define the personality that your online or digital asset should have. It helps the agency understand what your organisation is really about, and what kind of goal the project should ultimately contribute to.

You’re more likely to get values alignment this way, which goes a long way to building long-term partnerships. It also allows the agency to make a decision about the way they work, and if it's compatible with the direction your organisation is heading.

2. Define project stakeholders

List your stakeholders, a bit of their background, why you involved them in this project, and what their expectations of this endeavour are. For example:

-ABC Bank is an investor in grassroots community empowerment programs. They have worked with us for five years and require reporting for their investor compliance process.

-The Department of Things has the mandate to deliver more things to more places by 2020. They have engaged us to build an application that enables remote communities to see the things they have.

This exercise will help your digital agency understand who is involved and what expectations will need to be met.

3. Set success criteria

Now it’s time to focus on what you want to achieve with this particular project. Describe the business outcome or the expected value of having this project completed. Note; the business outcome is NOT to have an updated website – that’s a means to an end. Any digital project must contribute to core business outcomes. Paint a picture of what success might look like, and create some measurable criteria, such as:

-We increase online donations by 20 per cent

-We increase the number of volunteers signing up by 30 per cent

-We attract larger and more frequent grant applications, seeing an increase from $1 million to $2.5 million

4. Establish who your users are

As much as possible, describe your user personas. These describe your target audience as individuals with certain attributes. If your organisation has a communications team, speak to the team’s researchers to understand as much detail as you can about the types of people that are using your service. Write them as if you were introducing yourself:

-I am a high-wealth individual with an interest in philanthropy.

-I am a university student studying environmental science.

-I am a social enterprise entrepreneur.

This information helps your digital agency understand the type of user they’re catering for, as well as having a basis for describing the features a particular user will need.

5. Develop user stories

The next step is to establish user stories. These enable you to describe the features your users require, in order for them to get what they need from your organisation.

You don’t have to have all the user stories planned out. A good agency will be able to run a facilitated session with you and your stakeholders to detail more of these. But, if you have some core capabilities in mind, call them out.

A user story describes the persona, and what they do to achieve their goal. For example:

-As a high-wealth individual, I would like to be able to fill in a form, so that I can bequeath my estate to your charity.

-As a university student, I want to be able to click on a map and see volunteering programs, so that I can volunteer near my campus.

-As a social entrepreneur, I want to fill out a grant application, so that I can get funding for my project.

6. Budget

Often in briefs and tender documents, the budget is not specified. We understand the hesitation in doing so, but we strongly recommend that you at least give a budget range. Guiding the brief in all ways except financial leaves out a critical part in managing the expectations of the agencies responding and can lead to early conflict if budgets are greatly over or under estimated.

There are often many ways to solve a problem, and some approaches require more time and money than others. Understanding the budgetary limitations of the project allows the agency to produce the best possible response for the funding available.

There is still competition, as agencies will compete on how much capability is provided for the funding as well as how elegant a solution can be provided. The number of responses that have to be assessed is reduced to those that are financially viable, rather than all possible approaches at all possible price ranges.

If there is discomfort in providing a budget in the written brief, then be willing to provide it in a briefing or Q&A session. It can even be done under a non-disclosure agreement.

7. Be open minded about technical requirements

We highly recommend that you don't specify the technology you think should be used. This might sound counter-intuitive to getting what you want, but it’s a great way to lever and test the expertise of the agency.

Limitations are healthy for creativity. The requirements, goals and budget are the key limitations, while the technology should be a part of the creative solution. It’s always best to choose the right tech for the desired outcome, so let them pitch the tech to you, based on the functions you need.

You will receive a broader set of responses, including more creative responses that could provide additional insights and possible approaches. Some agencies specialise in particular technology stacks, who might be excluded from responding because their space was excluded in the brief. You might just be missing out on the best technical fit.

Other things to consider

Something to bear in mind is that you don’t have to do everything in one go, or in one project. You don’t even need to have many of the answers when you start.

Engaging with an agency early to help scope out and test an idea is a great way to remove risk from new projects before committing to spending large amounts of money.

Some agencies will help you write tenders or scope out the project for you. As long as it’s clear from the onset that it’s not an engagement for the actual work, there doesn’t need to be any hard feelings about going to tender or seeking responses from the market after the scoping is done.

 You can read more about thinking of your website as person here.

There is a good article on the vision and mission statements by Jannell Evans on Psychology Today.

About the Author: Brendon Hillermann is a Sales Executive at Squareweave, a digital agency helping Not for Profit and organisations doing good things to leverage digital technology for maximum impact.

Ellie Cooper  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Ellie Cooper is a journalist covering the social sector.

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