Tender mercies

Ticket - sHow to sell (and buy) expertise…

Earlier this week, as probably happens about once a month, I received an invitation to tender for a piece of work helping a charity to develop profitable new income by commercialising its expertise.

I talk about this type of opportunity all the time: my “go-to” examples might be a charity that works with carers, developing solutions for employers to help them look after and retain employees who are also caring for someone at home; or perhaps a charity that works with older people, or blind people, helping a consumer business to tailor their products or services to suit those specific groups.

In both examples, the potential value to the charity’s client can be huge if it’s done well, diversifying the employee base, massively reducing staff turnover, significantly increasing market share in a potentially very loyal customer group. Depending on the size of the client’s business, they could be looking at an annual return of six or seven figures minimum.

But most charities will never get anything like their fair share of that value, simply because of the way they sell their expertise.

Often, they will default to developing a training course. But everyone has an expectation of what a training course should cost irrespective of the value it provides, and it’s not much. In addition, nobody ever came back from a training course and changed their organisation. The potential value is low, and the impact will be minimal.

Sometimes they think about selling it as consulting or advice, looking at whether their existing business contacts, the CSR teams and HR departments of supporter organisations, might give them a grant or be persuaded to put out a tender for some support, but again, this will just scratch the surface of the value potential.

The real buyers for their expertise are the people who own the problems that those charities can help solve – the Operations Director struggling to fill vacancies, the Marketing Director trying to understand why 80% of the visits to their website don’t convert to a sale.

And the real value comes not from making a bid or a pitch, but from having real conversations, asking real questions, getting them to think through why they’re having these problems, how you can solve them together, and what that solution would be worth – how much money if will make or save if they can get it right.

Not only can you then charge what your value is worth, but you will now have a deeply committed ally who will work with you from start to finish – someone as invested in the outcome as you are, both financially and emotionally.

The reason so few charities make real money from their expertise is not that their expertise isn’t valuable – it is hugely valuable.

It’s because there’s another bit of expertise that they don’t have, which is the ability to get in front of those people, to speak with them as peers, to coach them to open up, to challenge them to think differently, and to enable them to commit to doing something about it.

It’s not surprising when you consider that most charities have been conditioned for years to bid for grants and tender for contracts, to fill in timesheets and itemise overheads, to price based on cost instead of value, and to pitch their propositions instead of co-creating solutions. I get it.

But equally it’s no surprise that the charities who are used to working in that way are the same charities desperate to escape it by developing new earned income streams outside of those funders.

Which is why I roll my eyes when a charity who wants to make that break starts by issuing a tender for support. Knowing, surely, that the expertise they need, to get away from commodity pricing and the hamster-wheel of tenders, is not going to come through the door on the back of a commodity-priced tender bid.

I used to write long replies explaining all of this, but not once have I ever successfully changed an organisation’s mind once they’ve locked into a process. These days I’m merely reminded of the old George Ade quote: “Don’t pity the martyrs, they love the work”, as I send a mercifully short, thanks but no thanks, reply.

And so instead, I’m writing to you, dear reader, so that should you ever find yourself in this position, you might be moved to think differently. Not to shoot yourself in the foot before leaving the starting blocks, but perhaps to pick up the phone and have a peer-to-peer conversation with someone who will listen, help you think, and help you come up with a better solution.

Just spare me the invitation to tender.

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