Should nonprofit tech assistance providers collaborate on “educational materials” with for-profit vendors?

Is it ethical for a nonprofit technology consulting shop to collaborate with a for-profit technology vendor to create “case study” or “white paper” educational/marketing materials featuring that vendor’s products?

We recently faced that question at ONE/Northwest, and decided that the answer (for us, anyways) was “no.”

It wasn’t a question of whether we like the vendor or their product — we do. It wasn’t a question of whether we feel comfortable recommending the product — we recommend it product when we think its qualities fit the situation. (There are other competing products that we also recommend.) For us, the decision came down to the following considerations:

*Would the proposed materials benefit our clients?*
We didn’t think they would. Even if the materials were designed to be more “educational” than “marketing-y,” what smart clients would really put much stock in one vendor’s evaluation of their competitive marketplace?

*Would the proposed collaboration benefit ONE/Northwest?*
We couldn’t see how the proposed collaboration would benefit us. While the materials featuring our organization might have gotten some circulation in nonprofit or small-business technology publications, we didn’t think that kind of obviously-marketing-driven publicity was really valuable to us.

*Would the proposed collaboration harm ONE/Northwest?*
We didn’t see a great deal of potential harm in the proposed collaboration — after all, we like the vendor/product in question and feel good about recommending their tool. However, a large part of the value of organizations like ONE/Northwest (and our many peers) is that we can offer trusted advice. But in order for us to be trusted, our clients have to believe that we are independent. And that means being very careful about how we let others use our name.

In the end, we responded with a polite “we love your product, but we think we’re going to pass on this opportunity.” We’ll probably offer to give the vendor a brief and carefully-worded endorsement blurb if they’d like to use as a reference.

It also makes me wonder: are technology vendors really the ones who should be providing market research, strategy articles and analysis? Or is this task best left to independent analysists and consultants? We think that independent analysis is far more valuable. No doubt that vendors are knowledgeable, and a smart analyst might do well to interview the leading vendors for a strategy article. But in the end, we think the editorial voice needs to be independent of the vendors in order for it to have credibility.

What do you think? Did we ask the right questions? Come to the right conclusions? Is this an issue you’ve faced in your work? What did you do?

One thought on “Should nonprofit tech assistance providers collaborate on “educational materials” with for-profit vendors?”

  1. Jon, it seems to me that you made the right decision for the right reasons, but from all you’ve said, I don’t think that the the “non-profit vs for-profit” issue was critical to the decision as your title suggests. It seems that your conclusions are more specific to case. (As a guy who has projects in both worlds, nonprofit and for-profit, I think it’s hard to make assumptions about either form of organization that can be universally applied.)

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