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Emily’s an expert at how to navigate the website project quagmire.

Embarking on a successful website project involves a comprehensive strategy. Whether you are a novice in web development or an experienced professional, what are the best practices for creating user-centered websites that stand out in today’s digital landscape?

Today's Guest
Emily Culbertson

Emily Culbertson

Emily Culbertson is a seasoned Web Strategist and Planner with 15 years of experience, specializing in helping organizations leverage the web for enhanced awareness and lasting connections with their target audiences. In her role, Emily guides large and small organizations through strategic planning, vendor selection, and project management for online initiatives. Previously, she conducted research for Chicago’s Community Media Workshop, researching the future of news and occasionally contributing to the Communications Network’s website — a membership organization for communicators in philanthropy. Before transitioning to consultancy, Emily played a pivotal role at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, leading various projects to enhance the foundation’s website and initiate its venture into social media.

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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Emily Culbertson shares insights into her career journey and her transition into consultancy
  • Creating user-centered websites
  • Emily discusses her experience leading a website overhaul project
  • When to facilitate usability testing during a website project
  • Processes for website planning
  • When is a request for proposal (RFP) necessary?
  • How Emily discovered her talent for project management problem-solving

In this episode…

Embarking on a successful website project involves a comprehensive strategy. Whether you are a novice in web development or an experienced professional, what are the best practices for creating user-centered websites that stand out in today’s digital landscape?

Distinguished web developer Emily Culbertson provides a deep dive into the various processes essential for effective website planning. She offers actionable tips for project managers, designers, and anyone involved in the web development process. Recognizing the nuanced landscape of website projects, Emily addresses the crucial question of when a request for proposal (RFP) becomes necessary, guiding professionals through the decision-making process. Additionally, she delves into the intricacies of usability testing, highlighting when and how to integrate it seamlessly into the website project timeline for optimal results.

On today’s episode of the Nonprofit Thrive podcast, Ben Freda hosts Emily Culbertson, Web Strategist and Planner, to the show. Emily shares her career transition into consultancy with proficiency in steering website overhaul projects. She also highlights her knack for swiftly resolving urgent issues, offering valuable insights into the nuances of website project planning.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

Sponsor for this episode…

This episode is brought to you by BFC Digital.

At BFC Digital, we help nonprofit organizations thrive on the web so they can improve the world.

Our team of creative and tech experts understands that an online presence can help foundations and organizations accomplish their missions. That’s where we come in. Over the last decade, we’ve advised our clients on web design, front- and back-end development, and tech support.

We’re committed to supporting a select set of clients who continually inspire us with their vision for a better world.

To learn more on how BFC Digital can assist you in realizing your organization’s mission, visit, email us at, or call 646-450-2236 today!

Episode Transcript

Intro 0:06

Welcome to Nonprofit Thrive, a podcast where we learn from the humans who are helping nonprofits succeed in the digital world. Now, let’s get started with the show.

Ben Freda 0:23

Welcome, I’m Ben Freda, host of this show where we share the stories of leaders in the nonprofit space, people behind the organization’s foundations companies that help nonprofits change the world on the web. This is our third episode, only third episode. In the past we’ve had our first episode Ryan Ozimek from Soapbox Engage. He talked to us about CRMs and how sometimes the best CRMs are just a spreadsheet. And we also spoke with Jacob Wunsch of Media Law Resource Center, who told us some cool stuff about how to create and daily email for his membership, which seemed to me crazy hearing it, but they do a daily email for their membership and it gets like a 50% open rate, which blew my mind. So check that out. If you get a chance. We have an even better, I’m gonna say guests for today, somebody who I absolutely love. Before we get into her story, I need to tell you that the podcast is sponsored by BFC Digital, which, big surprise, is where I work. At BFC Digital, we help nonprofits thrive on the web. If you are a nonprofit communications staff member who’s responsible for your organization’s web presence, you probably know all the great stuff you can do on the web to further your mission and improve the world. You probably also know how frustrating, weird, difficult, buggy, strange web technology can be. At BFC Digital, our job is to help you succeed. Without all of that pains. We can handle everything from smallest bugs and issues you’re having need to fix all the way to strategizing, designing, building out large web projects, go to, and for get information about how we might be able to help you. With that said, today I’m super psyched to have Emily Culbertson on the show. I met Emily maybe five years or so ago on an extremely interesting project, which we might get into. I’ve been looking forward to bring her on since since this podcast was just a gleam sparkle in my eye. Emily is a digital strategist based outside of Chicago. She helps nonprofits plan and run web projects and also, this is the fun part, dives in and gets projects that are on fire out of trouble. So as you can tell, this is gonna be a fun one. Emily, thank you so much for joining.

Emily Culbertson 2:57

Thank you so much for having me. It’s wonderful to be here today.

Ben Freda 3:00

Cool. So let’s start sort of before we get into the juicy stuff, let’s just start with you. I mean, where did you start? You know, how did you start your career? And now I know you’re working on your own? How did you end up making that transition? That’ll sort of give folks a little context. Sure.

Emily Culbertson 3:17

So So I am one of those people who did not take a particularly traditional route toward anything. So I ended up actually taking a break from going to school full time and began a career in journalism back when that was a slightly more palatable or easy thing to do. The state of unfortunately, the journalism universe. So I began my career as a newspaper reporter and wire service reporter covering federal courts. I

Ben Freda 3:49

did not know that that is cool.

Emily Culbertson 3:51

It was awesome. You know, the AP is as strong as its weakest member. And some I learned a lot from that job. And I’m apologize to all my editors. So I covered state and federal court for about three years, but I needed a job that would allow me to pay for tuition. So in proof that it is who you know, my best friend Alex works, introduced me to the people at the University of Pennsylvania Health System where I got worker bee job doing communications for hospital system, and I was part of a four-person team who built our first website in 1997.

Ben Freda 4:34

Wow, you’re talking about the first website for the organization ever?

Emily Culbertson 4:38

So there was a there was a there was a med school website that my colleague Chris converse, built, and four of us built a website for the university for the health system for the hospital. At that point, the hospital had one to two other hospitals and a whole group of clinical practices. And those were the days as that was, you may remember those days, that was Dreamweaver and I did the encoding of HTML and sure, all of the content management tools that we had, apart from that were built into a web browser. And if I wanted breaks in certain things, I had to hand code line breaks into the call. Yeah.

Ben Freda 5:19

So this was through the day is, uh, you were not trained as a coder, right? Like you, you were coming at it from the communication side, which is, I mean, I would say, 90% of the people we work with. No one’s trained as a coder, right? We kind of end up in the nonprofit world. And we kind of have to dive in and learn that br stands for break, which you kind of did. So this. So you get your feet wet with even coding stuff during that time.

Emily Culbertson 5:42

Yeah. I mean, we really all kind of had to be some there I would the people, there were two of us, for writers and editors. And I guess now we would call ourselves project managers. But mostly what we were doing was client management with the hospital departments and the physicians and things like that. And then two, designer developers, we had the support of the IT team and the School of Medicine, and a server that was like, in a basement rack someplace, like, very different time.

Ben Freda 6:12

Oh, totally. Yeah. But I mean, yeah, but that is such a good learning experience, too. I mean, you’re you’re diving in, you know, you know, at this point after doing that, you know, what, you know, HTML is, you know, what CSS is, you know, what JavaScript is? So you probably, at least as you go through your career up till now, you know, you know what people are talking about, you can talk to developers, you can talk to content, people. I mean, that’s you. Do you feel like that was good for understanding later?

Emily Culbertson 6:35

Yes, it absolutely is, it is good to have a generalist role in something like that. It’s before. I mean, it’s really crazy. Like, I saw my first site map, because my boss took a directory of medical services that we printed, like the phonebook, and basically took that book apart and organized all of the content. Now, we would call that a sitemap or a site. Right now. It’s just this the structure that the pages needed to be so there were whole fields that existed in software development, or an IT that had not really come to the web yet. Oh, yeah. Oh, you know, I just, I was at I was at Hupp, for doing doing this type of digital work for almost four years, and then went do agency work. And as you can imagine, agency work is I worked at a Philadelphia agency called eyesight, and they specialized in pharma and consumer products, and in a whole bunch of nutritional stuff. That was when I discovered that people normally assign those things to roles that there was like a project manager, and someone who did information architecture and someone who did design as a specific deliverable that was all new to me, it was that structure of how you ran things through projects was different discipline than when you’re managing a, you know, really quite large, like multiple pages, like there were 1000s of pages on this website. The physician directory had 800, at least physicians and it you really learn how quickly you can get in over your head, unfortunately,

Ben Freda 8:19

Oh, for sure.

Yes. And you learn the web is a customer service medium and why wasn’t I consulted? are looking at their profiles, you learned really quickly what is important and what people pay attention to? Yeah, right.

Physicians are looking at their profiles. Yeah, that’s funny. That’s the most important page to them is their their page on on the site? Right? You know, I don’t know if you agree with this. But one of the things we always do when we’re building new sites is we try and start the very beginning, sort of changing the focus from who the organization is, and what they’re trying like, what the nonprofit, who the nonprofit is, to what the users are trying to do. You know what I mean? And it’s hard when you’re planning out what’s supposed to happen, you really want to think about your users like, what they’re looking for what they need, you know, you may need to raise $200,000 This month, or you may need to promote such and such event. And so you, you need to do that. But, but if you just put you know, it’s hard to get engagement, if if it’s really all about your needs, you know what I mean? I mean, it maybe I’m not explaining as well.

Emily Culbertson 9:20

You’re absolutely right. And actually, we have a really great story from those years at Penn to talk about that. So. So when the team was and I really want to stress how much of this work is all teamwork. And you know, it’s really easy to use I statements, but there is no, there is no sustainable web presence without a team there. There are occasional acts of solo superhero ism, but it’s really it’s a team sport and a team project. So we built out a contact us page on our website. And when it was envisioned it was oh, people are going to write and ask us how we built this thing that was so cool, and the style work and whatever you Never, we didn’t expect 40 appointment requests a day. Oh, of course,

Ben Freda 10:04

because that’s what the users were thinking. That’s what the users needed. They didn’t need to tell you how cool your website was.

Emily Culbertson 10:11

They were like this is I can schedule an appointment this way. And so

Ben Freda 10:14

These are two good examples such a good,

Emily Culbertson 10:17

we really had to pivot quite quickly. And I know this is I feel like all of my stories are old, because I’m like the old lady of the internet. But but we it was really surprising, we needed to build a partnership, my colleagues really took the lead on this, build a partnership with our appointment center, and coach people through how to what the similarities and the differences were in terms of handling people’s appointment requests online, versus handling them in a phone call. But we we were the catchment basement for any number of customer service concerns that people had healthcare, variously complex and fragmented. And it’s hard for people to get answers, and we became an outlet for people to do that. And also for people to reach out in, reach out in situations where they just felt like they had no way to turn people who were looking for people who are looking for health care providers who would respect their different parts of their medical background, someone contacted us. Again, I want to remind you, this was 1999. And who was trans and well, in finding, affirming health care, people participated in chats with us who were having chest pains, and we had to track them down and tell them to call, do we that, that they had to call 911. I mean, it was, it was a really, really wide open time. And we learned a lot of things very, very quickly.

Ben Freda 11:54

That’s really interesting. And just keeping in mind that the people that are going to come to the site are going to have a need, you know, they’re going to have a need, and what’s that need, we just did a project over the summer for an organization called the Child Abuse Centers of Texas, and they they are an organizational, I’ve got to have the guy on that we worked with his fascinating guy. But they’re an organization that helps manage staff and initiatives at the individual child abuse centers in Texas. So if a parent brings in a child, it’s where a parent or a caregiver can bring in a child who might have been abused, it’s terrible subject and difficult to talk about, but the care gets taken care of at the individual centers, but their organization is meant to coordinate all of them. So they don’t do any patient. You know, in in patient intake stuff, they don’t handle that. But we knew that man, you know, people are going to Google this, and they’re gonna think, Oh, my God, something’s happened to my family, and they’re gonna need help, like, immediately, you know, and they’re gonna, and they’re gonna come and they’re gonna fill out the contact us, you know what I mean? Like you, they’re just gonna do that that’s an event, no matter how much we say, on the website, hey, this is a non emergency thing. If you want to go to emergency then you gotta go here, people are going to do that. So we had to think about like, Alright, when that does happen, what are we going to do? So we had, we designed some things that would help direct them to the right place, but but it’s a great example. I mean, you can you can have, you can say, you can have all these wants and desires of what you want to impart. But it’s the people that are coming there, they’re going to determine, you know, how it actually gets used, what their needs are, anyway.

Emily Culbertson 13:25

Absolutely. And for those of you who are listening in are watching, I’ve been aggressively nodding this whole time, it couldn’t be more true. People will find any door and walk in and ask for help and be prepared. I guess that’s all I can say. We’re, we’re lucky that you guys were thinking about that.

Ben Freda 13:42

Yeah. And you know it well, that’s just from you know, not thinking about it in the past. And learning learning lessons. Okay, so let’s talk about one thing you mentioned was just the team, right? Like the the the fact that building project like this as a team. And I know that’s one of your areas of expertise, is running a web projects, which is, by the way, an incredibly tricky thing to do. Well, can you talk about, you know, before, can you talk a little bit about how you got into that more. I mean, I knew you worked with Robert Wood Johnson and stuff after that doing that role. But then I would also like to talk about your experiences doing that things you’ve learned to do things you’ve learned not to do? You know, anything like that? Sure.

Emily Culbertson 14:21

So, so I was at I was at Penn an ad hoc for four or five years, somewhere in there. LinkedIn will know better than I do at this point. I went and did agency work for a couple of years. And I was really fortunate that one of my agency clients was Katherine Thomas, who at that point was at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and had been my boss at Penn I owe I cannot talk about my career without mentioning that I owe Katherine two jobs and a husband. Fortunately, happily married and so I didn’t have to pay up on that. At that point, was at Katherine was around But with Johnson Foundation, she was part of just a really extraordinarily talented communications team. And I had done work for her and for one of her programs, and she said, Hey, we’re hiring. Are you interested? Do you know anyone who’s interested? You know, that’s the line, you don’t want someone to apply. So you ask if they know someone else. Hey, I’m interested. And I was really fortunate that I was able to come in there, and I was there. I was at RWJF as a staffer for I think, just under four years. One of those years I was supposed to be a remote employee, but I was actually in Princeton more than I was in Minnesota.

Ben Freda 15:38

Wow, wow.

Emily Culbertson 15:39

Yeah, it was crazy. It was crazy. It was before ubiquitous video monitoring. I spent a lot of time on WebEx on the phone and screen sharing doing work. Yeah. But during that time, again, team sport, I was extremely blessed and fortunate to work with just a really outstanding team of colleagues, and with digital agencies, because in that time, we redesigned the website a couple of times a part as part of strategic means for the organization. We did a whole bunch of usability interviews, where we really we will be able to sit down with, with people who worked on Capitol Hill, people who wanted to apply for grants people who are researchers, and say to them those questions that you and I were talking were like, well, what are you looking for? How do you evaluate if this website is what you need, if the information is fair, if the information is easy to scan, we really had the opportunity to kind of get to know what people were looking for. And so that was an incredibly formative experience in my career, we moved to Chicago in fall of 2008. And at that point, my father was in hospice care, and I did not think it was a good idea to look for a job. And so it’s like, Oh, I’ll do this consulting thing. And I can, you know, put some client work together. And that will give me some flexibility to be a caregiver for my dad. And he unfortunately passed away two months after we moved here. And it is, you know, 15 years later, and I am still hanging out a shingle work, that it’s, you know, as you know, consulting and being on the outside and brought in really allows you to see a variety of projects you get called no two contexts are the same, no two organizations come with the same level of experience or point of view, or goals. Thing, and, and definitely not budget. And so the hope is that I can learn, I can learn from the best of all of those circumstances and try to bring that to my clients. And I just feel really grateful, because my clients have been truly amazing people to work with changemakers across a bunch of fields and and hopefully you’re out there making the world safer, healthier, more beautiful. More, more everything.

Ben Freda 18:13

Yeah, totally, totally. So when you do, and I know you do two things for clients, you you help them with big projects. And you also sort of do triage, like we talked about. You mentioned usability testing, do you try and do that, at the beginning of most of the projects you work with? Where is that mostly down to what the budget is whether or not you have time, or time or budget to spend interviewing people?

Emily Culbertson 18:37

So, it really depends. There have been projects where I’ve been really fortunate to be able to go out and do almost like brand interviews, which I have to tell you, I feel very kind of over my skis like conversations. And I hope that I am always like promising, delivering at the level that I promised because talking to people about their experiences with an organization is kind of a it’s kind of a, you know, I hate to say sacred undertaking. I don’t want to undersell that. But it’s really important people are trusting you with like, well, this is my experience with the organization, both the good, or the things that might look good in one context that don’t look good in another. Because I think it’s really important as we were talking about how the brand is how other people see you. The brand is not always how you want to be perceived. So sometimes I get the opportunity to either do or help facilitate that in in the beginning. I have one long standing. I’ve had one long standing client. That’s one of many foundations that has done limited life. And so they’re out of business, where I was fortunate enough that they did. They did interviews with target users, sort of on a regular cadence. They did them in the beginning or in the early stages of particular projects, but then they had the ability to go back as they were evolving or tweaking either the website or the content they were developing? Yeah, we’ll just say, and I hope that I’m compressing many, many years work into a small thing. So I hope that I’m the top level, kind of describing the sequence. But it’s really valuable to be able to go back and say, what would you be looking for? Did this meet your need? How can your need better and and talk about that it was a real, it was a real gift to be able to, to do that work.

Ben Freda 20:25

So you so you would basically bring people in and sort of have that first. So it happens over a series of time, right? Like this sort of unfolding time. So like, you bring them into the beginning, and you say you have a series of questions. And then you develop something are you doing? Are you showing them like designs? Are you showing them content? Like what would you actually develop in between?

Emily Culbertson 20:44

So there were very few times where we were talking to the exact same person over and over again, it would be, so people, sometimes they’d be the same person over and over again, but you do want to try to when you can kind of make sure you’re hearing from like a broad group of stakeholders. But yeah, I mean, people would see sometimes people would see, and this is true across any number of projects I’ve done, sometimes you will show people like some type of comp or some type of like clickable prototype, right? They okay, if you’re gonna come to WebSite X, what would you expect to see? And you take notes about what they’re saying? And then you show it to them? And you’re like, Okay, well try to use this. And then you see where they go on the prototype? And then you’re like, Okay, well, talk to us about this experience. What were you expecting? What were you not expecting? So it’s a nation of interview. And then like, watching people do stuff, like watching people, watching people is so valuable. And sometimes it’s like, okay, you’ll make tweaks, and you’ll show it to group of people again. But the one thing that I will say, and I’m sure that both you and your clients have probably experienced this, people want to please moderator so much right? To do something they can’t do long past when they would give up on it.

Ben Freda 21:59

Because you know, how long I would, in my private life, how long I tried doing something that’s hard, like a split second, you know. To book a flight, I’m like, Screw it, I’m gonna use the other airline.

Emily Culbertson 22:13

Just like I’m done this is. So I think it’s one of those things that’s really important. Like I’ve done, I’ve, okay, I have facilitated some testing. And then I have had the privilege of partnering with other people who facilitated testing. And every facilitator has a slightly different style about how they approach that because some facilitators are like, go How about it and you learn, you really have to be like watching both the screen and the user. And the users like, slowly turning red like this is really, or flat or the users like slowly lighting up? Because they’re like, oh, yeah, this is what I wanted to know. So, but it is often important to kind of go back and get people to try to put into words to articulate what it is that they saw. And I was really fortunate in that. When we were doing more complicated systems, like searches and browsers and things like that, it’s like users will often spitball a solution. But the people who are sitting beside you are like, Yeah, that’s great. But I think I can take this feedback and the feedback of the four other people I heard from today, and craft a solution that kind of works for everybody. And it does, whatever. So it’s like, the users will always want to help you fix your interface. But that’s data. That’s like, not always yes. Directive, as they might think.

Ben Freda 23:36

Yeah, I find that to I find that people can articulate very clearly what they want or need, and can articulate very clearly what the difficulty is, but have a lot more trouble having a, like a solution. You know, it’s, it’s hard to imagine a solution in with technology to everything you imagine has downstream effects, you know, like, I was just talking to a client today. And they’re like, well, let’s toss a search bar up on the top of the website, which they totally should do, because their website came doesn’t have any search, which is silly. But hey, let’s just do that. Right. That’s a 15 minute thing. You can just toss that up there, right? But then you think, all right, I mean, you can toss the search bar up there. But then there’s a search results page, right? Like that. Like, what’s that gonna look like? And how is that gonna function and how the results gonna come back. And we might have to style that. So the style is consistent with the rest of the site. So there’s always you know, I feel often when people spitball solutions, it’s, it’s cool and helpful. But a lot of times, there’s a lot that, you know, that follows in from that.

Emily Culbertson 24:31

Oh, yeah. And then it’s like, let me introduce you to that metadata you hadn’t been looking at before now, because suddenly, that is the population of your results page. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. All these downstream things, which are all really important, like I am the type of person who will lose sleep and contact a website publisher in the middle of the night, because they use their website data to populate a Facebook ad, and the better data is on.

Ben Freda 25:01

What do you mean? What do you mean? What’s an example?

Emily Culbertson 25:03

So, um, so it was, there was metadata describing the capabilities of facility, I really, I really don’t want to talk about this anything, really, because it has to do with, there’s a member of my family who is involved with a facility. And it’s, well, I might as well just say it. So it’s a hospital that my husband works for. And one of the golden rules of like, of that I keep trying to emphasize to my husband is you can never go to the marketing department and say, My wife works in marketing. Never, ever taken seriously, like, the path to failure. And so but it was, it was like, they had borrowed metadata from the main hospitals description of a certain facility, and not actually what it was, which makes sense, copy to template, and you moved it over to a facility. And so I wrote to them and I was just like, you’re using this data and it’s showing on my face, but I had, but it’s not actually accurate to your organization, like in the morning like me, like

Ben Freda 26:07

I just definitely what you should be doing at two in the morning, right?

Emily Culbertson 26:10

I really should be like, I just I can’t I can’t even believe I’m telling this story. You’re gonna have to listen later determine if I sounds like absolute crazy. But it’s that’s the type of thing like it. It’s incredible how the smallest decision on an on a website platform can have the biggest consequences you don’t see until 18 and a half weeks later at three in the morning. Yeah.

Ben Freda 26:39

So do you, when you when you think about how to plan a project and run a project? Is that one of the things you’re trying to do? Are you kind of frantically trying to catch all of the things at the beginning? That might be a problem later? Or do you instead schedule a large process for testing at the end? I mean, what’s your what’s sort of the optimal way to run these things, in your

Emily Culbertson 26:57

view? Well, so there are multiple ways of obviously multiple ways of doing this. But when I am tasked with helping a client kind of think about how big a website is, and website projects that they’re doing, I really try to I try to, I try to grab all the things that at least in my experience can create complications at the end. And you and I know this, well, this is my infomercial. If you guys are not working with Ben, you should. Because oftentimes, like your integrations are the places like well, what can go wrong? You while your integration with your CRM could go wrong, your integration or learning management system, your integration with like an email collection tool, if you’re using third party search all of those places where you’re integrating someplace else? That’s what can go wrong? Oh, yeah. And so that’s one of the things that we say that I tried to help my clients kind of sketch out and shape and say, Alright, well, who needs to be at the table? So we can like plan upfront and test at the end? Because it’s about the other thing, right? The second thing we try, I try to think about is stakeholders, I really think about when you’re a client, and your client organization, and you’re the project manager, and you’re the person who’s charged to do this, who has the power to say no to what you’re doing. And so that is then that becomes a role of who like who, as a project manager, are you accountable to who needs to be informed about major decisions? Who need Who do you need to make sure is an agreement about goals, strategy, the timeline, the budget, who sort of needs to be like, managed up in a process? Interesting. Okay. Yeah. And then also just sort of who are sort of the lateral stakeholders who contribute content, contribute function contribute? I think when I think about this, from a foundation standpoint, like no two foundations are the same. If you know, one foundation, you know, one foundation, but generally are like, there’s someone who someone like me would be working with who’s usually in communications. They have like pure stakeholders, like in a program team and a research team. They have a stakeholder in like the people who manage the the process of applying for grants and have like a technology stakeholder who has opinions about what the content management system is where the hosting is, what the security looks like, all of that. And so oftentimes, in and foundations, I think, are especially complex nonprofits, probably know to nonprofits kind of functioning, but those, you really want to think about those roles and like, who is the content manager, who’s the content, who needs to work on that? Who needs in on how the brand is presented online? And so it’s really I write a lot of RFPs, which kind of makes me the enemy right. And a lot of time on the three paragraphs that I include called Working with a project team. So manager who’s the sponsor, who is going to be expected to weighing in, and when my work is effective, the goal is that somewhere behind that paragraph is a commonly understood structure for how disagreement will get worked out. It doesn’t always go out that way. But the thought is, this is the project manager, this is the sponsor, here are the people who are consulted. But here are the people who ultimately have to own the final decision, because they are accountable for the completion of the project.

Ben Freda 30:36

And that goes right in the RFP at the start.

Emily Culbertson 30:40

I try. Firms need to know. I firmly believe firms need to know who the client actually is. If I can advocate for one thing for my clients in terms of being good clients, it’s about being honest about who you are. describe reality, if we’re going to get three people to sign off, and they meet every two weeks. And that’s the best and only time to get them building into the project.

Ben Freda 31:04

For sure. For sure. That’s really interesting. And that’s something I’ve really focused on. Do you think? And this is sort of a side question, but, you know, I’ve seen a lot of talk right and recently about how RFPs may not be the best way for organizations to go about selecting a vendor or selecting someone to help them. Do you believe that? Do you believe that RFPs are still useful? How to make them the most useful? What’s What’s your opinion on that topic?

Emily Culbertson 31:29

So, I have a lot. It’s really hard for me to and really bad given that I do this, to come up with like a concise take on this, I think RFPs are most effective, they are specific. And they serve a process of self discovery. And some sense of when you are saying no, right?

Ben Freda 31:52

What do you mean by that?

Emily Culbertson 31:54

It’s like that the scope is really clear. Like, we are going to accomplish these four goals, for example, and we’re definitely not going to try to do this other thing, because that is too much. It’s either too much time or too much budget or too much, whatever. So, which is I think, actually in website and maybe CRM stuff, it’s a lot easier to do that than my colleagues who are doing strategic communications RFP is or like, there’s RFPs, like, that’s probably a lot harder. It’s like you can actually attempt to measure the scope for a web center of pee in a way that you can’t in other places, for sure. Yeah. So I do think, I think that the work that you do to develop the RFP is really, really useful. I push my clients to be very kitchen stinky, which is honestly a choice and not always the best one, I got to be really clear, because you can get lost between the forest and the trees, I always want to tell firms, I always want to give firms enough information that they know where the problems are, right? Like, this is the thing that might cost you a lot of time or a lot of money. And I don’t want you to surprise, but it is possible. And I am it’s a little bit of a push pull to make sure that you’re really talking about this strategy, and that I don’t need team pages, I need a pattern system that can create all these use cases and outcomes, for example. So So I do think that RFPs are useful in terms of helping an internal teams understand what they are asking someone outside to do. I do think that RFPs are very time consuming for organizations to respond to. And so at least when I issue RFP is I try to put budgets in and talk to firms before we do the issue to say this is what we’re looking at this is here are the things that are fixed. Here are the things that we don’t quite know yet. Here’s maybe like a range of what we’re thinking about in terms of the budget. Is there anything here that you’re not clear about? Like, is there anything here on a top level that you may not that you would want to know? Because then that helps us kind of craft an RFP? And then we have there’s a q&a period and that so people that ask questions, but but the goal really is to is to try to be as honest as we can be in a process like that. And so I truly believe that the value for organizations is in the work that you put in. Yeah, yeah. And so but I but I also think that the goal is to vet a small number of respondents, as time goes on, I invite fewer and fewer people. One firm told me it was about $10,000 to respond to an RFP in terms of law staff time and time for an RFP response. Time for an RFP response. I hope I’m not violating I mean, that seems like it seems like a reasonable it’s not like an out of this world kind of thing. Yeah. When you think about it, because you need like three or four people to kind of break down the scope and put it together. Yeah, make everything pretty. And then if you’re invited to a finalist interview, that’s like five people for an hour and a half, like smiling on the screen screen. Yeah. So I mean, it adds up. So the question really is like, Can you do anything to? Are there things you can do adjacent to the RFP process to limit the number of people you make go through that very specific dog and pony show? Well, yeah, probably.

Ben Freda 35:28

it’s true. It’s true. From our perspective, we do respond to some RFPs and others we don’t. And it really does come down to the quality of the RP. For us, I mean, how much information is in there? How many unknowns are there, you know, if the more unknowns there are an RFP, the less likely we’re going to put the time and energy into it, because we just, you know, we don’t know. But if it is really specific, and we know this is exactly in our wheelhouse, we’ll spend the time and energy to do it. But so that, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. The other thing that I find that sometimes people who, by the way, they should absolutely hire you to do their RFP, if they’re thinking about it, oh, my God, because we see an entire range, right. Some of them are great. Some of them are one thing we do see as people leaving out information about any integrations that need to happen. So we did respond to an RFP once and it was a membership organization. And they had they, they knew that they needed people to be able to log in to the website. But they didn’t know what the CRM was where the account information was for each of the members. And so we could put a proposal together, but we don’t really you know, and they had trouble finding out because it was an old vendor, and they didn’t know and blah, blah, blah. So in the end, we ended up winning a project with a huge range for the the CRM integration. And it turns out, it’s using a CRM called called Atlas used to be called Atlas, I don’t know if you know, it was not a major one. And you can’t really integrate it, you know, it’s an older, it’s an older system, Legacy system doesn’t really have many integration tools. There’s an API for single sign on, but that’s it. There’s no other integrations that are possible. And so it was just it was funny, it was sort of one of those things where, you know, yeah, I think if you it’s not the organization’s fault, they don’t know, you know, how are they supposed to know that you’re supposed to investigate this stuff. But that’s kind of what I’m saying, you know, hire somebody like Emily. And and, and you’ll help you work out what the investigation needs to be. So you can get information in there and get the best responses. Yeah, for sure.

Emily Culbertson 37:21

It’s really hard. I, it’s interesting. You mentioned sort of the association aspect of this, because I think that, like foundations for public facing websites. The flagship Foundation website usually has very few integrations, right. There’s like a application management system, there’s email. Oftentimes, if they’re external, if they’re like, extra nets for grantees or participants, and those are often kind of siloed off to the side, they’re not frequently integrated into the mothership. But for associations, man, you’re learning, you’re registering for conferences, you’re, you’re, you have multiple areas where you are convening in groups. And, and that is an area where I feel like associations can really kind of struggle to kind of keep all of that together. And, and it is that the simplification of all of those systems is not in my wheelhouse you and I were fortunate enough, I think you still work with W mechanic. W Forsyth, she’s really good at those sorts of things. But I do think that the one thing that I noticed with nonprofits, and I don’t mean to call this out as a criticism, but as a reality that you can run into is that it is because technology is something that you don’t see and hold in your hands all the time. It can be really easy to not think about it as physical infrastructure the same way you think about a house or a car. So that totally you and I met, I cannot let this go by without telling the story. An agency who will not be named told a mutual client of ours who will not be named that they were going to stop supporting their aging Joomla instance in 10 days, you never Oh, yeah, we told you that before. And I’m sure that they did. But that did not stick. And that two and a half months later, it turned out that the place that it was hosting this instance, was going to stop supporting the technology architecture. That website was hosted on. I have ever gotten such a frantic phone call on a federal holiday. I really think I need to talk to someone right now.

Ben Freda 39:42

Is like it’s winter break. It’s winter break why you calling?

Emily Culbertson 39:45

Yeah, what’s going on? But it’s just it just goes to show that first of all, like you saved my client’s life then because that website was gonna go down and go down heart knew that like no one and wants to like two minute drill move their website to no host in 10 days to keep it alive. Right. And thank you. But second of all, it is unfortunately, an example of, of how hard it is to be a nonprofit. Yeah. And budget for things that can go wrong that you had no idea. Like, literally, they had no idea this can happen to them.

Ben Freda 40:24

How are they supposed to know? You know, how are they supposed to know? Our clients are not techies? I mean, they sort of listened to what people say and how was it? That was an that was a crazy situation I was shocked about I mean, that is so it is bizarre that the previous people were like, well, yeah, we’ll come can’t do anything about it. You’re going down in 10 days, you know, it’s crazy.

Emily Culbertson 40:44

But then they were like, Oh, cool. We’ll come up work for Joomla developer. I mean, yep. Like I, you know, I’ve like soft landed volunteer projects with more integrity than anyway. I mean, there are times I mean, there are times I have failed as a consultant like we all have to play. Of course, nobody is as bad as the worst outcome of the weirdest decision they’ve made. But it’s just, but it is one of those things that you really feel for nonprofits are busy saving the world. And then like, they got, like, taken to their knees by a PHP upgrade that they weren’t expecting. Like, what Yes, yeah. And like, what just happened to me? Anyway, I’m really far afield. From what I’m sure was your next question.

Ben Freda 41:31

No, that’s great. Man. That’s what this is supposed to be. Right? Yeah. Well, well, this has this happened. With my last episode, too. We’re like, shoot, we’ve gotten about 2% of what we wanted to talk about. But that’s okay. That just means we’ll do it again. That just means we’ll do it again. You know, totally. We were talking about RFPs. But I do also, you know, we have very few minutes left. But I do also want to just touch on this triage thing that you do, just because I think it’s so unique and something that I haven’t really found other people who sort of say that’s part of what they do. But can you talk about that a little bit? You are actually you have maybe this isn’t? Is it an accident that you’ve become a bit of a specialist in digging organizations out? Or is this something you wanted to focus on?

Emily Culbertson 42:14

No, this is an accident. This is everyone smile, you know, every once in a while things don’t work out. And so and sometimes, sometimes it’s situations that I’ve been a part of that don’t workout. And sometimes I just kind of get a call out of the blue that things didn’t work out. It is. So and you know, I’ve also been like the in house client where things haven’t haven’t gone the way that you thought they would. And on my I am always reminded that I have less tolerance for mess and projects than almost anyone else. And then we’ll get through this. And we can it’s like important to hear all those things. But every once in a while, you just run into a situation where the firm you hire maybe doesn’t have the level of sort of, it’s usually not always technical chops, but that there’s like some core thing that they’re not getting. I feel like this happens now. But I feel like we went through a time where firms would have like mass exodus is and then it’s like, well, there really isn’t anyone on the other end of the phone, who can kind of do the things that you need to do. Or people are just like losing their they’re losing attention on a project. And so they need to kind of pour it over from someone else. And, you know, I feel like the first skill for something like that is just kind of listening, and then like painstakingly sort of saying, Okay, well what do you have? And how far did you get? And do you have access to this and some of it feels a little bit like some of it feels a little bit like negotiating with someone under emotional distress. Sure know if this might be apocryphal, but I think it’s actually true. When I moved to Oak Park, most of the friends that I made I made on Twitter. I don’t know why I was so something about my social skills. Not true. Who’s like IT engineers sometimes, like does like program systems related to nuclear power plants. And for a while he could tell you that life of like radiation and the bodies of the wild animals that were around the PowerPoint bubble? Yeah, well, yeah. Like how long like how much exposure until you can’t eat that squirrel? I don’t know. It was like crazy. And I was just like, any heat. At one point. He said to me, I was just like, wow, programming nuclear systems must be really hard. He’s like, nothing is as stressful as working on website projects. We got oh my gosh, that is great. And I was like, I felt very validated. It’s that simple. We were talking about with the stakeholders and like, but people have like you really invest yourself into these projects and when things aren’t working out, it isn’t just that the wet it isn’t the mismatch between like a set of goals on a piece of paper and a deliver a set of deliverables in a codebase. It’s, I’m not happy with you. And because it’s really like no one is a robot, right, everybody? Who does everybody who does development for nonprofits cares on a level that is, yeah, probably not different from baking systems, but it has the potential to feel really personal. And so one of the things is, one of the things that you try to do is find you try to find someone who can be like a calm, neutral, nonreactive patient listener, as you’re doing the extraction process, where it’s like, transferring a project from like organization aid organization, B, you kind of want to find that neutral person who can kind of ask those kind questions about, okay, well, where are things now, and it does help to do this work with people who can pay out who can give some type of consolation prize, when you’re like, basically terminating a relationship with someone, it makes it a lot easier, because there’s a lot of assets that you need back. And so you want to, you want to respect the fact that, well, if this project didn’t work out, you still need their cooperation, maybe you need to transfer, hopefully, you’re not transferring domain names back, hopefully, you have a better system for that. But you do want that codebase in progress, you do want the design work that’s happened, you want to make sure you get all that back. And most agencies I work with really care in the deliverables about when they hand that over, because it’s often there last protection and getting paid on project complete.

Ben Freda 46:51

It’s true, it’s true. And you and you need you need the art, the designs, but you also need the source files like it doesn’t do as a developer doesn’t do us any good. If we just have a JPEG of what it’s supposed to look like, you know, it’s we have to have the we we don’t have to but it is so much easier and faster and cheaper develop if you have those source files, so you need to get that information that stuff for sure. That makes sense. Yeah.

Emily Culbertson 47:13

And so you just really need to, and I have to be honest, like negotiation is not my strength, but I try to keep track of like Who Who are my solid cool as a cucumber negotiators out in the can kinda interesting. Yeah, sure. Yes. Yeah. No, I’m like a Livewire like you did well. Like not the attitude you have when you’re basically like, like, in the corner with somebody who you want you want their cooperation as you’re extracting them from a project that’s not working out.

Ben Freda 47:45

Yeah, that makes sense. It’s interesting. You talk about the emotional component, because I do feel, you know, I feel I do feel like doing this work. We we are, you know, I’m surrounded by a lot of people who do web development for you know, small business or large business or enterprise or whatever. And a lot of the success of the or failure those projects is more objective. Do you know what I mean? Like, you, okay, if we’re going to redesign the homepage, we’re going to increase the conversions to our lead form, you know, because we’re selling shoes, and we want people to buy the shoes, you can just calculate that. I mean, you can calculate what the landing rate is you can calculate the conversion rate is for nonprofits. It’s not like that, you know, they first of all, there’s there, you can do some measurement. And you should have some goals. Absolutely no question. But it’s often not measurable in in like dollars or clicks, right? Like we did a website for NYS TEACHS, which is a an organization that helps deliver resources to the families of homeless students in public school system in New York City. So if you don’t have a home don’t have an address. That means you can’t mail things to the parents can’t mail them, because then have a mailing address. So there has to be a digital hub where they can get things like the assessment reports, and the teachers can get guides for how to handle homeless children and stuff. And like, you can measure how many times they get downloaded. But like there’s no dollars associated with that. You know what I mean? Like, there’s no way to calculate Well, that was worth $10,000. You know, what I mean? It’s more just how we’re all kind of feeling about it. And so in a way, like, there’s a lot more emotional connection to like the end goal in a way that like dollars is more objective. I guess it’s kind of what I’m saying. So, yeah, maybe that’s not why but I do find a lot of emotional attack, attachment to a lot of the projects we do.

Emily Culbertson 49:21

Yeah, I think that’s really true. I mean, there are times I’m working, working on pharmaceutical and consumer product websites is very heavily regulated. You have to pass every word you do by a multidisciplinary committee, and you have to have citations for everything. And so it’s very, it’s very expensive and stressful to kind of meet the rigor of the standard, but it’s the the KPIs, and the goals are super simple. Did you drive more prescriptions? Did you drive attention? Exactly, well, coupons, like so like the products like selling more. It’s selling less right super clear? Well, you know, when you work with a foundation, for example, my clients, it’s like, you know, is more having more people apply? Is that necessarily better? No, because the number of dollars that you have to give out does not change. And so the question is, if you are, so if you’re driving untargeted traffic to someone that doesn’t necessarily that’s not good for the people who are being driven to the application form, it’s certainly not good for the Foundation staff who probably did not get into the business to turn people down all the time. Right. So there’s, there’s so there’s that like, what the quote, there’s like a quality metric to the the traffic that you’re looking at. And then it’s like, does this information actually allow people to make change in their policy or their practice or their guidance in order Shannon? That’s like all like impossible to measure super high.

Ben Freda 50:58

You can you can measure little parts. And you’re extrapolating. And yeah, you’re absolutely right.

Emily Culbertson 51:03

It’s in there definitely. Like I work with clients who do like larger scale, sort of, like perception measurements. And once I had a client who like found a white paper on a website, and included as an embedded Lincoln in New York Times story, and I was like, hey, my work here is done. Those like, are unicorns in terms of like, what reasonably can be expected to happen? And so yeah, I think because the lack of measurement in some of the things we do makes it really difficult to triage, competing opinions. Nonprofits are consensus driven organizations, which means that a lot of our ground to have opinions, yes, does make it does make sort of the that work, operate on a different set of human relations than say, my pharmaceutical work.

Ben Freda 51:59

I totally, totally agree. Totally agree. And then on top of it, you know, there’s a lot of our clients who, you know, want to go out of business in a way. I mean, it’s hard to say to say it that way, but I’m we have an organ that we work with an organization called Climate advocacy lab, right, like they help climate activists exchange information for best practices on changing people’s minds and furthering the client, you the anti climate agenda. So anti climate change agenda, I guess. But um, best thing in the world would be that if climate change stopped, Oh, yeah. And no one would go to the website anymore. That would be awesome. No, that’s not happening, you know?

Emily Culbertson 52:32

Right. It’s well, and I think that definitely, definitely, like when you look at direct service, nonprofits, like the ideal world is when they have engineered themselves out of existence totally. And oftentimes, it is, it is a credit to the people that you and I get to work with every day that they are tackling these, like we used to call them big, hairy, audacious goals, but enormous things like ending homelessness, or like ending ending child poverty, or all of those things. In my volunteer time, I do very, very concrete things like making sandwiches and like folding, because in the nonprofit tech side, you are constantly, you’re creating a webpage or web system that you’re hoping someone will look at, and they’ll take some information from. And then they will go out into their own context and make a change that will eventually result in more good and less bad. Yeah, it’s very, very, like it’s very diffused change, and it doesn’t have, it’s like, it’s like rolling the boulder just a little bit more quickly so that it can get downhill and make some type of like path of change or something totally concrete. And today, it’s not more prescriptions, more coupons, more names.

Ben Freda 53:50

It’s hard. It’s hard, because the feed the direct feedback is not there. And yet it’s so necessary. You know, I mean, it’s so necessary and such a blessing that people do it, you know, and but yeah, the immediate feedback is not often that they were, which makes it so hard. Listen, we could talk to you about this stuff forever. Yes, slightly afraid because I don’t know much about this podcasting technology yet, um, don’t know if this meeting is just going to automatically end at some point. So we should, but I do. So I do want to ask you, though. I my last question is typically, is there anything that I didn’t ask you that we should cover, which I feel like, there’s a ton of stuff I didn’t ask you that we should cover? I’m gonna have to have you back on. And we’ve got to do this again, because this is so much fun. And we could talk about 10 trillion things. For now. Just tell me, you know, if people are marching learning about you, and what you do, where can they go? Where can they find you? How do they get in touch with you?

Emily Culbertson 54:44

So I have a website, I have an email address. I have a couple of email addresses there. I’m on LinkedIn as well. And feel free to call me or my phone numbers on the website, too. Talking to me about your thorny website problem is always free. I am happy to talk. And surprisingly enough, a lot of people when I talk to them, I do not say to them, you should hire me, I usually say to them, think about some other thing, or I’ll tell them, I’ll tell them, you actually should think about hiring this other person. I feel like I have a lot of conversations that end with you should hire this other person. If I can’t help you, I promise I will be the first person to tell you that.

Ben Freda 55:33

Yeah, you can trust that she’s she’s awesome. She’s very trustworthy, easy to work with fun, integrity, full of integrity. Anyway, I can’t say enough great things about working with you. And thank you for talking. This was a lot of fun. I really appreciate it. And what we’ll we’ll do it again, we’ll do it again, for sure.

Emily Culbertson 55:50

Ben, thank you so much. And thank you for taking that frantic phone call from my mother-in-law’s closet about a website going away. It was December 28. And I didn’t know what was going to happen. And so I’m super grateful for like saving my clients behind multiple times over that time, period.

Ben Freda 56:10

Man, I’m so glad you called because first of all, I got to know you. But also they’ve been great clients since I mean, it’s what a great organization. Well, I shouldn’t say that we unfortunately can’t really say their name. Great organization. There is them for their terrible, terrible situation they were somehow in.

Emily Culbertson 56:26

The best association in the world. So, alright. Take care. And thank you so much for having me. This has been a blast!

Ben Freda 56:35

Great, great, great time. Thank you so much.

Emily Culbertson 56:36

Thank you. Bye bye.

Outro 56:41

Thanks for listening to the Nonprofit Thrive podcast. We’ll see you next time. And be sure to click Subscribe to get future episodes.

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