I’ve been noticing an uptick in conversations with colleagues about how we define the working relationship between clients and vendors. It’s been coming up in several different professional communities, among content strategists, UX designers, researchers, and nonprofit managers and communicators. When it comes to my own clients, I believe strongly that business relationships are relationships first, that our work together can only succeed if it’s in service of a mutual goal, and that the work we do should lift people up, not harm them.

Illustration of two people sitting at a table discussing their working relationship, surrounded by speech and thought bubbles containing a blue question mark, a yellow and red exclamation point, a heart. Each figure also sits beneath unspoken thought bubbles.

I am explicit in asking all my clients to enter into our relationship with a genuine commitment to these ethics. For some time now, I’ve been sharing this set of working principles with prospects before entering into a formal relationship. Given the current professional chatter and overall state of the economy, it feels like it’s time to make these more public and open up a wider discussion about them.

Why is it important to name our commitments to each other?

The practice of sharing and discussing these commitments has so many advantages:

  • It’s something of a vetting tool to help identify like-minded organizations who share similar values (and allow those who don’t care about this stuff to find a vendor more suited to a more conventionally capitalistic way of doing business).
  • It sets expectations and tone before beginning a project, so we all walk into the proverbial room with shared relationship goals. I find this kind of alignment helps increase the likelihood of a successful project.
  • It opens up space for a discussion about our values, our working relationship, how we hope to be treated, and how we might embody our values through the specific work we do together. This alone is rare in business relationships. If we did more of it, we might have more fulfilling partnerships!

The principles that define our working relationship

While I think of these principles as constantly evolving, I’ve tried to codify them for the sake of having a starting point to work from. This is what I share with prospects and new clients.

Trust in open communication.

I believe that honesty and open communication form the core of all equitable relationships. This is a form of power sharing that shifts the dynamic from a client-contractor relationship to a true partnership. I don’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations but I ask that we always treat each other with respect and kindness.

Bring intention to our work.

Our work together can be transformative if we each bring our attention and intention to the table. I often draw on participatory and collaborative methods that may ask more of some clients than they’re used to from external consultants. For this work to work, we each need to be active, present participants. This is especially true for key decision-makers.

Embrace the unknown.

When creating things and services for people, we often face the reality that people are messy. Strategy work often takes us into unfamiliar territory and can challenge our comfort levels. Yet these are the moments that tend to reveal the most valuable insight and help us grow ourselves and our organizations. Let’s embrace that ambiguity to discover and learn together!

Center equity explicitly.

This last one is an ongoing practice for me and I ask my clients to join me. I’d like us to ask questions about whose voices aren’t in the room, how our work might unintentionally exclude or even harm communities often underrepresented in tech decision-making, such as Black and Indigenous people, people of color, LGBTQ+, disabled people, and other traditionally marginalized and underrepresented groups—including how we might elevate these voices in our work.

What’s important to your working relationship?

I’d love to know what you think:

  • If you work with a nonprofit or community group, what would it feel like for a vendor-partner to share this with you?
  • If you work in an agency, how would you react to a contractor asking you and your team to commit to these principles?
  • Would you change or add anything to the list? Remove anything? What would your list look like?
  • If you have a similar list, I’d love to see it! Has it been useful for you and your project teams?

You can share your thoughts in the comments, or drop me note through email or Twitter.

I’d like to acknowledge and thank a number of groups who have helped me think more intentionally about working relationships, both directly and indirectly: West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, CoLab Coop, the Sustainable Economies Law Center, OpenOakland, and the Design Justice Network.