Consultants“To consult, or not to consult” – that is the question. Or at least it would be if Hamlet were to ask it. Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” make me think of fund-raising goals too great and resources to meet them too few. His “sea of troubles” sounds like an ocean of red ink.

If you’re exploring using outside professional fund-raising counsel for the first time, the journey is likely to take you to a country nearly as “undiscover’d” where no traveler returns as Hamlet’s oblivion. But, the land of fund-raising consultants is a place from which you can come back, and if you watch your step, with the competent and capable help you need.

Fund-raising consultants can be a godsend to non-profits. For organizations with an inexperienced, small, or nonexistent development staff, they can do everything from mentoring a budding development director to designing specific campaigns and tools to setting up the organizational structure for an ongoing fund-raising effort.

Larger organizations with considerable experience in fund-raising and a fully professional development staff can benefit from a consultant’s mastery of the process of initiating new types of fund-raising efforts and reorienting the development department.

Consultants Can Assist Organizations of All Sizes

Basically, there are two types of consultants:

1. National or regional firms offering a full range of services and a large staff experienced in all facets of fund-raising and well versed in the needs of all types of non-profit organizations.

2. Locally based individual consultants or minimally staffed firms that know a particular community’s fund-raising climate and resources and perhaps specialize in one or more broad types of non-profit organizations—the arts, education, health care, social services, etc.

…..Ay, There’s The Rub!

Generally, the first category of consultants will work only with organizations that have an established history of service and a successful fund-raising record. They are akin to investment brokers who will handle an individual’s account only if he or she has $100,000 on deposit. While their attitude may seem discriminatory and elitist, major consulting firms do not want to be confronted with organizational and board leadership problems, insufficient staff and volunteers, an indistinct mission, or any of the other likely deterrents to conducting a successful fund-raising effort.

They exist to bring more know-how to an organization which is already well-grounded and has the financial base to afford the not inconsiderable cost of their services. Such firms charge in the neighborhood of $1,250 a day plus expenses and are likely to require contracts of some length.

For non-profits that are smaller, less well-defined, new, or relatively inexperienced at fund-raising, consultants from the second grouping are likely to be able to do more and at a lower cost. Often, they are individuals who have a successful track record as development director at one or more organizations within the community. They know the lay of the land—who has given how much to what causes and who has the ability to lead a campaign.

Local fund-raising consultants can mentor an organization’s board and fledgling development staff. They are more likely to be able to help with any institutional problems hamstringing an organization’s fund-raising efforts. They probably have dealt with similar obstacles in the past while facing the same resource constraints. They are likely to be more willing and able to help an organization develop a workable strategic plan, write a clearer mission statement, enlarge its volunteer base, or undertake a maiden fund-raising effort. Their intimate knowledge of a community’s donor and volunteer base can make them invaluable. Many individual consultants and small firms will charge by the hour, and their daily rates are likely to be in the neighborhood of $500.

Fundraising Consultants for Campaign Planning and Management

A proposal from a first-class consulting firm, large or small, to act as counsel in a fund-raising campaign would likely include the offer to help determine:

  • The Case For Support
  • The campaign plan
  • Key prospects and their suggested giving levels
  • Individual strategies for major-gift solicitations
  • Volunteer leadership
  • Volunteer solicitors
  • The proportion of gifts to be sought from trustees, other individuals, corporations and foundations
  • The campaign goal

Consultants expect to be made familiar with an organization’s financial projections and strategic planning process, and to be involved in the articulation of its mission (at least in terms of how it will be presented during the campaign). Consultants need to meet and work with key staff members and trustees of the organization. The extent to which an organization must rely on consulting services for a campaign depends, to a great degree, on how much of the planning and execution of the campaign can be done by the development department. The less able the development department is to handle the planning and management of a campaign, the greater will be the organization’s need and outlay for consulting services.

Consultants should not be thought of as a replacement for either the staff or the volunteer leadership of a campaign; they are an addition to the campaign team, hired so that an organization can move more quickly and aggressively because of their added professional experience and judgment.

The best way to choose a consultant is to ask other non-profits in the community for recommendations and then interview those candidates who look as if they might fill the bill. Request a written proposal that includes a firm estimate of time and charges.

Always be sure to talk with both a principal of the consulting organization and the person who will be handling the assignment day to day, and include a cancellation clause in the contract that requires no more than 30-days’ notice.

Warning Signs and Practices to Avoid

1. Never hire consultants whose regimen and methodology are unyielding. Consultants should be flexible in the services they provide and willing to adapt to an organization’s processes.

2. Never hire consultants who request they be paid a percentage of the funds raised in a campaign. This is regarded as unethical in the industry and can result in serious and lasting consequences for non-profit organizations. See my article The Argument Against Paying Development Professionals Based Upon The Amount Of Funds Raised For Non-Profit Organizations

3. Never hire consultants unless you are committed to taking their advice and following their counsel. To do otherwise is to throw your money away.

4. Never hire consultants to ask for the money. That’s the job of your volunteers. It’s the responsibility of the board. See my article Asking For The Money Is The Job Of The Leadership And Friends Of A Non-Profit Organization: Never Hire Someone To Do What Is Their Responsibility

To Consult, Or Not To Consult

If you go into the process of picking a fund-raising consultant with the confusion of a Hamlet, then tragedy does await. But, choose carefully, with an understanding of what it is you really want to achieve and you can hit today’s goals while laying the groundwork for future success. As Shakespeare said in a cheerier reflection on problems and solutions, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

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Posted on 09 February 2009

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7 Comments For This Post

  1. Sandy Rees says:

    I appreciate the explanation of why you don’t want to pay a consultant a percentage of what they raise. I get offered this sort of compensation regularly and I explain how it’s considered unethical among professional fundraisers.

    Sandy Rees

  2. Chris says:

    I don’t understand why the percentage thing is such a big deal. I have been approached by a non-profit because of my contacts and years of sales experience. However, they don’t make enough money to “hire” me. What are they to do? What am I to do. I want to help them and they really need help. You say it is unethical. I can see the nature of “percentage” pay can get hairy, but I think that in order to make a blanket “wrong” statement is painting with too broad of brush.

  3. Sandra Sims says:

    Chris, you raise some good points on this issue. Paying for any type of consulting or services can be tough for nonprofits with small budgets or those just starting out.

    AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals) has this percentage prohibition as one practice that all members have to abide by. Their position paper has some good information, which you can access here.

    One option would be to bill them a flat fee, part of which would be required upfront and the rest within a certain time period.

  4. Anisha Robinson Keeys says:

    I’ve shared Mr. Poderis’ Asking For The Money Is The Job of The Leadership And Friends Of A Non-Profit Organization, and Kim Kleins article on hiring a fundraising consultant with several non profit organizations. Both do a great job of putting the role of the fundraising consultant in perspective.

    I especially appreciated the section about fundraising consultants asking for money. At its best, fundraising is about building and cultivating relationships—not getting a consultant (typically retained by an organization for a short period of time) to fix a fundraising gap by sharing their personal fundraising contact list (unless it would be mutually beneficial to the funder and non profit) or doing the asking without a representative from the organization.

    Non profits that invest the time and money in hiring a fundraising consultant should want that investment to be sustainable. They should be prepared to do some heavy lifting and work alongside their consultant to make certain they are able to fundraise and retain funder relationships long after the consultant is gone.

    Anisha Robinson Keeys

  5. Christopher Litton says:

    Please…this whole not paying on percentage because it is “unethical” is just simply spin that has been created in the fundraising industry because they want their money upfront. For many non-profits, percentage is the only option. I have run into very few foundations that will not allow for consultant fees to be built into the request budget. The only legal guidlines for “back door” payments are with public sector earmark funding.

    Who really cares what the AFP says?

  6. Tony Poderis says:

    Who really cares what the AFP says? The best grant writing professionals care. I believe in the standards that have resulted from thousands of grant writing professionals working to help raise billions of dollars for millions of non-profits over decades of time.

    For me, not everything should be a matter of personal opinion. Codes of ethics are established through collective wisdom because we do need absolutes by which to work and live. When I see all the wrong that can befall an organization or a grant writer in contingent-pay schemes, I cannot imagine for the life of me why either would want to go that route.

    In the end, I believe that grant writers should be paid for their time and efforts by the hour or project, whether or not the grant is received. I question whether an organization unable to pay a fair fee for work done is likely to survive. Few non-profits forced to operate in ways not fully in accord with accepted professional standards flourish and grow.

    Rather than argue against contingent pay as only unethical behavior, I prefer to share with contingent-pay seekers (and providers) some real-life consequences of such arrangements which mainly puts the livelihood of the grant writer at risk.

    It is simply not fair for hard working grant writers to receive little or no pay for their efforts due to many reasons beyond their control. I have listed eleven of those reasons which I have seen crop up time and time again, resulting in rejected proposals. In those instances, a grant writer’s time and effort were wasted and she or he received no compensation for their good faith professional services:

  7. Deborah Kay Lloyd says:

    I will get right to my idea. I would like to raffle off my house,it is not an expensive house. Infact it’s a fema trailer, I have lived in it for the past 5yrs.I will never have the money to move into something else.If 1000 tickets sold for $5.00 each, that would give me $5000 dollars.I am Divorced and live alone at the age of 55 and not alot of schooling and traing I will always be just barely making it.I would appreciate any and all feedback. Sincerely Deborah

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