Nonprofit Management Fundraising Consultants overviews twelve key considerations charities should think about when hiring counsel. Here’s what veteran fundraising consultant Jim Eskin (founder of Eskin Fundraising Training) has to share:
I know this equation from both ends — hiring consultants and competing to be hired as a consultant. Lately I’ve enjoyed the privilege and pleasure of meeting and collaborating with fundraising experts from all across the country who have served as subject matter experts in our webinar series to empower the success of professional and volunteer non-profit leaders.
For sure, I have to admit to being biased on the topic, but I strongly believe that most fundraising consultants are knowledgeable, competent, ethical and deliver value to non-profits. Just like when hiring staff, it’s primarily a matter of chemistry and finding a good and timely fit between organizations and individuals. In many ways the stage is set for productive working relationships. The majority of consultants come from a practitioner’s background, raising money for non-profits. They have been in the shoes and the trenches that their clients find themselves in.
Nonprofit Management Fundraising Consultants w Jim Eskin
Here are my 12 primary recommendations in finding, compensating and obtaining the most value from a consultant:
- First and foremost, look for truth tellers. Every non-profit is going to have its share of both strengths and weaknesses. You need a consultant who has the integrity and courage to tell you about both. Let’s face it, many times Directors of Development and other staff just aren’t in a strong position to deliver much needed medicine to those who evaluate their performance. More than anything else, Management and Boards need to hear the unvarnished truth. The good consultants rise above telling clients only what will help them renew contracts. Truth telling is especially compelling when the nonprofit’s standing is shaky. With 1.5 million non-profits in the country there are numerous organizations who fall into that shaky category. One of the worst abuses is when a consultant makes reaching an ambitious goal sound easy. This should be based on solid research. Setting fundraising records requires the identification and qualification of leadership donors early on. There should be a minimum of 3 to 4 prospects for every tier of the gift table especially at the highest levels.
- At the first mention of a commission-based relationship, walk away. This applies both to non-profits and consultants. At the heart of Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Code of Ethics is rigid avoidance of anything that resembles fee-based commissions. It’s unrealistic to trace gifts to any single person or factor. I like borrowing the expression that it takes a non-profit village composed of several forces over time that culminate in gifts of money. Beware of consultants who claim portfolios of rich donors who they can deliver on demand.
- Compensation is always complicated. I like monthly retainers in which non-profits and consultants come to agreement to rates based on mutually developed expectations. I don’t believe in charging by the hour. Consultants aren’t like taxi drivers who can easily turn the meter on and off. Many good ideas might come in the middle of the night or over the weekend, and a good consultant is going to make sure that the non-profit benefits from their best thinking 24/7. Likewise non-profit leaders are going to come up with prospects, opportunities and ideas around the clock and within reason they should feel free to contact consultants when so inspired. One of the uplifting characteristics of the fundraising world is that gifts can surface and come to fruition very quickly. Successful non-profit leaders and their consultants need to be able to respond and take action swiftly. On fees, typically, this conundrum exists: the larger organizations especially during capital campaigns can afford to pay more while smaller non-profits with less capacity to pay need professional counsel the most.
- Mutually determine stretch but realistic expectations. Certainly, the endgame is dollars raised. While I fervently believe in fundraising goals, I’m not comfortable tying the consultant’s performance to that single criteria.
There are numerous other leading and lagging indicators that run the gamut of the gifting cycle from discovery to cultivation to solicitation to stewardship. Some of my favorite measurable “deliverables” include prospects qualified, number of cultivation moves, number of first-time donors, number of solicitations, number of stewardship actions and number of different board and staff members engaged in these processes.
- If there aren’t any alternatives, I am comfortable with consultants making the ask. My position has changed over time. Earlier I was comfortable with consultants doing everything but asking. But if there is a major gift opportunity in which Management and Board are just unwilling or unable to make the ask, I rather have the consultant do so than let the opportunity slip away. Board and Management can learn prolifically by watching an experienced consultant make a solicitation, and they will be prepared to do so the next time.
- Consultants rally non-profits closer together not divide them. The blame game and finger-pointing must be strictly avoided. Management, Board and staff all have essential roles to play and need to come together as a team to achieve the strongest possible results. Consultants should avoid playing favorites and provide support commensurately among the entire non-profit team
- Clearly articulate the existence of “kill causes” that can be activated by the non-profit and consultant. As a consultant, I firmly believe you should demonstrate value every month of your engagement. I like specifying that both the non-profit and a consultant can end the relationship by giving 30 days written notice. Non-profits and consultants should continue to work together because they are both benefiting from the partnership.
- Double down on training components and grow fundraising capacity. As a fundraising training specialist, I have to include this as a priority. Sooner or later, all consultants leave, and the non-profits will be left on their own. Through close collaboration with the consultant, they should learn how to identify and research prospects, effectively tell their stories, cultivate and nurture friendships, acknowledge gifts with unbounded enthusiasm, and, of course, be ready and eager to make spirited and winning solicitations. I am a huge advocate of rehearsing and in role-playing the ask. Winging it is an invitation for disappointment and disaster. The consultant will make the greatest impact in the teaching and training of management, staff and board to carry out each phase of the gifting cycle on their own.
- Make reference checks as suggested by the consultant as well as organizations not suggested by the consultant. Ask if they had the chance to do it over, would they hire the consultant again. These organizations should be generally comparable in their maturity of their advancement programs and had comparable needs and priorities when they engaged the consultant. Be sure to include a variety of perspectives on the search committee to represent management, staff, board members and donors. Agree on uniform questions and scoring criteria. A good rule of thumb is to issue an RFP and review a healthy number of applicants and narrow finalists to a select group of 3 to 5 consultants who will be interviewed in person.
- Be sure the finalists include the individuals who will be actually providing counsel and working directly with your organization. Too many times non-profits might be wowed during the interview phase by the consulting firm’s CEO, who they won’t see again.
- The widescale acceptance of virtual technology, especially video-conferencing has enlarged the geographic circle of consultants that can work with you. In the past, it was generally expected that consultants must meet in person with clients driving up travel and other costs. Video-conference meetings can both make scheduling much simpler, lead to sharper agendas while holding travel costs (that had been significant) to a minimum.
- Backed by the CEO and Board Chair, the consultant needs to concentrate on keeping the fundraising train on schedule. Non-profits, as they should be, have their hands full implementing their mission, programs and services to beneficiaries. In other words, staff is overwhelmed by what Stephen Covey labels the “whirlwind.” Engagement of a consultant provides high-level expertise focusing solely on the fundraising goals and objectives that the non-profit has prioritized. Prospect/donor management is hugely important and hugely time-consuming. Weekly meetings in which the consultant serves as scribe and reminder in chief are central to success. Too many times essential assignments aren’t carried through. The consultant and the discipline of weekly meetings reinforces that meetings, contacts and essential communications won’t fall behind schedule.
Non-profits need to make difficult decisions on what to do with finite resources. Adding the right fundraising consultant to the team can strengthen fundraising capacity in myriad ways including identifying and making the case for funding priorities, crafting strategic plans, researching promising prospects, putting in place solid systems, policies and procedures, and my personal favorite, learning to enjoy making winning solicitations. A good place to start is by determining goals and objectives and an available budget to initiate a cogent fundraising consultant search process.
Nonprofit Management Fundraising Consultants w Jim Eskin was authored by a nonprofit veteran whose leadership roles span more than 30 years in fundraising, public affairs and communications in the San Antonio area. During his career, he established records for gifts from individuals at three South Texas institutions of higher learning. He enjoys training non-profit boards on fundraising best practices and overcoming the fear of asking for gifts. His consulting practice Eskin Fundraising Training builds on the success of his 150 fundraising workshops and webinars and provides the training, coaching and support services that non-profits need to compete for and secure private gifts. He has authored more than 100 guest columns that have appeared in daily newspapers, business journals and blogs across the country, and publishes Stratagems, a monthly e-newsletter exploring timely issues and trends in philanthropy. He is author of 10 Simple Fundraising Lessons.
Nonprofit Management Fundraising Consultants w Jim Eskin was first posted at PAXglobal.com
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It really helped when you talked about consultants and the importance of hiring one with honest opinions. Recently, my sister said she’s in charge of a fundraiser event at her workplace, but she has no idea where to start. I think that my sister could benefit from consulting with a specialist, so I’ll be sure to give her a call later, and I’ll share your hiring tips too. Thanks for the advice on how to hire the right consultant for your needs.