There comes a time when some non-profit development professionals begin thinking about saying goodbye to their organizations and hello to the world of fund-raising consulting. They want to know what it takes to be a consultant, and how to find clients.

Although the consulting profession may seem attractive, the leap into this hazardous arena requires serious thought and honest assessment of your knowledge, temperament and motivation.

Consultants must respond to a wide range of challenges,
so they need to have a wide range of experience

I know from hard-earned experience what it takes to provide sound, reliable counsel to non-profits facing the challenges of recruiting volunteers, identifying prospects, managing campaigns, and asking for money. No one should expect to be hired as a fund-raising consultant without having behind them a broad base of experience in meeting and overcoming these challenges. Reading books and attending seminars are valuable learning experiences, but nothing trumps real-life experience.

Large or small, young or seasoned, experienced or novice, clients expect consultants to deliver the detailed plans and proven tools the organization needs to attract the funds it seeks. This is a demanding profession where the consultant cannot say to a client, “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure,” or “What do you want to do next?” It can be intimidating when all heads turn and all eyes focus on the professional consultant seated alone at the end of the table, charged with answering any and all questions

Perhaps most challenging for an aspiring consultant is selling his or her experience to organizations that enjoy a professional development staff and a record of successful fund-raising. The consultant’s role here demands mastery in reinforcing and accelerating existing fund-raising campaigns, introducing new ideas, approaches, and strategies, and the reorienting of the development department.

As critical as they are, knowledge and experience are useless without wisdom—the instinct to know, in ever-changing circumstances, what to do and when to do it. Even then, knowledge, experience and wisdom are meaningless in the absence of a positive temperament and “chemistry” with the client.

Old Perceptions Die Hard

  • Most of us have heard the old consulting joke. It goes, “What is a consultant? Why, it’s someone who takes your watch from you and tells you what time it is.”

(Actually, the joke is not far from what is mostly true in that a skilled consultant will help leaders of organizations see a path clear to meeting their needs, a path usually directly in front of them, but otherwise obscured when they are not experienced or operating in a crisis mode.)

  • One of the biggest and most common problems consultants face is dealing with an organization’s disappointment with a previous consultant. All too often we hear potential clients say, “We paid our last fund-raising consultant all that money, and we got nothing for it!”

(With our careful assessment of their situation and needs, followed by a sensible and workable fund-raising proposal, we have the best chance of convincing them that we will be different.)

Although I doubt she ever knew a fund-raising consultant, “Mother Goose” captured a once-prevailing view of the profession:

    “Hark, hark, the dogs do bark,


    The beggars are coming to town.


    Some in rags, some in tags,


    Some in velvet gowns.”

In my early days, fund-raising consultants were scarce and the public’s knowledge of them was even more scant. I recall with some amusement, business and social settings where I was introduced as a fund-raising consultant. More often than not, women would clutch their purses and men would hurry a hand to their back pockets to guard their wallets. This mock-shock, portrayed in “jest,” reflected prevalent perceptions of the time.

There is some good news. The last two decades are marked with a steadily growing appreciation of what consultants do and how valuable they can be. But, we still have some distance to go.

Are We Selling Aluminum Siding or What?

Some prospective clients still regard consultants as “vendors,” and describe us as such in their RFPs (Requests For Proposal). Often, we’re invited to submit our proposal for professional services as if we were being asked for a quote to maintain and supply the organization’s vending machines.

Another demeaning (to me), though unintentional, situation is the “Cattle Call,” otherwise known as the interview process. Organization staff lead us to an office to a seat still warm from the consultant before us who has been herded into the interview room. Seated in a separate area is the consultant who will fill the seat when we’re called to be interviewed by the organization’s leadership.

When I was consulting, I took pains to determine the nature of the interview process. If a Cattle Call was on tap, I declined. I refused to be one of the “herd.” No arrogance at work here, just experiences that convinced me the thirty-to-forty-five minutes allotted each candidate focuses the attention of committee members more on the clock on the wall than on anyone’s presentation. There was simply too much at stake—the organization’s future and my reputation—to make a critically important presentation under such harried and restrictive circumstances.

Bottom line? Although perceptions have improved, and sound consulting opportunities are more prevalent, anyone motivated by a vision of grandeur attached to the profession should probably pass on a career in fund-raising consulting.

You Are On Your Own

Fund-raising consulting is deeply rewarding and fulfilling. It’s also a highly precarious profession, definitely not for everyone. Before you take the plunge, make certain you have more than adequate experience, you possess superior judgment—and more often than not, “luck” seems to favor you. A fund-raising consultant stands ready to answer inevitable questions such as:

  • Why isn’t the money coming in?
  • Why isn’t the money coming in faster?
  • What do we do now that the Campaign Chair is no longer available?
  • Why isn’t the solicitation committee doing its job?
  • What do we do now that our biggest and most promising prospect has said no?
  • Should we put the campaign on hold until the economy gets better?
  • Should we lower the goal since it seems we can’t reach it?
  • I know we still need a million dollars to reach our goal, but shouldn’t we start going to the general community for $50 and $100 gifts?
  • What do we do since our own Trustees are not giving at levels we counted on?
  • You’re a consultant, supposed to be experienced in fund-raising. Since we’re not as experienced in soliciting as you are, and with our campaign lagging behind, why can’t you make some solicitation calls for us?
  • What are we paying you for anyway?

And so they go. Would you be able to answer these questions? Equally significant, would you be able to act on them? Make sure you can and do. Your next contract depends on it.

Never Promise What You Can’t Deliver

Consultants should never lead clients to believe the success of their fund-raising program rests solely on the engagement of a consultant. No one can live up to such a boast and anyone who thinks they can is setting up themselves and their potential clients for expectations well beyond their reach. A multitude of variables contributes to a successful a fund-raising campaign, many of which are not in the control of a consultant.

How Do You Measure a Consultant’s Value?

Consultants bring competency, judgment and a reassuring presence, characteristics that are not only greatly subjective in nature, but also practically impossible to measure, relative to their value to a fund-raising campaign. Thus, there can be no direct correlation between the involvement of a fund-raising consultant and the outcome of a campaign.

Resources available in-house allow some organizations to plan and execute fund-raising campaigns without the services of outside counsel. If they fail, who can know to what degree the outcome would have been different had they hired a consultant? There are, more commonly, organizations that ignore their lack of resources and launch campaigns on blind faith. Most of them fail, and no amount of outside help would have mattered.

The conundrum? You can measure, to some degree, a consultant’s knowledge of the fund-raising process and of the quality of the tools he or she provides. You can evaluate experience and measure capability based on track records and testimonials. What is “immeasurable” is the fund-raising consultant’s wisdom—the gut instinct to know, in ever-changing circumstances, what to do and when to do it, while maintaining a highly positive perspective and demonstrating the insight demanded of a team leader.

The True Joys of Non-Profit Consulting

One of the things you can look forward to as a consultant is the satisfaction that comes from applying your skills and dedication to improving the human condition or enhancing the human experience.

What can compare to seeing the smile on the face of a physically challenged youngster astride a horse at a therapeutic riding center? How comforting is it to watch families in crisis as they share a meal at a hunger center? How satisfying is it to know your efforts helped improve the quality of air in your community, or helped to preserve a wildlife refuge, or enabled a student to become the first in his family to attend college?

In short, the work you do will not only make a positive difference in the lives of others, it will also bring you a level of personal satisfaction beyond what most consultants can ever experience. More than just a job, non-profit consulting is a privilege and a joy. Savor every moment of it.

I’ve Hung My Shingle . . . Now What?

Network: Joining the Association of Fundraising Professionals and attending your local chapter’s regular meetings are some of the best ways to get to know folks who work for non-profits (including trustees who attend the meetings) and to spread awareness of your consulting business. Arrive early to maximize “Let me have your card,” opportunities during the “attitude adjustment” period prior to the program.

Speak: Explore opportunities to speak (free of charge) on fund-raising topics, starting with your local AFP chapter. Maybe the library, or the United Way, or an organization of volunteers, or the University or Community College would welcome such a talk as part of their menu of seminars and programs targeted to non-profits. Speaking to a group of interested individuals is one of the best ways to be seen and heard in action; it also helps build your reputation as an “expert” in fund-raising.

Build on the Success of Others: Identify consulting firms or solo practitioners at work in your area. Perhaps a firm needs a new consultant to add to its team, or an individual’s consulting business is growing and she or he would welcome a partner/colleague such as you. Utilize the “grapevine” to determine the best potential matches.

Publish: Write an article that might be of interest to your local newspaper’s writer on things philanthropic. Offer an article, or articles, for publication in the newsletters of some of the non-profits in your area. Be on the lookout for any opportunity to have something you have written published somehow, somewhere, in your community to help build your reputation.

Referrals: Collect the names of the board members from organizations where you’ve worked, or volunteered, and organizations you support. Get their addresses if you can, or do your own phone book research. Remind them of your good association with them, and ask them to consider your services when needs arise in the community organizations with which they are associated. Build and strengthen relationships with foundation program officers and corporate contributions managers. Make them aware of your credentials and availability as fund-raising counsel. As they talk to grant seekers and grantees, these stewards of foundation and corporate money are often in position to identify consultants which organizations can contact as resources for their fund-raising needs. While it’s good to be mentioned in that way, we are especially blessed when those grant-givers actually recommend us.

WOM: I’ve advertised, mailed and otherwise distributed my brochure—all with relatively scant return, compared to time and expense expended. What worked best over time, and accounted for well over 90 percent of my engagements, was good old “Word Of Mouth.” Do all you can to position yourself as a qualified, experienced, and capable option whenever and wherever the subject of consultants arises.

A Good Day’s Work Warrants a Good Day’s Pay

Prepare for resistance and complaints from prospective clients who arbitrarily declare your fee is “too much.” This common response likely reflects an organization with shortsighted leaders who fail to accept their responsibility to raise enough funds to support a first-rate organization. The retort, “non-profits pay less” is, likewise, a poor excuse unless, of course, the organization’s leaders are willing to settle for “less” quality and accuracy of work performed.

Consultants are not adversaries. They are one-third of a volunteer-management-counsel team working together toward a common objective. Organizations hire fund-raising counsel because their professional experience and judgment helps to ensure that campaign plans move quickly and aggressively—that an organization steps on the accelerator rather than the brakes.

I recognize the challenge that cash-strapped organizations face in providing upfront, fair compensation to consultants for the legitimate and important work they perform. I question whether an organization unable to pay a fair fee for a capable, qualified and experienced consultant—one ready and willing to go “the extra mile”—is likely to succeed. Many such organizations refuse to acknowledge the consultant’s role as what is arguably the most important function in the organization and compound their problems by asking accomplished professionals to work for below standard wages.

Some reading this article might react with indignation or disappointment over my views about fair pay for a good consultant. After all, non-profits work for the public good and charitable attitudes abound in such an environment. If you’re a board member or a staff administrator, you may feel an outside professional should be willing to compromise on compensation for the good of the organization and its mission.

The question of fees comes down to quality. Organizations that pay the best get the best. Only if leaders of an organization are willing to settle for mediocre effort can they justify an offer of mediocre pay. An old adage describes well the outcome of such a decision: Penny wise, pound foolish!

What Do I Charge For My Consulting Services?

The extent to which an organization must rely on consulting services for a campaign depends to a significant degree on how much of the planning and execution of the campaign can be accomplished by the non-profit board and staff. The less able the organization is to handle the planning and management of the campaign, the greater will be the organization’s need of and outlay for consulting services.

On a per-day (eight hours) basis, some consultants might charge $500, but the most sought after and experienced fund-raising consultants charge in the neighborhood of $1,000 per day. Some will be as high as $1,250 to $1,500 or even more. In most instances, it doesn’t matter whether the consultant actually works a full day at a time. You just have to be sure the total hours-per-month requirement is met.

Some consultants will charge by the hour, and their hourly rates are likely to be in the neighborhood of $100 to $125. Based on an eight-hour day, that adds up to about $1,000 per day.

Focusing too strongly on fees for consulting services, in terms of cost per hour, per day, or per month can mislead. A stated hourly, daily, or monthly rate is relatively meaningless. It all comes down to the total time provided by a consultant to the consulting engagement.

Travel Time

The issue of compensation for travel to and from “real time” meetings and service delivery requires considerable thought undertaken well in advance in order to avoid surprises.

The practices of consultants no doubt vary a great deal. I charged the going IRS mileage-reimbursement rate if the trip—door to door—was 1 hour or less (approx. 60 miles). I billed 1/2 the equivalent of an hourly fee for professional services for time in the “driver’s seat” for trips in excess of 1 hour/60 miles, as well as full mileage reimbursement.

Giving Gifts To Clients

Iʻve been asked by colleagues about my policy on gifts to clients, e.g., flowers or candy when a special donation is received, a campaign milestone is reached, etc. My response? I never sent gifts to my clients.

Practically speaking, if it’s a bouquet this time, clients might then anticipate the arrival of a fruit basket the next time. I was wary of setting such a precedent.

When the time was right, I sent letters of congratulations to the appropriate person or persons, with copies going where they would do the most good. I did this always with great care. Sometimes we must work praise and congratulatory letters around organizational politics, especially when directed to what may be troubled or difficult staff. We might just be giving high and public praise to someone the boss wants to fire. I know this from personal experience!

Along with well-directed congratulatory or complimentary letters, I always sent my personal contribution at the end of my engagement. I found no workable formula or benchmark relative to the goal or the actual money raised, what other consultants gave in the past, etc. I gave what I thought to be fair and generous, and clients always regarded what I gave in that way. Of course, the amount of my donation related to how well we did in reaching the goal and the job done by the leadership.

When I was a member of a consulting firm, the firm’s Principal sent our company’s contribution to each client we served upon conclusion of the campaign. Karen, as the owner of the firm, made the decisions based on profits earned and we team members were satisfied our respective clients were favored accordingly.

In my opinion, whatever a consultant contributes should be considered a bonus—something given in addition to services good, reliable and, most often, beyond what is “contracted.”

Consulting Through the Lens of the Law

There are a few states in America where government officials are working toward registration of everyone in the fund-raising “business.” What disturbs me is the trend to lump together under the label of “Professional Fund-Raising Counsel” the “paid solicitor” (such as those who call while you’re eating dinner) and professional counsel. Such standards fail to distinguish between consultants who advise their clients and guide fund-raising approaches and individuals who solicit, receive, hold donated funds, and other things best described as “conducting fund-raising campaigns” on behalf of their clients.

The more deeply involved in the fund-raising work of the client one becomes, the more cautious he or she must be in these areas. The first steps would almost certainly involve inquiries and exploration of opportunities to correct any errors concerning registration and reporting.

Many states require annual registration; some require bonds, filing of contracts with charities, and reports on outcomes. Because requirements differ by jurisdiction, the best course of action is to contact the Attorney General in the state(s) where you will be consulting and determine applicable regulations, fees and reporting requirements.

Pulling the Plug

The time may come when you need to decline an engagement or exercise the termination clause of your contract. Although infrequent, I have found it necessary to walk away from unworkable situations.

One client didn’t want me to report feasibility-study results they didn’t like. The “messenger” (me) reported verbatim responses of the 25 participants they selected for me to interview, each of whom answered questions approved in advance by the organization’s leadership.

Board members were expecting results of the study as promised in our contract as well as in the introductory letter sent to each interviewee. But, the executive director and the president persisted, asking me to “soften” the wording of negative and critical comments made by several of the study participants. In other words, they wanted me to “make up” new quotes for them.

I refused, insisting the words of interviewees, without attribution, had to be in the final report. A split-second moment of decision followed when the two officials remained adamant about altering the report. I got up, gathered my papers, thanked them politely, warned them they were making a huge mistake in misleading their stake holders, and walked away, leaving the original report in their hands.

I don’t know if they ever learned the more negative a study’s results are, the more important it is to forego bruised egos and pay attention and respond to honest input from key stake holders. I don’t know either if they ever launched their campaign.

Opportunities to Serve and Grow

There is definite niche—a much-needed service—for a fund-raising consultant offering services as an interim development director. I have done so many times, serving numerous and various types of non-profits on an interim basis and helping them identify and recruit their next development directors. Following are ways such engagements worked best and why once your engaged:

  • Focus on maintaining the basic and regular solicitation process for renewing gifts so such funds are not delayed or deferred; implement scheduled solicitations of new prospects.
  • Maintain giving records, ensure timely acknowledgments of gifts received, and keep general financial records in order. As you know, this is truly the heart of any development department.
  • Be seen and heard as the professional responsible for department stability and maintenance. This will help everyone have confidence that momentum will be not be lost during the search for the new director.
  • Develop as soon as possible a plan to hire the new Director of Development. Working with a clear job description, issue a “call for resumes” geographically appropriate to organizational needs and resources. Review the resumes, interview the best candidates, then recommend the top two or three for interviews with the organization’s key officials.

What I suggest you do not do:

  • Don’t engage in developing long-range plans or new strategies, which counters the definition of “interim.” Such elements are better left to the new director. (As the old adage says, “The doer must also be the planner.”)
  • Don’t engage in evaluating development office staff. Keep the department humming as best you can. You can’t fire anyone, and you certainly can’t hire anyone. Again, those duties are for the new, “permanent,” director to handle.

The experience level of a new director of development may result in extension of your contract as a mentor for a time to be determined. I did that as well, a number of times.


Agreements between consultants and their clients can take many forms. There may be occasions that demand a contract formal in nature, intricate in wording, and legalistic in phraseology. In my experience, however, simpler is better. The following are points I emphasized before I took on a job:

  1. Understanding that I was not a consultant whose regimen and methodology was unyielding. I would be flexible in the services I provided and willing to adapt to the organization’s processes.
  2. Clients unwilling to take my advice and follow my counsel should not hire me. To do so would waste my time and their money.
  3. No reputable consultant will “hire on” as a fund-raiser or agree to compensation based on a contingency or a percentage of funds raised.

I’m not in position to give legal advice regarding the terms of an agreement which you, as a consultant, would present to a potential client or, as it sometimes happens, the terms of a contract the client presents to you.

The latter, often drawn by the client’s attorney, entails mind-numbing language far beyond what is necessary and probably beyond what you want to negotiate. I’m not suggesting your response to such situations. I can only tell you what I have done on the several occasions when clients presented me with such excruciatingly exacting legal documents that I balked at the idea of agreeing to them.

In a few such contracts, there were even exacting amounts of money cited as possible damages for which I would be liable, relative to a number of unreasonable conditions. Chief among them was that somehow I could cost them money by steering their donors to other clients. In that and all similar cases, I rejected any financial-liability clauses, regardless the reasons, or the way in which they were worded.

In each instance, the client’s presentation of a detailed legal document was subsequent to the submission of my simple contract for services. The terms of my contracts were based on oral or written invitations for submission and preceded by at least one explorative meeting with officials of the organization. Even absent the inclusion of financial liability, I respectfully rejected what I thought to be unnecessarily formal, intricate, and legalistic phraseology, and simply replaced it with the following:

“Tony Poderis agrees to hold all organizational information, including donor records, in strict confidence.”

The revised contracts were accepted each time—no exception.

In times long past, a simple handshake constituted agreement, but that’s no longer so in our litigious society. That’s why I chose to write contracts that engendered trust—without the imposing and intricate language that seems to dictate distance, an impersonal relationship, and the need for caution, if not skepticism, of the consultant’s integrity.

To me, framing the relationship in this manner is a poor way to begin. The most successful and rewarding relationships in the philanthropic world work on trust. Rare are the times when we, as consultants, would ever have cause to exact legal action against a client. Even if action appears justified, we seldom follow through with a lawsuit. Victimized as we may in fact be, the labeling as one likely to instigate capricious law suits would cause irreparable damage to our standing with the non-profit community.

I expected my non-profit clients to share my respect for our association and my role as a trusted member of the organization’s “team.” Contract language that suggests otherwise almost predicts trouble and positions non-profits and their fund-raising consultants as adversaries rather than partners working to achieve a common goal.

Additional Reading: