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.

In fact, think about a scarily challenging fund-raising campaign too long, and your mood is likely to mirror the melancholy Dane’s. Just like him, you may begin to contemplate traveling into an “undiscover’d country.”

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

Basically, there are two types of consultants:

  • 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.
  • 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.

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.

“For Those Who Would Bear

The Whips And Scorns Of Time…..”

  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

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.”

Those are my views on the subject. What are yours? I welcome your comments and suggestions.