A client once told me
A consultant is someone who steals your watch and charges you to tell you what time it is.
As a reluctant fundraising consultant, I didn’t like that (particularly because it came from a client…) but there is some truth to it. Often, I end up saying similar things that staff have been saying for a while. But the outside voice and be beneficial and, as it relates to my work at Shift, the focus is on implementing ideas – not just sharing or coming up with ideas in and of itself.
All this to say: hiring fundraising consultants can be a good thing. But not all the time.
So if you’re thinking about bringing on a fundraising consultant or looking for outside help, there are a number of questions you should be asking yourself before signing any contracts.
Let’s start with the basics.
There are two important pieces of this conversation. First, you need to determine if now is the best time to bring on a consultant. If it is, you’ll be tasked with figuring out who that consultant should be.
Therefore, the seven questions below fall into two distinct categories:
- How to Choose the Right Time and Place for a Consultant
- How to Find the Right Fit for Your Organization
With that perspective, let’s walk through each aspect more thoroughly.
1. How to Choose the Right Time and Place for a Consultant
The first major factor in hiring a fundraising consultant is determining if your organization needs one, right here and right now.
Yes, fundraising consultants are a great idea. No, they’re not always the best idea. (Or the only idea!)
There are three big picture questions you need to ask yourself before making this decision. Discuss these topics as a team and bring them up with your board in order to conduct a full needs assessment of your organization.
I. What are your present goals and targets?
Are you looking to implement a new a strategy to meet your annual fund goals or are you planning a more specific undertaking, like a capital campaign or year-end campaign?
This is just an example of the key questions you should be asking yourself and your team as you try to figure out what your overarching fundraising strategy is (or maybe should be).
Having a grasp on your organization’s aspirations for the near future can give a potential fundraising consultant a place to start.
More importantly, a comprehensive assessment of your fundraising strategy can give you a more tangible view of where your organization is in relation to where you’d like it to go.
Once you’re clear on your goals and targets, you can start thinking about where a fundraising consultant might come in.
Consider what role your fundraising consultant would play in meeting those goals.
Whether you need them to help you plan an event or walk you through new software, it’s important that you know exactly what you’re in need of from the beginning (and if those needs can be filled by a consultant).
II. What’s the best use of your resources right now?
Sure, it may be true that you have to spend a little money in order to make some.
Even so, you should carefully evaluate your needs against your expendable resources and consider how a consultant fits in.
You (should have) already assessed your fundraising strategy. Now, you should assess where you believe a fundraising consultant can provide something you just don’t have on your own. And, if those benefits are worth the costs.
More than likely, working with consultants will require both money and time.
That’s because a consultant is not going to do your job for you and then quickly disappear. Instead, their job is to help you do your own jobs a little better — and that won’t (and can’t) happen in an instant.
If you’re looking for a quick fix, a consultant is probably not for you.
At Shift, for example, we don’t work with clients (for the most part) unless it’s a 6 month commitment. I just don’t believe we can learn, create, implement, and advise in a meaningful way in less time. So don’t underestimate the time you’ll need to give and the time a good consultant will need to take.
But if you’re looking to learn, and are willing (and able) to expend some time and money toward that goal, this path might be a wise choice for you.
Another option you might consider is expanding your own offices full-time by bringing on a new team member.
A new hire might be the right choice if you know you’re going to need resources on an ongoing basis and you don’t think you have the capacity to learn those new skills as a team.
If you have a one-off need, a consultant can walk you through an area you may not be familiar with. But if you see this as a recurring need, either hire a consultant to provide education on that topic or bring in a new hire that can handle it for your team on a long-term basis.
While a fundraising consultant can equip your existing team with skills and knowledge, they can’t be a full-time, long-term member of your staff.
III. What capabilities do you already have?
You should also consider what you already have the power to accomplish.
Consultants can work with you in a lot of areas to improve your organization’s practices and strategies. However, unless you’re aware of your team’s strengths and weaknesses, you won’t know what to look for in a consultant.
So, take some time to meet with your team and reflect on your fundraising approach. What organizational challenges have come up that you just can’t seem to tackle? What contributions have been most effective?
These questions can hopefully put you in the right frame of mind for determining what you can do, so as to adequately assess what you can’t do. (That’s where a consultant comes in.)
The Bottom Line:
Just because you can bring on a consultant doesn’t mean you should. If you’re considering hiring a fundraising consultant, first conduct an overall assessment of your nonprofit, including your goals, resources, strengths, and weaknesses. Make sure you factor the time they need and the time you have to give to make sure it’s a positive relationship for each party.
2. How to Find the Right Fit for Your Organization
So you’ve determined that a fundraising consultant is a good fit for your organization and you’re ready to move forward.
There’s just one catch: You have no idea which consultant is the right choice for your organization!
There are a lot of options when it comes to finding a match for your team, and you don’t want to waste your time by trying to force a relationship that’s not as valuable (or profitable) as it could be.
Thankfully, there are questions you can ask yourself and your organization at every stage of the consultant conversation.
I. What’s their specialty?
You’ve already spent some time thinking about your strengths and weaknesses, so let’s make that reflection a little more practical.
Not all fundraising consultants share the same level of knowledge or experience on every topic. Like almost every other profession out there, consultants each have their own set of specialties. Find one whose strengths match your weaknesses.
For example, if you’re trying to organize an enormous fundraising gala, you’ll want to find a consultant whose expertise lies in event strategies. If your web presence could use some sprucing up, seek out a consultant with valuable educational resources for building a website, upping your social media game, or using new online technologies.
These searches can be conducted easily through a search engine or through more dedicated channels like LinkedIn.
The Internet is a great resource for casting a wide net, but don’t neglect your personal networks and real-life resources as well. If you work with other organizations, reach out and ask them what their go-to consultant solutions have been in the past.
This is particularly important as more people get into consulting with nonprofits, having a first-hand account and testimony from someone who has worked with them is hugely important.
II. What’s their plan for success?
It’s important for your organization and your consultant to fully agree on the game plan.
Big ideas are awesome, but if your consultant can’t show you a measurable, actionable path to an end result that fits your definition of success, the partnership won’t work.
At this point, you might be asking, “How do I even know what my definition of success is?”
If you’re not sure, pause and talk this over with your team. At the end of the time with your consultant, what do you hope to have accomplished? This might mean fulfilling a monetary goal, completing a campaign, or hitting an acquisition target.
Once you’re confident in your definition of success, communicate that measure clearly to your prospective partners. If they’re not comfortable with your goal — or don’t think it’s realistic — then it might be time to move on to another consultant option, re-evaluate your plans internally, or reconsider your goal and it’s attainability.
Consultants are people too (we are!) and don’t want to fail. But we also need and want the business. So we have to strike the right balance of promising some kind of result without overpromising to a project or campaign that will be doomed for failure – even if it was actually successful.
Setting these expectations and having clear communication is only one part of a successful working relationship with your consultant, but it’s a big piece of the puzzle, especially at the beginning.
If you want to see a specific map to your nonprofit’s success, don’t be shy about asking for a proposal from your top picks.
A proposal (also called a pitch) is a clearly defined way to see exactly what your consultant plans to do for your organization, including statistics and examples to back up their suggestions.
This is a great last step to take before finalizing your decision, as it can really firm up the plans you’ve already been discussing.
You could even ask them to do a small project or strategy as a bit of a ‘trial’ to see if you like them and their ideas. This is often a better way to get to know them instead of, or in addition to, a pitch and proposal.
III. What have they already done?
You wouldn’t hire a new employee without checking her references, so treat your consultant the same way.
There are a lot of fundraising consultants out there, but you’d be surprised how connected the nonprofit world can be. LinkedIn pages can be a great tool for finding mutual connections, or you can ask the consultants to provide a portfolio of their most recent projects.
It’s essential that you reach out to the organizations that these consultants have partnered with in the past. Not only will you get a feel for their specialties and strengths, you’ll also have a frame of reference for how this firm (or individual) works on a day-to-day basis.
When you speak with your candidates (and their references) don’t forget to ask the most important question: were the nonprofits satisfied with their results?
A great proposal goes a long way, but it’s nothing if it doesn’t translate to real-time results. They should have some case studies and real world examples handy for you to consider and see their work.
IV. Does it feel right?
Let’s face it: sometimes, your gut feeling speaks louder than words.
Even if you have a picture-perfect candidate in front of you, sometimes, they are just not a match. Your consultant has to be right for your organization. Even if they’ve delivered solid results to someone else, only you will know if they’re the best choice for you.
Trust your intuition to some extent, but also ask yourself key questions. Does this individual (or firm) share your charity’s values? Does this partnership reflect your mission as a nonprofit?
Additionally, you should consider the compatibility between your team and the consultant. Especially if you’re working with this person on a daily or regular basis, or for an extended period of time, you will need to be able to get along with them in a professional sense.
If you see major areas of contention or red flags for a potential personality mismatch early on in the selection process, consider it a warning. For the right consultant, it might be worth overlooking.
But if you’re already uneasy, it might be reflective of an issue that won’t easily go away.
The Bottom Line:
There are a lot of factors to finding the perfect fit for your needs as an organization. Be cautious as you select your consultant, and don’t be afraid to ask questions along the way. Your outcomes will depend on it!
Fundraising consultants can be a great choice, but there’s no way of knowing if it’s the right choice for you without seriously evaluating where your organization is right now — and where you see yourself going.
Whether you’re dead set on bringing in extra hands or are completely unsure of how a consultant might help your nonprofit, these questions can get your team thinking and help you find some clarity along the way. Good luck!