Hiring the right fundraising consultant

by guest writer Cynthia J. Armour, CFREwww.elderstone.ca

Here’s some sage advice about finding the right fundraising consultant for your organization, from a leader in the field.

Fundraising Consultants come in many forms. If you search them in the yellow pages or Charity Village you’ll find anything from chocolate bar sales to firms that drive multi-million dollar capital campaigns, and everything in between! These are all for-profit companies that can range from those driven by the bottom line to members of fundraising associations who abide by strict ethical fundraising codes of conduct. No wonder it’s hard to know who’s right for your charity.

Small organizations often have the hardest time. They are under-resourced and possibly looking for a quick fix. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I’ve heard horror stories about third party fundraisers that offered to run an entire event and then the charity actually ended up with minimal profit or worse, in a deficit because they either didn’t have a written agreement or they hadn’t read the fine print.

Wishful thinking in fundraising usually overlooks best practices and what we know to be proven methods with reasonable returns on investment. As one of my colleagues once said “we need more backbone – less wishbone”. Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) updated its Fundraising Guidance in 2012. They state “While recognizing the necessity of fundraising, the CRA expects charities to be transparent and conduct all fundraising within acceptable legal parameters.” The cost of fundraising is an important factor they examine.

Those of us who do abide by a strict code of ethical conduct don’t fundraise on commission. This is probably the most often-asked question I get from small charities. Their revenue generation strategies have reached desperate measures and they have no funds to get the expertise they require.

Charity leaders (staff and board) need to understand that it takes money to make money and it can take three to five years to get a solid fundraising program off the ground. Without allocating adequate resources to your efforts and acknowledging the costs of business the organization could self-destruct. However, it’s hard to know where to start.

What kind of consultant does your charity need?

What’s your end-goal? Be really clear on your expectations before you go searching through the array of services offered. Some consultants are one-person-shops or just focus on a single service like special events (usually more friend-raising than fundraising), grant writing or direct mail; others may offer a full-service package on their own or with associates. It’s up to the chief executive and board to clearly articulate what’s expected as a result of retaining this consultant. Be as tangible as possible. If you don’t know what you don’t know try talking to colleagues with enviable fundraising programs. Those completely new to fundraising should research “readiness” to help identify the necessary prerequisites.

Consultants don’t walk on water

Some charities expect miracles. Despite boasting that I can do the loaves and fishes trick when unexpected company arrives at my farm, it’s only because there are always baguettes and smoked salmon in my freezer!  While I can’t feed the masses I’ve demonstrated I’m a strategic thinker and subscribe to the Girl Guide’s motto.

Successful fund development relies on strategy and team effort. In order to capitalize on your consulting investment try to identify knowledge gaps and be sure organizational capacity building is part of your mutual (and signed) agreement.

What’s your budget?

Most grassroots charities can’t afford major fundraising consulting firms. Don’t despair. There is SO much information available online that without spending anything, you can strengthen your charity’s knowledge base by encouraging a culture of learning and team growth, provided you build information sharing into your agendas.

Identify your “Trusted Sources” which include this blog, your charity’s regulator – Canada Revenue Agency Charities Directorate site, Charity Village and Charity eNews to name just a few Canadian examples.

Don’t ask consultants to write lengthy proposals without at least offering a budget range; it’s a courtesy that will save time and effort for both sides. It’s even better if you can state a figure. For instance, “based on what you know of our circumstances please provide a proposal of your recommended approach for $X amount”. When a “Request for Proposals” outlines desired end goals and a clear budget it’s much easier to compare apples to apples when you review the responses.

How to decide

The advantage of retaining professional counsel is the level of expertise provided. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish.  The right consultant can give an objective perspective and help your charity create a realistic fundraising plan, set up the necessary infrastructure in order to succeed, train your board, volunteers and staff to work together as a development team and build your organization’s “culture of philanthropy”.

Depending on your charity’s needs there are a number of factors necessary to consider when selecting the right consultant. These include the company or individual’s:

  • knowledge of your area and local environment
  • relevant experience to your charity’s needs
  • references from similar charities the consultant has served
  • staff complement and who is designated to serve your charity (and their experience level)
  • credibility in the fundraising community
  • compatibility with those with whom they’re working and the organizational culture

For more information here’s a helpful link from a respected colleague — Kim Klein
Here’s some help with writing RFPs and assessing the responses.

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