Sharing Donor Lists: Can You Trust a Fundraising Consultant?

I received an inquiry from a colleague who is the Director of Resource Development for a non-profit organization in Israel. She writes,

“We… have just begun working with a consultant on developing individual donors in the US. He has asked for access to our fundraising database. While I understand that he needs to know who we know, I don’t feel comfortable giving him full access to the database. I’m not sure if I should follow my instinct or ignore it.”

The comment raises a basic question about the trust between the non-profit and the consultant. When a non-profit organization hires a consultant any points of potential conflict between the interests of the non-profit organization and the interests of the consultant need to be identified. This begins with the terms of the agreement, and the trust level between the two.

Organizations working with fundraising consultants expect the person to identify potential donors who are otherwise unknown to the agency. One of the added attractions of hiring a consultant is that it is someone who has a creative and innovative perspective in reaching out to new people for the organization.

Perhaps the most important aspect of their work is the expansion of the present donor base.

You might ask, if the consultant is reaching out to new people, what is the reason they need to be familiar with the agency’s donor base? One of the basic tenets of resource development is that reaching out to potential donors is more effective when it is based on the existing donors’ relationships with potential donors. An effective consultant analyzes the organization’s list of supporters and explores ways of leveraging these relationships to bring in new donors. It is more effective than “cold calling” which means reaching out to people who do not have a relationship with the consultant or the organization.

Developing a unified approach between the consultant and the in-house resource development staff means their working together as colleagues. The consultant should be viewed as a member of the organization’s staff. There should be complete transparency between them, and in situations where there isn’t an assigned resource development staff person then the chief executive officer (CEO) and the consultant should be working closely together. In addition, for the success of the fundraising efforts the consultant should be coordinating all efforts with the key volunteer leadership of the organization.

The consultant needs to meet with the chairperson of the board of directors and be familiar with the knowledge, skills and experience of the members of the board in developing financial support for the organization. There should be regularly scheduled meetings of the resource development committee to monitor the consultant’s efforts in motivating the board members to reach out to potential sources of support for the agency. The team approach that involves the agency’s staff, the board and the consultant is the way to ensure success in expanding the organization’s base of support.

In order for this approach to be successful there needs to be unquestionable trust between the consultant and the organization’s volunteer and professional leadership. If there is any doubt about the consultant’s loyalty to the agency then it raises a question concerning the consultant’s appropriateness for working with the non-profit. A more fundamental concern is what would be the reasons that agency would engage a consultant that was not trustworthy or who seemed to display questionable practices or behaviors.

There needs to be absolute clarity that the donors belong to the organization and not to the consultant. Whether they are veteran donors or people who have been brought to the table by the consultant is of little consequence. The consultant’s commitment to the agency should include a verbal (and perhaps written) understanding as to the purposes and goals of the organization. Competitive situations (and conflicts of interest) should be avoided while the consultant is engaged with the agency.

Thus, the consultant is working for the organization and the donors that are recruited to support the non-profit belong to the non-profit. The only time the donors belong to the consultant is when the philanthropist has engaged the consultant to identify organizations they would like to support. It is an interesting question whether the consultant can represent individual non-profits and philanthropists at the same time. Certainly the consultant cannot represent the two equally, and there should be full-disclosure both to the donor and to the organization that there is a potential conflict of interest.

If we return to the original question (and whether the Director of Resource Development should share the data base with the consultant) we are now in a position to respond to the inquiry. Yes, this information should be available to the consultant in order to implement a comprehensive approach to reaching out to potential donors. If, for whatever reason, the staff and/or the volunteer leadership do not feel complete confidence in the consultant and is leery about sharing information then this might not be the right consultant for the organization.

Trust must be a basic component of the foundation when developing a working relationship between the non-profit and the consultant.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.