The Secret of the Success of Working with a Fundraising Consultant

One of the questions I receive on a regular basis is “What is the best way to work with a fundraising consultant?” Executive staff and volunteer leaders frequently ask, “What do I have to do to insure the organization’s limited resources will be used in the most effective and efficient way?” In most cases agencies are expending valuable resources, both financial and staff time, to invest in the organization’s future. There are many questions surrounding the decision to engage a fundraiser, and often the professional staff has had to convince the volunteer leadership that the use of outside resources will insure the financial sustainability of the organization. At the same time, the volunteer leadership is skeptical about using their limited resources to fund reaching out to unknown sources of income.

The leadership of the organization expects immediate results and after the first month of a contract often asks, “How much money has been raised?” Several months later, the question will be asked again with some urgency and it may sound like, “How long will we have to keep paying the consultant before we see some income?” At the end of six months if donations have not been forthcoming there will be a sense of frustration and perhaps a desire to end the agreement.

The obvious question is how do the consultant and the organization get themselves into this position where there is an increase in the frustration level and a growing dissatisfaction with the service being provided?

I would like to focus on what I regard as the pillars upon which to build a successful relationship with a fundraising consultant. If these fundamental steps are put in place prior to the signing of an agreement there is a greater chance of developing a successful partnership between the consultant and the organization.

The first pillar is the organization’s articulation of its expectations of the consultant including what they will do together and how they will work together. The non-profit organization is focused on the immediate increase in the donations received from present and potential contributors. The agency wants to receive the needed funds as quickly as possible. Each month the retainer is paid out and there are no new contributions increases the organization’s frustration level. The organization’s leadership has to understand this is a process and its expectations have to be aligned with the consultant’s understanding of the relationship with the organization and their process together.

The organization’s professional and volunteer leadership need to recognize the nature of the process that is involved in developing financial support for the organization. There has to be an understanding that this is not something that happens “from today until tomorrow.” Often it takes months, if not more, to build a solid base of support for an organization, and when it is an Israeli organization that is looking for support overseas it may take even longer.

The clarity of understanding of the respective roles during this initial phase of the process helps to build a strong relationship between the consultant and the organization. This enables both parties to start reaching out to potential donors and to strengthen the connection with the existing supporters with a unified message. When there is a lack of clarity then there is no trust and a growing level of suspicion that prevents them from working together to strengthen the financial sustainability of the organization.

The second pillar is a clear definition of roles. It is essential for the consultant to present a detailed work plan with defined “milestones” that highlight what will be achieved within a specific timeline. Of course financial resource development is not an exact science; however, there are ways of identifying exactly what will be accomplished within a time frame. For example, if developing a presence (leadership group) for the organization in a specific city is one of the goals, then the suggested time frame of 6 to 8 months could be stated. This would provide for a “target” and the consultant would have to account for what happened that allowed the group to be formed or what prevented it from happening.

During the agreed time frame the consultant should be providing updates to keep the organization’s leadership informed on the progress. The reporting builds confidence and strengthens the quality of partnership between the consultant and the client. Thus, the third pillar in the successful working relationship between the consultant and the organization is communication.

The ongoing exchange of information between the client and the organization will strengthen the bond between the two partners. The less the client worries about what is being done on behalf of the agency and does not continually wonder, “What is the consultant actually doing for the fee that is being paid?”, the better it is for their relationship. This is an easy step and requires regularly reporting via e-mail and conference calls between the organization’s staff involved in FRD and the consultants who have primary responsibility for developing the plan for the client.

The fourth, and perhaps most important of the pillars, is the sense of partnership that needs to be developed and nurtured between the consultant and the organization. When the organization engages the consultant and throughout their work together, the consultant is not engaged to “bring in the money”. The agency has to be an active partner and to acknowledge from the first day, and throughout the relationship, that the consultant needs full involvement of professional and lay leadership, as well as the open sharing of information about all contacts and relationship with past donors. Consultants are not “mind readers” and cannot work in the dark. They must be continually informed of the organization’s contacts and supporters.

The consultant uses this data to strengthen the connection with present supporters and to expand the circle of donors to include additional people. This can only be done with a full disclosure of information the organization has about its sources of support. It is not unusual for the organization to refer to “their donors” as opposed to the “new donors” the consultant will bring to the agency. This is a fallacious belief and it undercuts the potential impact of using a consultant.

The four “secrets” to the success of engaging a fundraising consultant are based on the four pillars:

  1. Agreed expectations on the role of the consultant;
  2. Clearly defined roles for the consultant and the non-profit’s leadership;
  3. Open and ongoing communication between the consultant and the organization’s leadership; and
  4. A true partnership between consultant and the organization.

When these four pillars are in place there is foundation upon which to build a successful and satisfying relationship that will be fruitful for both parties and will secure the financial sustainability and build a strong leadership group for the non-profit organization.

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.