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How Can I Become a Nonprofit Fundraising Consultant?

This article was written by Tony Poderis, a veteran fundraising consultant who served as director of development for the Cleveland Orchestra for twenty years; he is not affiliated with Commongood or Professionals for Nonprofits.

Are you a nonprofit development professional thinking about striking out into the world of fundraising consulting? Think before you leap: although the consulting profession may seem attractive, you'll need to do a serious and honest assessment of your knowledge, temperament, and motivation for this work. Here are my suggestions, based on hard-earned experience.

Consultants Need Experience

No one should expect to be hired as a fundraising consultant without having a lot of real-life experience with recruiting volunteers, identifying prospects, managing campaigns, and asking for money. Large or small, young or seasoned, nonprofits expect consultants to deliver on detailed fundraising plans. You can never say to a client, "I don't know" or "What do you want to do next?" Be prepared to live in the spotlight and have all the answers.

Perhaps most challenging for an aspiring consultant is selling his or her experience to organizations blessed with a professional development staff and a record of successful fundraising. The consultant's role here demands mastery in reinforcing and accelerating existing fundraising campaigns, introducing new ideas, approaches, and strategies, and helping to reorient the development department toward different goals.

Specifically, be ready to answer (and act on) the following questions clients will inevitably throw at you:

  • Why isn't the money coming in?
  • Why isn't the money coming in faster?
  • What do we do now that the campaign chair is no longer available?
  • Why isn't the solicitation committee doing its job?
  • What do we do now that our biggest and most promising prospect has said no?
  • Should we put the campaign on hold until the economy gets better?
  • Should we lower the goal since it seems we can't reach it?
  • I know we still need a million dollars to reach our goal, but shouldn't we start going to the general community for $50 and $100 gifts?
  • What do we do now that our own trustees aren't giving at levels we counted on?
  • You're the fundraising expert: Why can't you make some solicitation calls for us?
  • What are we paying you for anyway?

Old Perceptions Die Hard

Most of us have heard the old consulting joke: "What is a consultant? Someone who takes your watch and tells you what time it is." Another challenge consultants usually face is dealing with an organization's disappointment with a previous consultant. Your best weapon against both kinds of prejudice is your careful assessment of the client organization's situation and needs, followed by a sensible and workable fundraising proposal. That'll show them what you're worth, and how you're different from other consultants.

Never Promise What You Can't Deliver

Consultants should never lead clients to believe the success of their fundraising program rests solely on the engagement of a consultant. No one can live up to such a boast and anyone who thinks they can is setting up themselves and their potential clients for disappointment. A multitude of variables contributes to a successful a fundraising campaign, many of which are not in the control of a consultant.

The Interview Process: Are We Selling Aluminum Siding or What?

Anyone motivated by a vision of grandeur should probably pass on a career in fundraising consulting. Beware the interview process known as the "cattle call," where you're led to a seat still warm from the previous interviewee and are expected to give your spiel in half an hour. When I was consulting, I took pains to avoid this; if I determined that the organization was holding a cattle call, I declined the interview. No arrogance at work here; it's just that experience has convinced me the time allotted each candidate focuses the attention of the committee more on the clock than anyone's presentation. There was simply too much at stake — the organization's future and my reputation — to make a critically important presentation under such harried and restrictive circumstances.

Negotiations: Pay and Contract

Prepare for resistance and complaints from prospective clients who declare your fee is "too much." Consultants are not adversaries; they should be viewed as one-third of a volunteer-management-counsel team working together toward a common objective. Some of you reading this might disagree: after all, nonprofits work for the public good. If you're a board member or a staff administrator, you may feel an outside professional should be willing to compromise on compensation for the good of the organization and its mission. I feel the question of fees comes down to quality: organizations that pay the best get the best.

On a per-day (eight hours) basis, some consultants might charge $500, but the most sought-after and experienced fundraising consultants charge in the neighborhood of $1,000 per day. Some will be as high as $1,250 to $1,500, or even more. In most instances, it doesn't matter whether the consultant actually works a full day, as long as the total hours-per-month requirement is met. Some consultants will charge by the hour, and their hourly rates are likely to be in the neighborhood of $100 to $125. Based on an eight-hour day, that adds up to about $1,000 per day.

Contractual agreements between consultants and their clients can take many forms. There may be occasions that demand a formal, detailed contract. I'm no legal expert, but in my experience simpler is better. Sometimes a client organization will express its fear of a consultant poaching its donor records for another client by insisting that the contract include financial-liability clauses. I always respectfully rejected this, and instead proposed the following wording: "Tony Poderis agrees to hold all organizational information, including donor records, in strict confidence." This was always sufficient guarantee for every one of my clients.

Certification

Many states require annual registration of fundraising consultants; some require bonds, filing of contracts with charities, and reports on outcomes. Because requirements differ by jurisdiction, the best course of action is to contact the attorney general's office in the state(s) where you will be consulting to determine applicable regulations, fees, and reporting requirements.

I've Put Out My Shingle . . . Now What?

Network: Join the Association of Fundraising Professionals and attend your local chapter's regular meetings.

Speak: Explore opportunities to speak (free of charge) on fundraising topics, starting with your local AFP chapter. Your local library, the United Way, a volunteer organization, or your local college may invite you to give a talk if they provide seminars and programs targeted to nonprofits. Speaking to a group of interested individuals is one of the best ways to be seen and heard in action; it also helps build your reputation as an "expert" in fundraising. Build on the success of others: Identify consulting firms or solo practitioners at work in your area. Perhaps a firm needs to add a new consultant to its team, or an individual's consulting business is growing and she or he would welcome a partner/colleague such as you.

Publish: Write an article that might be of interest to your local newspaper. Offer an article, or articles, for publication in the newsletters and/or Web sites of some of the nonprofits in your area.

Referrals: Collect the names and contact information of the board members of organizations where you've worked or volunteered. Remind them of your good association with them and ask them to consider your services when needs arise at their organizations or other organizations in the community with which they are associated. Build and strengthen relationships with foundation program officers and corporate contributions managers, and make them aware of your credentials and availability. As they talk to grantseekers and grantees, these stewards of foundation and corporate money are often in a position to identify consultants that organizations can contact as resources for their fundraising needs.

WOM: I've tried nearly every form of advertising, typically with scant return (compared to the time and expense involved). What worked best over time was good old "word of mouth." Do all you can to position yourself as a qualified, experienced, and capable option whenever and wherever the subject of consultants arises.

Opportunities to Serve and Grow

There is a definite need out there for fundraising consultants to pinch-hit as interim development directors. I have done so many occasions. A few caveats:

  • Focus on maintaining the basic and regular solicitation process for renewing gifts so that they are not delayed or deferred, and implement scheduled solicitations of new prospects.
  • Maintain giving records, ensure timely acknowledgments of gifts received, and keep general financial records in order (truly the heart of any effective development department).
  • Be seen and heard as the professional responsible for department stability and maintenance. This will help everyone have confidence that momentum will be not be lost during the search for a new director.
  • Develop as soon as possible a plan to hire a new director.
  • Don't engage in developing long-range plans or new strategies, which run counter to the definition of "interim." Such elements are better left to the new director. Similarly, don't evaluate, hire, or fire development staff; just keep the department humming as best you can. The successful hire of a new director of development may result in extension of your contract as a mentor for a period of time to be determined. (I did that a number of times.)

The Last Word: Joys of Nonprofit Consulting

One of the things you can look forward to as a consultant is the satisfaction that comes from applying your skills and dedication to improving the human condition or enhancing the human experience.

What can compare to seeing the smile on the face of a physically challenged youngster astride a horse at a therapeutic riding center? How comforting is it to watch families in crisis as they share a meal at a hunger center? How satisfying is it to know your efforts helped improve the quality of air in your community, or helped to preserve a wildlife refuge, or enabled a student to become the first in his family to attend college? More than just a job, nonprofit consulting is a privilege and a joy. Savor every moment of it.

Tony Poderis welcomes your comments at his Web site, Raise-funds.com.