Be very careful when selecting a consultant

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While consultants bring an important expertise to organizations, many firms are finding it difficult to adjust to their changing roles, the changing needs, and the changing times. No longer relegated to on-site assistance, primarily raising money for bricks and mortar, today's consultant is just as likely to be called on to increase staff and volunteer skill levels; develop long- or short-term income-generating strategies; enhance fundraising culture, undertake internal and/or external audits to determine constituency campaign readiness; or produce plans for fundraising programs and integrate them with the mission, goals and objectives of the organization.

"There are a number of roles the consultant can play," said Allan Arlett, principal of The Arlett van Rotterdam Partnership, speaking at the recent Infonex Conference in Toronto. "They can play the role of advocate, teacher/trainer, fact finder/detective, resource finder/linker, identifier of alternatives; information specialist, expert, facilitator/process counselor, monitor/clock, joint problem solver, objective observer, and the list goes on."

Entitled Considerations for Dealing with Fundraising Firms and Consultants, the seminar also spoke to the growing sophistication of the fundraising field and the new critical mass of talent that supports it. Some of the examples cited: "The growth in foundations which have been established for fundraising purposes; the explosion in the number of individuals involved as fundraising staff; the growth in giving by Canadians; the increased amount of money being sought; improved training available to those in the field; better technology and integration of fundraising; CEO's more involved in the arena; the people that are being attracted to the field who now see it as a career; and the fact that the field itself has become more specialized." Given all of these changes, it is of little surprise that the need for consultants has changed as well.

Consultants must respect their client organizations

Arlett cited seven key factors that should be the hallmark of a competent fundraising consultant and their proposals:

  1. A demonstrated capacity to assess organizational readiness for any fundraising strategy or program.
  2. A plan to involve the organization in analysis, planning, and decision making.
  3. Specific fundraising experience, and a plan to direct the client until the organization is comfortable with the approach.
  4. An approach that will adapt established methodologies for all fundraising strategies to the specific organization with which they work.
  5. Involvement in the early implementation stages of plans they help create.
  6. Ability to change from a content- to a process-orientation as organizational development issues arise.
  7. Respect for the client organizations.

"When all is said and done, the role of a consultant is to make something different happen. Whether this is to take action in response to a feasibility study or define the roles of boards, staff and volunteers in fundraising," he said. Arlett also identified the four prime tasks a fundraising consultant can undertake:

  • Compile and produce an analysis and realistic assessment of the organization's fundraising capacity.
  • Help the organization make appropriate choices about the fundraising methodologies without imposing a consultant-created plan.
  • Help the organization internalize the proposed course of action so that staff and board take ownership and responsibility for the choice and its implications.
  • Work with the organization to prepare it internally and externally to conduct fundraising initiatives, provide the short-term on-site staffing to undertake the fundraising, and ensure the organization is in a position to build from the initiative if it so chooses. "

Short-list no more than three firms

Co-presenter Nicholas Offord, president, Mount Sinai Hospital Foundation, added "Begin [the search for a consultant] by getting some suggestions by word of mouth through people you know in the industry. You won't get very many good fundraisers in the yellow pages," he said. "Initially contact the companies and ask them for their information package. After that, contact those consultants who appear to match your organization's needs and who possess a good track record for initial interviews. After the interviews ask yourself: How quickly did they respond to my inquiries? How well-prepared was their presentation? Did it thoroughly address all of our questions?" Offord suggests that you short-list no more than three firms to present to your selection committee, a group that should include board, development and management leadership representation.

His suggestions for questions worth asking:

  • Tell us what you have done in situations similar to ours.
  • If we were to engage your firm, who would be working with us?
  • Have you had any failures?
  • What would you do if a donor made negative comments in the study about this organization's leadership?
  • Will you prepare all of the printed material for our program?
  • How long will it take? Will you be able to speed things up for us?
  • What about competing campaigns of other institutions with the same constituents?
  • How much will all this cost? How would you expect to be paid, and when is each installment due?
  • Is there a potential for a conflict of interest if you work with us and continue, at the same time, to provide assistance to X?
  • How can we best check your references?
  • How about travel and other costs? How will we be able to control that?

Once a firm has been chosen, the next step is the contract. "Ensure that all aspects of the relationship are well documented," he said. "Since the primary purpose of a contract is to ensure accountability, it is the principle reference point of arbitration when things go wrong." Offord suggests the written contract should include reporting relationships, written reports, consulting staff, fee payable and payment schedule, budget, extra services, and (to protect both parties) a cancellation clause. Ensure that your contract is approved by the relevant officers of your board and by legal counsel.

Offord's summary: "When making a decision about who you want to represent your organization, take a lot of time thinking about who that person is, and how they will go about doing your business."

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