How can you become a successful fundraising consultant?

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Editor's Note: This interview originally appeared on the Wild Woman Fundraising website and is excerpted with permission. You can read the full interview here.

Mazarine Treyz: Hey, everybody. Welcome. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising, and I am so pleased to have with us today Linda Lysakowski who is a veritable legend in the fundraising world. She has written so many books about fundraising, and she’s also been consulting for a really long time. Linda, thank you so much for being here today.

Linda Lysakowski: Oh, thank you for having me. It’s always a pleasure to be back with you.

MT: Well, thanks. So today we’re going to be talking about how to become a fundraising consultant, something you’ll be talking about at our upcoming career conference. So Linda, how long have you been consulting in fundraising?

LL: Well, I just realized when you asked me that question that it’s been more than 22 years, going on 23. Seems like only yesterday that I started my business, but it’s been a while.

MT: Wow, and so you’ve been doing it a really long time. How did you choose the name of your company?

LL: Well, that’s kind of a funny story because the name of my company has actually evolved. In 22 years, I’ve gone by three different names and three different forms of businesses in addition. So it started out, I chose my first name was Cornerstone Consulting, Inc. I got inspired one day in church, sitting and listening to the reading about the stone rejected by the builders that has become the cornerstone. Even though my business didn’t focus on religious entities, I was kind of inspired by that because I thought fundraising is kind of like the stone that’s rejected by the builders. Nobody wants to do fundraising. Everybody wants to do program management and all the neat stuff that’s related to the mission. But they see fundraising as sort of a hidden in the shadows type part of their organization. So I thought Cornerstone is a good name for the company.

So I used that name for quite a few years. In fact, that company has actually still evolved. It’s a chapter S corporation. But then I met another consultant. I was at the time living in Pennsylvania. She was in Ohio. But we met by phone and talked a lot and started doing some training together, and we decided to form a partnership called Capital Venture. It was funny because I didn’t like the name. I said, oh, it sounds too much like venture capital and people will really be confused about what we are. But she liked the name, and we wanted to focus our efforts more on capital campaigns. So for a while then, I was running Cornerstone Consulting and Capital Venture as a partnership. Then in recent years, I changed my name again. This is probably not good advice for a consultant to keep changing the name, but it worked for me.

When I started my business, I thought I did not want to use my name, because I thought first of all, nobody can even pronounce Lysakowski. Who’s going to know how to spell it? So I thought it was not a very good thing to do. But in recent years I started realizing that I’m really the company and it’s me that my clients are buying, so to speak, when they hire me. They want my knowledge and my expertise, and I started becoming more well-known as a writer. So I now formed an LLC and used Linda Lysakowski, LLC. So the name of my company is probably not a story that most consultants will identify with because I have changed it over the time. But it worked for me. So now I’m Linda Lysakowski.

MT: Wow, that is so interesting. I know people have come to me and said, ‘Oh, Mazarine, I want to start my consulting. How should I do it? How do you be successful at it?’ And I’ve never really thought about what name they should choose. It sounds like it hasn’t hurt you at all to have it just be your name, if you wanted it to be.

LL: No, and it’s interesting because in our book, The Non-Profit Consulting Playbook, we actually have a section on naming your business. We’ve got different opinions. This is the nice and exciting thing about this book is we asked consultants who had been practicing for at least ten years to write different chapters of the book. One person was definitely against using their name. Another person was definitely in favor of using his name, and one person said, ‘Whatever name you pick, don’t ever change it.’ But I think that’s the exciting thing is, what’s going to work for you? It might be different for some consultants. Maybe some people do feel like a catchy business name is better than just using their name. But I’m finding that more and more people now are starting to use their name because they are the brand, and let’s face it, in most cases they’re the business.

MT: Naming is hard. But we’ll talk more about that in the conference. How did you choose what to focus on for your fundraising consulting? Because that’s a big question for people.

LL: It’s funny, and this question and the question of naming, for me, are really tied together. When I started fundraising, this has evolved over the years too. When I started my company, I said, well, the one thing I’m not going to do is capital campaigns because every consultant does capital campaigns, and I realized that there were an awful lot of non-profits out there that had never really done professional fundraising. They didn’t have a development staff, or maybe they had no staff at all and they were all volunteer-driven. So my first clients were in that category. But then as I started working with these kind of agencies, I realized, you know, a lot of these small agencies and volunteer-driven agencies need to do capital campaigns too. That’s when we moved into the Capital Venture mode, and I started focusing almost exclusively on capital campaigns because there was just a need for it. I focused at first on small campaigns, $1 million and less. Then started growing into bigger and bigger campaigns. I never really did the mega, mega billion dollar campaigns because I think I get bored too easily to stay with an organization that long working on one campaign.

But I think then it evolved, and now that I’m going under Linda Lysakowski, my focus in my business has evolved to primarily writing and teaching because I’ve found that’s really what I enjoy doing, and I also felt I could reach a lot broader audience if I was teaching a class to 200 people than I could be if I was consulting one-on-one with one agency. So like my name, my business has evolved, and again I think that’s unique to each person too. There are some people who maybe only want to focus on strategic planning for non-profits, or only want to focus on grant writing, or only want to focus on capital campaigns. Then there are other people like me who do get bored easily, and we like to move around and change our focus as we mature and as our companies mature. So my focus definitely changed and adapted not only to my environment, but to my personal needs as well.

MT: That is fascinating. So you really just went into what you liked doing the most, and you realized you didn’t have to necessarily be on the ground fundraising with people as much as you wanted to start teaching, which makes sense. You’ve got all this experience. You should be able to share that with people.

LL: Yeah, and it’s funny because I always tell people my career has been so wild. When I was growing up, there were two things that I knew I never wanted to do. One was work in a bank, and the other one was teach. I started my career. The first job I ever held was working in a bank, and I’m ending my career as a teacher, I guess. So never say never, is I guess the lesson there.

MT: Well, I want to skip to the next question because this is actually a perfect segue to it. What was one thing that surprised you about fundraising consulting when you started?

LL: Well, I think one of the things that surprised me was how few people really understand what a consultant does. I found in my early years, and even to this day, I do think people confuse consultants in fundraising with some type of a salesperson. Constantly I was getting questions like, well, now, we’re trying to raise $1 million and if we raise that, we’ll give you ten percent. I said, ‘No, you don’t understand. That’s unethical. I can’t work on a contingency basis,’ and they just don’t understand what a non-profit consultant does, especially one who’s working in fundraising. So I think that was one thing that really did surprise me a great deal, how uneducated the general non-profits are about working with consultants, and what a consultant does and what a consultant doesn’t do.

Sometimes they think hiring a consultant is that magic bullet that we’re going to go out and ask for all the money and take that dirty stuff off of their hands. So they don’t have to worry about it because the consultant is going to do it. And what they really don’t understand is that a consultant is more like a coach. They’re there to guide and help you, but the consultant isn’t there to build relationships between the consultant and your donors. The consultant is there to help you develop better relationships with your donors. So I think that was the one thing that really surprised me.

MT: That is so fascinating. I totally agree with you. People often ask me the same thing, like oh, well, you’ll just do it for me? I’m like no, no, that’s not – no. Because if I went away, then your relationships would be gone.

LL: Right, exactly.

MT: I don’t want to make you dependent on me. So yeah, I love that. I’m really glad that that’s some of what people need to remember when they’re starting out to be a consultant, that people will expect you to do it for them, and that you can’t be that. So what will you be teaching at the career conference on consulting?

LL: Well, I think this is going to be a really exciting panel because we have five of the people who were participating in our book as authors, and we will talk a little bit about how you choose what services you’re going to provide and where you’re going to provide them. Is it better to work for a big firm or to start out on your own? We’ll talk about one thing that’s really critical, and I’ll tell you, I started my business. I was sick with a bad case of the flu and I was in bed for about a month. I crawled to the computer finally one day and realized that if I was going to start my own business, the one thing I needed was a business plan. So we’re going to talk about planning – you know, we tell our clients all the time they need strategic plans and a development plan. But a lot of consultants go into this without a business plan.

Then the one topic that everybody always wants to hear is how you market your consulting services. So we’re really covering kind of a broad soup to nuts between the five of us. Like is consulting really for you? Are you cut out to be a consultant? Down to how you can market your business and grow your business. So we’re covering a pretty wide range of topics and I’m really looking forward to working with this panel. They’re all great people and I think we’re really going to have a great conference.

MT: I love that. Thank you so much, Linda. That is just going to be really, really helpful for people and I think people will just be so excited to have all of these fine minds in the room telling them exactly how to do this, and all this accumulated experience, probably over 100 years. So that is going to be wonderful. Thank you again.

Click here to register now for the Fundraising Career Conference 2016. The early bird price of $18 ends on January 30th, 2016. It’s virtual, every session is recorded, and you will have access to all of the recordings after the conference is over!

Mazarine Treyz is the author of "Get the Job! Your Fundraising Career Empowerment Guide." Her popular blog has 50,000 monthly readers. Read more at Join her at the 2016 Fundraising Career Conference.

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