The Role of Fundraising Counsel
How to Evaluate and Select a Professional Firm
© GOETTLER ASSOCIATES, INC. • COLUMBUS, OHIO
Deciding whether to engage professional fundraising counsel, and selecting the right firm for your situation, may be one of the most important decisions your organization ever makes. It may also be the decision you are least prepared to consider.
The purpose of this article is to dispel some of the mystery surrounding professional fundraising counseling firms; the services they provide; and the methods by which they are evaluated and selected.
• The first section of the article discusses the different types of fundraising counsel and the relative merits of using fundraising counsel, as opposed to in-house campaign management.
• The second section summarizes the various services provided by professional firms, including the duties of the campaign director and the periodic consultant.
• The third section suggests criteria and procedures for evaluating and selecting the right firm for your organization and circumstances.
Whether or not you choose our firm, we at Goettler Associates hope that this information helps you make the right decision, and contributes to the success of your development program.
Deciding whether to engage professional fundraising counsel, and selecting the right firm for your situation, may be the most important decision your organization ever makes.
What kind of consultant are you looking for?
In recent years, many specialized fundraising counseling firms have emerged. Some limit their activities to specific kinds of institutions — such as colleges, hospitals, or fraternal organizations. Others specialize in different methods of fund raising — for example, capital campaigns, direct mail, annual giving, or planned giving programs.
Specialized firms tend to be more product-oriented; they’re often interested in promoting one or more of these specific fundraising methodologies. That’s fine, as long as you’re sure that their particular expertise is best suited to your institution’s needs.
The campaign director will plan your campaign strategy, and carry out that strategy by providing experienced, expert, day-to-day guidance to your staff and campaign leaders.
If you’re contemplating an intensive capital campaign, we recommend that you talk to firms that are more client-oriented — that is, firms that are more interested in looking at your institution’s particular circumstances, and designing a program tailored to your situation. You should also seek out firms that focus on intensive major gift fund raising, and whose organization and experience reflect an orientation to capital campaigns.
The pre-campaign planning period provides an excellent opportunity to examine all the possible avenues of fund raising. Some firms can offer both the capacity to plan and orchestrate successful capital campaigns and the specialized skills required to plan and implement complementary initiatives—in strategic planning, marketing, planned giving, and other areas. We often find that an effective development program combines several different methods — striking just the right balance among capital, annual, and planned giving.
What Do You Need, a Hands-On Director or an Outside Advisor?
Professional fundraising services are generally provided on two different levels: one being hands-on, constant project direction or a part-time, outside consulting basis. You will need to decide which is more appropriate to your situation and budget.
The outside consultant generally puts a structure into place and assigns tasks and responsibilities to your staff. When not “on-site,” the consultant is available by telephone to answer questions and provide guidance.
The campaign director also plays the role of a consultant, but also does much more. Working in concert with the firm’s professional staff, he or she will plan your campaign strategy and carry out that strategy by providing experienced, expert, step-by-step guidance to your staff and campaign leaders.
This brings us to the key question: Which do you need: a hands-on manager or an outside advisor?
Obviously, the answer depends on a variety of factors different to each organization’s circumstances. That is to say, even though we can generalize here, there are always going to be exceptions.
Not too many organizations, however, are prepared to embark on a major campaign without involving fundraising counsel in some capacity.
Based on our experience, intensive, hands-on campaign direction is almost always appropriate for a community-based development program that emphasizes volunteer involvement.
At the same time, there are many organizations that have well-staffed development departments, that follow a comprehensive long-term solicitation strategy with heavy staff involvement. They may have broad geographic areas and a much wider constituency. Volunteer involvement may be more limited, with most donor contact conducted by staff alone, or a combined effort of both staff and volunteers. Situations such as these may only require outside, periodic consulting—yet it is not unusual to find an “outside” director on-site guiding an intensive capital campaign on the organization’s behalf.
The key factor in such a decision is this: for your organization, what is the best way to ensure that the right things will be done, in the right order, at the right time, by the right people?
Whatever your organization’s circumstance, the answer to this question will be the same: for successful results, you must have at least one individual whose primary task is to manage the campaign. Whether that individual is from an outside firm or part of your own staff is beside the point.
The Changing Role of Fundraising Counsel
Over the past 20 years, the number of development professionals employed by organizations on a full-time basis has increased geometrically. Even the smallest organizations often have at least one development person on staff; major universities and national organizations may have a hundred or more.
In capital campaigns, as a result, many organizations now routinely assign to their own staff many of the tasks they once relied on fundraising counsel (or volunteers) to perform. Or a full-time campaign director may be engaged on a contract basis for the duration of the campaign.
Not too many organizations, however, are prepared to embark on a major campaign without involving fundraising counsel in some capacity. Fundraising consulting firms are frequently called upon to:
• Conduct the planning study.
• Develop the case for support.
• Prepare the plan of campaign.
• Provide intensive direction and consulting services throughout the planning and preparation phase of the campaign—and often until the nucleus gifts have been secured, and/or the “family” phase has been completed.
• Coach and mentor the development staff.
On other occasions, fundraising counsel may be asked to provide only periodic consulting — which may initially appear to be more economical. Your staff will be able to work more independently, but will be called upon to do a great deal more, and may require additional staff. Fundraising Counsel will play a less central role, outlining the appropriate methodology for staff to follow. While they’re sure to “learn by doing,” mistakes are always a part of that. So the road to success sometimes proves more circuitous, and the program usually takes longer to complete.
It will take more time and experience to determine whether the increased reliance on full-time development staff, and the reduced reliance on fundraising counsel, turns out to be a positive or a negative trend for nonprofit organizations. For the time being, it depends on your point of view. We may be biased, of course—but we still believe that for most organizations, engaging hands-on campaign direction remains the most effective way to ensure success.
The Independent Consultant
Another significant change in the fundraising landscape has been the proliferation of independent consultants — many of them concentrating their activities within a limited geographic area. These consultants often claim to have knowledge of the local donor community, and even personal access to significant donors, that no “out-of-town” consulting firm can match. That’s all well and good—as long as they have the skills and the track record to back up their claims.
Many independent consultants move in and out of staff positions within organizations, or accept contract work from consulting firms, and they gain a lot of experience that way. To serve a specific client, they may team up with other consultants pursuing a similar career path.
Removing the volunteer from the fundraising equation is a dangerous trend—and an unproductive one as well.
When you engage an independent consultant, however, you’re basically engaging an individual. Your level of trust and confidence in that individual should be high. Not everyone has experienced people they can call on for backup, advice, support, or special expertise. When they do, do not hesitate to ask for the names of these “associates.”
Another “new breed” of consultant offers to do all the asking—relieving your board members and volunteers of this allegedly onerous and distasteful task. Although some organizations find this a tempting offer, we believe that removing the volunteer (and often the professional staff) from the fundraising equation is a dangerous trend—and an unproductive one, as well.
The Cost of Fundraising Counsel
All reputable fundraising counseling firms provide their services on a fee-for-service basis, in the same way as a legal or accounting firm. Contingency and percentage-based compensation are specifically omitted in the professional standards and code of ethics established by the Association of FundRaising Professionals, the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), the American Association of FundRaising Counsel (AAFRC), the Association of Philanthropic Counsel (APC), and every other professional organization that has looked into the matter.
When an organization is not in a position to finance a major fundraising campaign, it may be tempted to ask a consultant to work for a percentage of the funds raised. While there are always consultants who are willing to oblige, they all operate outside the accepted ethical standards of our profession.
Organizations do sometimes register “sticker shock” when they inquire about the fees charged by consulting firms. Intensive capital campaigns, however, remain by far the most cost-effective method of raising money. Percentage-wise, of course, the cost will vary according to the size of the goal—since the same basic tasks must be completed in order to conduct a successful campaign of any size. In most cases, however, campaign costs will amount to less than 10 percent of the funds raised—and in larger campaigns, much less.
At the other extreme, in the field of direct marketing, such as in telemarketing, it is not uncommon for these outfits to claim as their legitimate “cut” 75 percent of the funds raised, or even more! Furthermore, among those who work for a percentage, there continues to lurk the occasional “fly-by-night” operator—the one who literally skips town with most or all of the proceeds. Even though they don’t deserve to be called “consultants,” such individuals cause much negative media coverage; provoke legislative bodies to regulate all legitimate consultants; and generally make it more difficult for honest practitioners to operate.
The Case for Fundraising Counsel
Whatever options you may be contemplating, we can’t think of any that offer the same benefits as engaging a reputable consulting firm. Foremost among these are:
- Efficiency and productivity: Your current staff members have important development responsibilities outside the capital campaign. Often, they can become overloaded, or faced with having to prioritize various tasks in trying to accomplish multiple objectives. In the long run, it is more efficient and productive to enlist outside fundraising counsel — whose primary responsibility job is to plan, organize, and direct a successful campaign.
- Training through experience: Your overall development program will benefit greatly from a capital campaign. This will occur not just in the dollars raised, but in the experience, knowledge, and expertise your staff and key volunteers will gain by working through the process (especially when it is under the direction of a team whose primary expertise is in directing capital campaigns).
The campaign director is, in fact, part of an organizational matrix.
- Objectivity: Fundraising Counsel can best provide the objectivity which is essential to success, and so difficult to maintain as an institutional insider. As Harold J. “Sy” Seymour writes in his seminal work, Designs for Fund Raising, “the most important function of fundraising counsel is . . . simply to provide at staged intervals the perspective that is possible only with triangulation.”
- Independence: To a considerable extent, fundraising counsel can be objective because they are independent of the social and political network, both formal and informal, that is associated with your institution. Because fundraising counsel is focused on the success of the campaign, rather than on maintaining the political status quo, it is often easier for us to say what must be said, and do what must be done.
- Experience: A well-established fundraising counseling firm brings the benefit of experience with numerous campaigns, some of them similar to your own. Fundraising Counsel can draw on this experience and, where appropriate, bring it to bear on your own situation.
- Teamwork: A fundraising counseling firm — if it is a real corporate team, and not just an individual — can offer a range of services, talents, and skills rarely found in an individual. Although you may feel that even when you engage a firm, you are really hiring an individual (the campaign director), the advice and support of a corporate team can be invaluable in the course of a campaign.
The campaign director is, in fact, part of an organizational matrix. Other skilled professionals within that matrix can provide the client and campaign director with the benefit of their own experience, knowledge, expertise, and point of view. Various individuals might help to develop the campaign plan or case for support; consult on campaign strategy; or provide advice on specialized areas like tax law and estate planning.
- The marketplace perspective: It is the business of fundraising firms to come into continuous contact with a spectrum of business and civic leaders — the kinds of people whose involvement, as donors and volunteers, will be crucial to the success of your campaign. Familiarity with the values, attitudes, and styles of community leaders strengthens the consultant’s ability to motivate, direct, and communicate with them. The ability to see things from the donor’s point of view — the marketplace perspective — is essential.
- Control: Fundraising counsel brings a businesslike, systematic, and strategic approach to the conduct of your campaign—establishing and implementing plans, objectives, budgets, schedules, and deadlines. Fundraising counsel becomes the insistent voice which ensures that the plan of campaign is carried out step by step—i.e., that each step in the process is properly completed before moving on, and that each succeeding step is prepared for properly.
Fundraising counsel becomes the insistent voice which ensures that the plan of campaign is carried out step by step
- Cost-effectiveness: Fundraising counsel orchestrates and directs the time, talents, and energies of your staff and volunteer organization in order to raise the most possible money, at the lowest possible cost, in the shortest possible time. Fundraising counsel focuses your efforts on the goal—keeping your sights high, but attainable—and keeps your attention on major gifts and top volunteer leadership.
In our experience, it is rare, if not impossible, for an institution to derive these same benefits when the campaign is directed from the inside. Certainly, many campaigns are won in this way; but there are degrees of success, and we believe that the best results are achieved when a campaign is conceived, planned, and executed by a first-rate professional firm.
Services of Fundraising Counsel
It is our experience that most campaigns are either won or lost long before the public kickoff. As philanthropists become increasingly selective in their giving, the institution that has effectively planned and prepared will be the institution whose program enjoys success. It is not unusual for an institution to retain professional fundraising counsel one to two years before announcing a capital campaign.
Here are some of the most important elements of pre-campaign planning and preparation provided by professional fundraising firms:
- Campaign planning study: Without question, the most important step in preparing for a campaign is to conduct a thorough and objective campaign planning study. Your plans and objectives are presented in confidence to a carefully selected cross-section of the philanthropic community, and these individuals are asked for their candid evaluations.
A properly conducted study will tell you not only if you can win your campaign, but how you can win. The study, that is, should not only determine the ultimate dollar goal, but suggest the best time to conduct the campaign; identify potential leadership and pace-setting gifts; test the case for support; pinpoint institutional strengths and weaknesses; and serve as the starting point in the marketing of your campaign to prospective donors and volunteers.
A properly conducted study will tell you not only if you can win your campaign, but how you can win.
It is our strong conviction that the study should be conducted by outside counsel. If the results of the study are to have any value at all, then confidentiality, candor, and objectivity are absolutely essential. Those who are to be interviewed, as a rule, will be less than straightforward with an interviewer whom they perceive as “belonging” to the institution. Only the outside study director, with no responsibility for conditions and no stake in the situation, can elicit candid answers to tough questions. Only an outsider can be objective in evaluating the results and making recommendations.
- Readiness assessment: an evaluation of the organization’s readiness to support and sustain a major capital campaign — focusing on the human, financial, and other resources available to the development office. A properly planned readiness assessment is conducted concurrently with the campaign planning study, and will identify the proper resources required to not only win the capital campaign but to also build the organization’s ongoing fundraising capacity (in the wake of the successful campaign).
- Development study: a thorough analysis of your development function, including recommendations on staffing, job descriptions, and salary levels. The development study is most often conducted independent of a campaign planning study. It may prove most effective when planning new fundraising initiatives apart from a focused capital campaign.
- Recruiting and training: Most intensive campaign efforts call for additional staffing. Fundraising counsel can assist you in identifying the responsibilities of the development position, and screening applicants who meet the desired qualifications, along with the characteristics you would seek in an effective employee.
- Leadership awareness program. The purpose of this program is to inform leaders and prospective donors about your organization and its plans; to obtain their input; and to increase their involvement. Leaders are invited to a series of small-group meetings to hear your plans, ask questions, and provide feedback.
These are just a few of the things you need to consider in preparing for an intensive fundraising effort. Other essential elements of campaign planning and preparation — including the preparation of a campaign plan, the development of a case for support, prospect research and evaluation, the recruitment of volunteer leadership, and the building of a volunteer organization — will be discussed presently.
A Word about Committees
During the campaign planning and preparation phase, you may need to organize one or more ad hoc committees (or task forces) to refine your objectives; document your financial projections; and/or develop a database on prospective donors and leaders.
During the solicitation phase of a campaign, two types of committees—service committees and soliciting committees— are organized. Service committees may include the campaign executive committee, public relations committee, prospect review committee, and speakers’ bureau. Soliciting committees may include those responsible for approaching prospects for nucleus gifts, leadership gifts, special gifts, etc.
Most of the actual work of the campaign is accomplished through these committees. By enlisting one out of every four or five prospects as committee members, you distribute the work of the campaign, and marshal enough volunteers to solicit everyone effectively. Through these committees, information, interest, and enthusiasm permeate all sectors of the community.
It is important for all of your significant constituencies to be represented on these committees, and for the right people to be asked to serve on the right committees. New committee members must be enlisted on a face-to-face basis by those who are already involved in the campaign. At that time, the case is explained, and the new recruit is provided with a job description. It is vitally important that each member be given specific and limited assignments—not merely asked to “help out” or “attend a few meetings.”
Campaign management and consulting services
Whether you choose campaign direction or periodic consulting services, the professional consultant must take responsibility for planning and organizing the essential management and administrative tasks of the campaign. He or she must be able to work directly and closely with your administration, staff, trustees, and volunteers, and effectively manage their time, talents, and energies.
Campaign directors and consultants possess not only the technical skills, but the interpersonal skills necessary to involve, motivate, and direct the leaders of your campaign.
Campaign directors and consultants possess not only the technical skills, but the interpersonal skills necessary to involve, motivate, and direct the leaders of your campaign. A mere technician or manager can bring about success if the right leaders are already in place and willing. A true director, however, knows how to:
- Orchestrate the successful enlistment of prominent leaders who are known to be “hard to get.”
- Bring forward and develop the leadership skills of individuals who are capable and credible, but perhaps less well-known and/or less experienced.
These are the qualities we look for in our own campaign professionals:
1. Management experience: the ability to manage the time, talents, and energies of your staff and volunteers.
2. Organizational skills: the ability to create an organizational structure appropriate to your needs, and geared to the effective motivation of campaign leaders and volunteers.
3. People sensitivity: the ability to recognize the principal motivational aspects inherent in the case for support, and to match these to the interests of each prospect on an individual basis.
4. Analytical skills: the ability to identify and research potential sources of funds, and to suggest appropriate levels of investment.
Naturally, each individual possesses these qualities in different degrees. One of the advantages of the support of a corporate team is that each member brings different strengths and skills to bear on your campaign.
The specific duties of the campaign director include the following:
- Develop a detailed plan of campaign — outlining the organizational structure, duties of volunteers, time schedules, and methods of operation. Throughout the campaign, the campaign director serves as the insistent voice to ensure that this plan is followed.
- Initiate the formation of various committees, as needed, to implement the plan of campaign (see side-bar above).
- Assist in the recruitment of key volunteers: The success of your campaign will depend in large measure upon objectivity and judgment in the selection and recruitment of top volunteer leaders. Your most effective volunteers will be tried-and-true community leaders who possess both affluence and influence in two dimensions: the constituency they represent, and their personal financial capabilities.
- Provide orientation and guidance to all volunteers: It is the responsibility of the campaign director to train all volunteers in the principles of successful fund raising and effective solicitation; to explain and enforce adherence to the plan of campaign; to present the case for support and emphasize its key motivational factors; and to train all volunteers in the recruitment, enlistment, and supervision of other volunteers.
- Provide coaching and oversight to staff, as needed. A major capital campaign provides a terrific opportunity for staff with limited experience in major gift fund raising to learn from a seasoned professional, and develop and practice their skills. This is one of many ways in which an organization can derive from a campaign significant benefits that will continue for years after the last pledge is paid.
- Implement a plan for the cultivation and solicitation of all prospects: The campaign director must ensure that the right people are given the right assignments; that solicitations take place at the right time, in the right order; and that the right amount of money is requested.
- Develop a database on all prospects: Donor research should focus first on the highest level of prospects, then expand to include the next highest level of support. You will want to study previous fundraising efforts; construct individual giving histories; and develop a prioritized list of prime prospects, with recommendations for specific “asking figures” in light of the campaign goal.
- Assist with contacts at major foundations and corporations, and with individual prospects as needed. For corporate and foundation prospects, the campaign director can help to develop the best “pathway” and strategy for approaching the prospect. For individual prospects, the campaign director can provide “on-the-job training” for volunteers by accompanying them on “cultivation” or actual solicitation calls—when, for example, the chief executive officer solicits the campaign chair, or the campaign chair solicits the board chair. At these times, the campaign director’s role is to serve as a resource. The ultimate responsibility for the “ask” should rest with your volunteers.
- Prepare major proposals: The campaign director should work closely with your staff and volunteers to ensure that major written proposals to corporations, foundations, and individuals relate the institution’s programs to the prospect’s interests; that the suggested gift is consistent with the prospect’s stature in the community and his or her financial capability; and that any opportunities for recognition are fully utilized.
- Maintain continuous communication with members of the administration, board, staff, and steering committee concerning the progress of the campaign—not only for general information purposes, but also to promote effective working relationships.
- Prepare timely progress reports for key volunteer leaders and committees.
- • Oversee (but not necessarily direct) public relations activities—including news media coverage, speaking engagements, and special events.
- Specify the requirements for campaign office space, equipment, and support services.
- Prepare job descriptions; interview and recommend individuals for the administrative, gift processing, and research staff.
- Maintain continual supervision of the campaign office and all support activities related to the conduct of an effective fundraising program.
- Prepare and account for the line-item campaign budget.
- • Establish and maintain a gift receipt, acknowledgment, and auditing system.
Campaign marketing and communications
Some firms maintain specialists in campaign marketing and communications to develop your case for support and prepare your brochure, video presentation, and other tools, based on the case. This type of service will not only provide you with a more compelling case and more effective communications; it will also free the campaign director to focus on the organization and training of your volunteers.
In this context, we believe that professional fundraising counseling firms should be able to provide the following services:
- Case for support. In order to capture and hold the interest of prospective donors in a competitive situation, you must market your campaign. In other words, you want to learn as much as you can about your donor constituencies—your “marketplace”—and present the development program in terms of their needs, desires, and aspirations, not your own.
- Marketing plan: A campaign marketing plan defines the organization’s various donor constituencies; segments these “markets” according to their interests, financial capabilities, and relationships to your institution; targets key “market segments”; develops strategies for approaching these prospects; and identifies key messages and themes to be communicated. A detailed public relations or media plan may also be developed.
- Theme and logo: These are the verbal and visual symbols that will provide a consistent, recognizable, and memorable identity for the campaign — and remind everyone that this is not institutional “business as usual.”
Once these key strategic elements have been developed, the challenge becomes one of utilizing the most effective marketing technology to communicate the case and other vital information to your volunteers and donors. In our experience, the following tools are generally best produced by a team of creative professionals who are knowledgeable about nonprofit organizations, and sensitive to donor motivations. These are qualities you will more likely find with a full-service fundraising counseling firm rather than a traditional advertising agency or public relations firm.
These basic elements will come to bear on your campaign marketing package, which may include all or some of the following items:
- Fact sheet: A fact sheet or “question-and-answer” folder can provide important information to supplement the case.
- Commemorative opportunities: This is a carefully and strategically constructed listing of opportunities to recognize, through a significant gift or pledge, an individual, family, or organization. Scholarships, faculty chairs, physical facilities, and special programs may all be named in this way.
- Prospect’s kit: portfolio containing campaign brochure, commemorative opportunities brochure, “ways of making your gift” folder, and other resources as desired.
- Volunteer’s kit: portfolio containing solicitor’s guide, pledge cards, report envelopes, and other resources as desired.
- Proposal Template: The case is translated into a proposal format which can be adapted for use with foundations, corporations, or individuals based on their specific interests.
- Other print communications: letterhead, bulletins, pledge cards, mailing labels, acknowledgments and “thank-you” letters, and pledge payment reminder notices.
- Audiovisual communications (campaign video or PowerPoint presentations), charts, displays, etc.
- Public relations: newspaper, radio, and television coverage; speaking engagements and special events.
Strategic planning and long-range development
An intensive fundraising campaign presents an opportunity to accomplish far more than the raising of a certain dollar amount. When you prepare for a campaign, you must make a number of important decisions about your institution’s future. This is the right time to reexamine your mission, goals, programs, and finances in light of performance, potential, and new opportunities open to you. You should be deciding what kind of future you want for your institution, and the best way to achieve that future.
For these reasons, we often recommend that a capital or endowment campaign be viewed as only one phase of a comprehensive development program—extending over several years, and including an intensified annual giving program, an organized planned giving program, and an ongoing capital gifts program.
Back in the 1980s, the “independent sector” discovered the strategic planning process—a systematic approach to designing the best achievable future for an organization, and a strategy for bringing about that future. Through this process, we realized, it was possible to involve our trustees, administrators, and staff in planning for the future — and thus heighten their commitment to making that future happen. At the same time, we could arrive at a rational, attainable set of fundraising objectives; determine the parameters of a long-range development program; and present an intensive campaign from this broader, more meaningful perspective.
Success in strategic planning and leadership also facilitates success in fund raising and institutional advancement. This happens because:
- Professionals and volunteers have a compelling case to present to potential donors. They can clearly articulate the vision and mission of the organization — so that donors can make informed choices on the basis of shared values.
- Staff and volunteers can articulate the goals of the organization, and why those goals are essential to fulfilling its mission. In this way, they can clearly demonstrate the link between the donor’s contribution and the tangible service the organization provides to society.
- As the organization achieves its goals and reports these successes to its constituent groups, those groups gain more confidence that the time and money they invest will be put to the highest and best use. And success, of course, begets success. Staff and volunteers will find that they gain credibility along with the institution they represent.
- Organizations with a clear, compelling mission, and demonstrated performance in service of that mission, find it easier to attract and retain high-quality staff and volunteers. People who choose to associate with the organization will increasingly share its values. Their passion will be engaged. They’ll know that the organization “walks its talk,” and they’ll be motivated to participate, financially and otherwise.
Many fundraising firms can assist you in planning a long-range development program, beginning with the campaign and extending five to ten years into the future. Some can also help you to design and implement a traditional strategic planning process. A sophisticated strategic leadership process, however, may be an even more effective way to advance both your fundraising program and your institution as a whole.
How to Select Fundraising Counsel
Once you’ve decided that you need to seek the services of a professional fundraising consultant, it’s important to give yourself the time to go through a disciplined selection process.
The recommendation of a friend, or even a trustee, may seem absolutely compelling. A close personal relationship or a slick sales pitch may tempt you to expedite matters with a quick decision. Remember, however, that you will be working closely with your consultant for many months, or even years, on confidential matters that may well affect the long-term future of your organization, for better or worse. That will remind you to move forward with due caution and deliberation—as you would in selecting a banker, attorney, or investment adviser.
…move forward with due caution and deliberation—as you would in selecting a banker, attorney, or investment adviser.
Preparing for discussions
Before beginning to discuss your situation with professional fundraising firms, you need to spend some time looking at your own organization and development plans, and capabilities. In order to analyze your situation and give you the benefit of their preliminary thinking, the firms you approach will need to get from you tentative answers to these questions:
1. For what purpose(s) do you want to raise funds?
2. How much do you want to raise?
3. Do you think you have sufficient volunteers available to you?
4. Do you think you have sufficient donor prospects available to you? If so, who do you think they are (board members, past donors, alumni, faculty, physicians, etc.)?
5. What can your trustees, administrators, and development staff contribute to the success of a campaign? Are they willing to work on it? Do they have the time?
6. What is your timetable for raising the funds?
7. What is your posture in the donor community? Would you say that you’re well-positioned for success?
8. What were the results of your past fundraising efforts? What results are you expecting from your current efforts?
9. What other significant fundraising activities are planned or underway in your community?
10. What do you expect from fundraising counsel?
Some of these questions may touch on sensitive areas. But fundraising counsel needs honest and complete answers in order to evaluate your situation; and the client-counsel relationship needs to be built on good communication, mutual trust, and rapport from the beginning. It is ultimately self-defeating to hold back unpleasant facts from counsel. Clearly, a firm can design effective solutions only if the full extent and background of the strengths and weaknesses of your program are known.
You will also want to talk to other institutions—both within your field and within your geographic area—about their experience with intensive campaigns and with outside counsel. These institutions will be able to suggest consulting firms, and provide valuable advice “from the trenches.”
By talking with several different firms, you will be better able to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each one.
Preliminary discussions and interviews
Most institutions contemplating a capital campaign will conduct preliminary discussions with at least three or four professional firms. By talking with several different firms, you will be better able to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each one. Hopefully, you will also have the benefit of several different viewpoints on your prospects for fundraising success, and the best way to proceed.
While most preliminary discussions will be conducted by your chief executive officer or development staff, many organizations establish an ad hoc committee of the board to work on the selection of counsel. Later, this committee will hear formal presentations and make a recommendation to the full board.
For now, the committee may develop some initial screening procedures to determine which firms you want to approach. These criteria may include a history of successful campaign experience; staff size and organizational structure appropriate to your requirements; and a client orientation, rather than a specific product orientation.
In these early discussions, you will want to share information about your institution and your development plans with each firm. You will also be asking each firm for specific information about its experience, approach, and methods of operation. We’d suggest the following questions:
1. What pre-campaign planning and preparation steps do you envision for us? What would be the timetable and costs of these services?
2. How do you go about conducting a campaign planning study?
3. What would be the role and responsibilities of the campaign director?
4. Would periodic consulting be an option, given our situation? What would be the advantages and disadvantages?
5. What would you expect of our trustees, administration, staff, and volunteers? How would you work with us?
6. Will you provide us with a list of organizations in our field that you have served, and references from recent clients you have served?
Some of the questions you will want to ask recent clients of the firm include the following:
1. How would you evaluate the firm’s services?
2. Was the goal attained?
3. What other benefits were realized through the campaign? (For example, did you attract new leadership? Acquire new donors? Develop greater visibility?)
4. Were you satisfied with the campaign consultation, staffing, and supervision?
5. Would you engage the firm again?
On the basis of your preliminary discussions with professional firms, and your conversations with their recent clients, you will want to narrow your list to two or three firms. These will be invited to submit a formal proposal and to present it in person before your ad hoc selection committee. Make sure that each firm in the final group has all the information it needs in order to make a complete proposal.
…judge each proposal and presentation on its own merits, and beware of those who make big promises!
Criteria for selection
Take as much time as you need, without disrupting your timetable for the campaign, to evaluate the proposals and presentations, and make your final selection. Don’t hesitate to request clarification or additional information from the firms you are considering. You may want to talk again with their recent clients, and it may be a good idea to share your thoughts with key staff or trustees who were not on hand for the final round of presentations.
Certainly, there will be personal factors in any situation which may influence your final decision. But these considerations should be balanced by an objective evaluation of the following factors:
1. Does the firm seem to be genuinely interested in and concerned with your institution and its program?
2. Do you feel that the firm has listened carefully, reflected on and responded to your specific needs and desires? Has the firm custom-designed a proposal geared to your circumstances?
3. Does the proposal provide for all the services you will need to be successful? Does it provide for thorough planning and preparation before beginning active solicitation?
4. Does the proposal include enough specifics (plans, objectives, timetables, costs, and staffing requirements)?
5. Does the firm have a strong track record in fundraising campaigns?
6. Would the firm’s recent clients be willing to rehire the firm?
7. Does the firm seem to have the depth and versatility to bring a range of experience, talents, and skills to your effort? Does it employ an authentic team approach, providing direct oversight and support by senior officers and staff?
8. Does the firm have a solid grasp of the principles of fund raising, and the basic technical skills to apply these principles to your situation?
9. Do the members of the firm also seem to have good interpersonal skills? (For example, do they listen well? Do you believe they’re capable of motivating and directing your staff, trustees, and other volunteers? Do they communicate well on a face-to-face basis?)
10. Are you convinced that the members of the firm—especially the campaign director and the officer providing oversight—will work hard to make your campaign a success? Is the campaign director qualified and capable of meeting your specific needs?
11. Does the firm have a functional understanding of the “marketplace perspective” (i.e., the donor’s point of view)—or will it take an old-fashioned “hard-sell” posture in recruiting volunteers; cultivating prospects for major gifts; and presenting the campaign and the case for support to your various constituencies? Does the firm employ full-time specialists in marketing, writing, and design?
12. Does the cost of the firm’s services seem reasonable in relation to the benefits?
Whether you select Goettler Associates or another professional fundraising counseling firm to manage your campaign, we hope that this article has helped to dispel some of the mystery concerning fundraising firms, the services they offer, and the process of choosing the best firm for your situation. We do feel that in the vast majority of cases, the professional firm offers superior advantages to an in-house fundraising effort. We hope this article will help you find the right firm for you, and that your fund-raising efforts meet with success—both in the short run and well into the future!