The Goldie Company

Parley: November 2001 - Engaging a Fund-raising Consultant

I suppose I could be accused of flirting with a conflict of interest by accepting this assignment. How easy it would be simply to describe our company, its history, personnel and methods of operation, and suggest that there is no need to look any further for the ideal fund-raising consultants.

It happens that there are several other first-rate consultants in this community whom I would not hesitate to recommend - as second choice, of course, if we couldn't do the job.

As a matter of fact, much of the material in our library on the subject of choosing and working with consultants was written by consultants. My old mentor, George Brakeley, often talks about the relationships between consultants and clients and the many snares and delusions that are strewn along the way.

This introspection is the product of one of the primary skills of the successful fund-raising consultant, the ability to look objectively at any particular set of circumstances from the opposite side of the fence. Consultants who do not strive at all times to understand and interpret the attitudes, aspirations and prejudices of the potential donor are seriously short-changing their clients.

So, let's see if I can put myself in your shoes for the next few moments and recite the qualities that I would look for if I were hiring a fund-raising consultant.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

1.    Experience

Experience has to be at the top of the list. What campaigns has the consultant directed and what is his batting average?

If this seems unfair to the bright, young, energetic and creative newcomer, may I say that life is full of such inequities. The neophyte fundraiser must serve his apprenticeship in the same way as any fledgling doctor, lawyer, accountant or journeyman electrician. The considerable turnover in fund raising results from the failure of so many of those who enter the field to learn the trade the hard way - on the job and not out of a book.

Now, mind you, I couldn't be seduced only by an imposing list of former clients. I would want to talk to some of the key people involved - the executive director of the hospital or president of the university, the general chairman of the campaign. How contemporary and relevant was the experience? How successful were the campaigns, not just in terms of money raised, but in improved relationships between the institution and its various constituencies? I wouldn't be afraid to ask pointed questions; such probing could only be considered sensible prudence.

2.    Integrity

Integrity may seem to be a difficult trait to assess, particularly if former clients are hesitant to walk that fine line between frankness and possible slander. But there is at least one clue to a consultant's basic honesty. Are his fees based on staff time or on a percentage of the objective or of the funds raised? If the latter, be very careful: the consultant does not subscribe to the codes of ethics of either the American Association of Fund Raising Counsel or the National Society of Fund Raising Executives, the two major, respected bodies in this field in North America.

Particularly in this day of rapidly changing fund-raising fortunes, I also would be very suspicious of a consultant who forecasts success of any campaign without careful pre-campaign study. Small deceptions, particularly on the side of sunny optimism, may seem to be relatively harmless in themselves, but they can be painfully dangerous when the fraud is exposed in the heat of an ill-conceived campaign.

3.    Compatibility

Compatibility is another important quality that is difficult to rate on casual acquaintance. Here again, the experience of others will tell you whether the consultant works well with others, regardless of their station in life. He must have the capacity to command peer level respect from the community leaders who head up a campaign; otherwise, his advice - however sage - will be ignored and valueless. At the same time, the consultant must be accessible and helpful to the most junior members of the campaign or institution staff and to every volunteer regardless of the importance of his or her assignment.

Personality conflicts produce a debilitating effect on voluntary efforts and the consultant with a history of inducing disharmony should be avoided like the plague.

4.    Creativity

Creativity is a desirable characteristic that must be under vigorous discipline in a fund-raising consultant. The fund-raiser who ignores tried and true principles in fruitless experimentation is as much a menace as the plodder who mindlessly directs every campaign by rote without regard for differences in communities, institutions, personalities or prevailing circumstances.

Every campaign should have at least one distinctive and unique feature that serves as a rallying point for what could be a jaded community or volunteer workforce. At the same time, any departures from the norm must not be allowed to interfere with sound, orthodox methods such as peer level, face-to-face solicitation. The consultant who suggests otherwise should be viewed with some suspicion.

5.    The Individual Who is Assigned

The Individual who is assigned to the project is, in every respect, more important than the firm who is hired as consultant. While a corporate service is fine in principle, it doesn't fully compensate for the damage that can be caused by an inappropriate assignment of staff. If the person named to your campaign by one firm has neither the experience nor the personality that suits your circumstances, shop around until you are satisfied.

WHAT TO EXPECT

1.    Insistence On Careful Evaluation

Insistence on a careful evaluation of all facets of the project is one trademark of a professional in fund raising. This evaluation usually takes the form of an in-depth study of the strengths and weaknesses of your case for support, your sources of leadership, workers and contributions, and of the most appropriate timing. You pay for this study - one way or another. If any consultant offers to conduct a study without fee, don't buy it. He'll tack the cost onto his fee for managing a campaign that in the long run may not prove to be viable.

Expect total - even painful - honesty in the consultant's report. The true professional will paint you and your project as they appear to your various publics, and you can expect all your skeletons to be yanked out of the closet and dangled in full, uncomplimentary view.

The fund-raising study, in fact, is one time when everyone associated with an institution is willing to tell all. The promise of anonymity seems to be a safety valve for a lot of pent-up frustrations and deep-seated concerns that never get expressed otherwise. If he does nothing else, the fund-raising consultant can help an institution to a better appreciation of its own shortcomings. Of course, the consultant has to have enough perception to be able to separate wheat from the sour grapes and not report everything he hears without checking it out.

The consultant's report could be the catalyst for action after many months or years of delay, and if so, you should expect at least an outline of a plan if not the final detail right down to how many desks, typewriters and paper clips you'll need. Certainly, a budget and a proposal for staffing - either under the consultant's direction or with your own personal resources - should be provided.

On the other hand, the consultant may counsel a delay, some modification or even radical change in plans and direction. He rarely if ever will say simply "forget it; you haven't a hope of raising a dime."

In every case, the consultant should propose some plan of action that will be designed to help meet the institution's problems - even if it is only to dismiss the executive director or the board. More likely, the recommendations will include advice on a public relations program, on cultivation of needed leadership candidates, or on going back to the drawing board to develop a program that would be more palatable to the giving public.

2.    Considerable Parsimony

Considerable parsimony in budgeting and deploying campaign expense funds is another professional characteristic. The consultant should be able to save you far more than his fees in avoidance of unnecessary and ineffective expenditure of money and time. As director of the campaign, the consultant will maintain close control over costs, and not permit volunteer committees to ride their favourite hobby horses in futile and costly circles. It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep campaign costs within reasonable bounds. Since I came into this business 30 years ago, the cost of living index has risen just over 300% but the average wage has gone up five times in the same period and the cost of paper (both prime ingredients in fund-raising budgets) has skyrocketed 400%.

What this boils down to is that to keep the cost of raising funds within some semblance of order and discipline, all frills must be cut out, every expense scrutinized to determine its cost effectiveness and the staff - including consultants - must double up on their jobs and streamline their efficiency.

That is one reason why a consultant is unlikely to recommend an extensive, unselected mail appeal in a one-time capital campaign. He knows that it could cost as much as one dollar for each dollar raised - and this doesn't make economic sense when you have only one kick at the bucket. Advertising campaigns rarely produce a fraction of the cost of design and artwork, let alone the space or time charges; so consultants usually keep paid advertising to a minimum.

3.    The Ability To Deal On A Peer Level With Leadership

The ability to deal on a peer level with leadership is an essential attribute of the consultant. Once your board chairman or campaign leadership stops taking advice and begins issuing directives to a consultant, it is very apparent that his effectiveness has almost disappeared. The consultant also must be able to focus everyone's thoughts and energies on a course of action that has achieved a consensus. Any board of any volunteer institution can produce almost as many ways to run a campaign as there are people seated around the table - and more than one could be valid and viable. The consultant, by injecting the element of urgency, often can resolve conflicts that have proved unresolvable, disruptive and enervating - over many long, wrangling months or years.

HOW TO WORK WITH A CONSULTANT

I would say that the essential ingredient of a successful relationship with a consultant is a well-developed talent for collaboration and partnership.

Remember that the consultant you have hired has almost as much at stake in the success of your campaign as you have. He has his professional pride, his standing among his peers and - most important - his ability to obtain future business riding on each job he undertakes.

To the professional, time is money, and if the institution employing his services does not respond promptly to requests for information and assistance in providing space, personnel, equipment, etc., the consultant's time and your money are being wasted. Don't let him draw but not earn his fee while he struggles with institutional red tape.

Don't be afraid to question the advice of your consultant if it runs counter to what you know of your institution or your community. It is possible that he already has taken your concerns into consideration, but you may also help prevent an oversight on his part producing unfortunate consequences. Don't forget that you are partners in a common cause, not rivals or adversaries.

The Consultant And The Small Hospital

Whether a hospital is small or large should have little influence on its relationship with a fund-raising consultant. I, personally, have been involved in capital campaigns for hospitals ranging in size from 35 beds in a village of 1,900 to the 1,000 plus beds of the Toronto General Hospital. The key word, however, is "capital". Our own company specializes in capital campaigns, and we profess no great expertise in the area of annual or special event fund-raising. There are others in our business who are much better equipped to counsel on such activities.

The major difference between small and large hospitals is usually the size of the community in which they are located, and this in turn affects the type of campaign that is organized. In general terms, the smaller the community, the shorter the time required to complete a campaign. A capital appeal in Toronto may take a year or two to bring to a successful conclusion. A capital campaign in Owen Sound or Ajax might be wound up in six months. In the smaller community, lines of communication are basically much more easy and open; less time is required to make an appointment or call a meeting. Another factor that reduces the time involved is the highly commendable small town aversion to wasting money. The chief executive officer of a major national corporation may not wish to be bothered with the "nickels and dimes" aspects of the costs of the campaign he is chairing in Toronto. But you can be sure that the canny Scots bank manager who heads up the appeal in typical small town Ontario will watch the spending of every penny as if it were his own.

The small town hospital should be able to offer much more in the way of volunteer services and materials, and the consultant should be prevailed upon to adapt his planning to take these resources into consideration.

With these points in mind, I would strongly advise the smaller community hospitals to avoid stringing out the time of involvement of the fund-raising consultant. Once all the preliminaries have been taken care of - the facility planning, the government approaches and grants, and the recruitment of leadership - try to persuade your consultant to provide full-time campaign management services for a specified period of time, rather than the one or two days a week or month that might be his preference.

Parkinson's law - that work will always last as long as the time available for it - is as applicable to fund raising as to any other pursuit I know. Your schedule should be as tight as realistically possible, to make the best use of your consultant, and of your money.