Choosing a fundraising consultant: ten top tips

John Baguley gives his top tips on choosing a fundraising consultant.

1. Let’s go for the cheapest!

Okay, let’s not be silly, that may just get you someone who has recently been fired and decided to call themselves a consultant. They come and go continuously.

First, look for a consultancy that has tackled a similar problem in the past and is part of a professional organisation (e.g. the Association of Fundraising Consultants (AFC), EUConsult or Institute of Fundraising). Always ask for a meeting and talk through what is required in some detail. Just how will they tackle your problem? Ask for a written proposal, but don’t expect a price until you receive the proposal as the consultant will need to consider the time and resources to be employed.

Never ask them to work for a percentage as no legitimate consultant will agree. It is against all our professional codes of practice.

Always check which person you will actually be working with. It may not be the impressive, personable individual who you interviewed.

In looking at the cost, consider that the consultancy will help you to significantly increase your income. Go for the one with which you feel most comfortable, and whose advice you are happy to rely on to achieve that increase.

2. Where on earth do you find them?

Mostly, you find them up there in the cloud by googling or by reputation and recommendation. The Institute of Fundraising website has a list, as does the Association of Fundraising Consultants but it can be quicker to google ‘fundraising consultancy’ and add the specific area where you need advice like ‘capital appeal’.

Do look for informal ways of meeting with consultants like the International Fundraising Consultancy’s Top Table which is free and is an occasional business breakfast held in the Gherkin for heads of fundraising departments.

3. Why do I need a fundraising consultant?

Essentially you need a consultancy to lower the risk of failure or internal dissent. For example, if you are planning to move into a new fundraising field where your organisation has not raised funds before, it really helps to have a deus ex machina to guide you and give confidence to your CEO and the Board of Trustees. This could be a capital appeal, crowd funding or anything which might give you pause for thought.

Sometimes it is really useful to have a consultancy help you set or re-set your fundraising strategy in unsettled times, where their wide-ranging experience can help you chart the most profitable course.

Very often consultants can offer interim help, mentoring for your team and assistance with communications or management too. This is one of the benefits of going for an established consultancy with a good reputation. Once they understand your organisation, the help they can offer could begin to transform the whole way it works and allow you to scale it up and help the organisation to meet many more of its beneficiaries needs.

4. What a consultant cannot do for you

A consultant helps you to achieve your goals, but they do not necessarily implement the changes they recommend. That is usually for you and your team to accomplish. They may however help you recruit the right person to do that and may even provide an interim post for something like a capital appeal where that post may not be needed beyond the appeal.

Neither do consultants arrive with a list of wealthy people or foundations who they can persuade to give funds to your charity, but they can research who those donors could be, help you shape those approaches and train you to ask effectively.

They cannot ask for money on your behalf – unless they declare an interest as a ‘professional fundraiser’ (which is a legal requirement) and that is likely to stop any significant donation dead in its tracks.

5. Which fundraising consultancy to choose?

The key to this conundrum is the interview process. It is there that time should be taken to ensure the consultancy understands your needs and you can clearly see how they will meet those needs.

You may be working with them for several months so make sure they are people you can respect and trust. That working relationship can be all important if there are bumps on the road, perhaps from over enthusiastic trustees who do not understand it takes both time and investment to raise large sums and implement fundraising programmes.

Consultancies who have been in the game a few years are trusted and respected for good reason. If they were ineffective they would have gone out of business a long time ago – reputation means a lot! Look at their case studies, references and awards.

6. Managing expectations

Look long and hard at their proposal. Does it contain all you agreed at the meeting? Are the milestones scheduled and when you will meet clear?

Consider if your trustee board really needs to approve this work or just to be aware of it and to know their level of involvement. If they are to be involved make sure they are aware of this and accept that responsibility before the work begins. They may indeed want to meet the consultant before the work starts.

Usually the consultancy will agree to meet deadlines, cover its own admin and travel costs, or at least be clear on what these will be (you don’t want additional costs coming in when you have been given a fixed budget) and invoice promptly on the schedule agreed.

You will agree to let them talk to the right people (and clear it with those people first), give them all the info they need and pay on time (make sure Finance understands this).

You and the consultancy will agree to inform each other of anything that could derail the project and respect each other’s confidentiality and proprietary materials.

7. The contract – don’t skip this paragraph!

You need a contract – seriously. Any reputable consultancy will have a standard contract that clearly sets out the terms and conditions under which it operates and often links back to their proposal document, so you know exactly where you stand. Read it carefully as that will go a long way to avoid problems later.

The schedule, timeframe, fees and payment schedule, notice period and if international the jurisdiction under which disputes should be settled.

Do not be tempted to use your usual services contract unless it is specifically for fundraising consultancy. These contracts can be completely inappropriate and hold up the consultancy whilst some parts are removed and other added.

8. Managing the fundraising consultancy

In the same way that you need to know just who you will be working with the consultancy needs to know who is in charge of the project and can take decisions when they are required.

Regular meetings really help but monthly reports are often a waste of time now that we have email, zoom and lots of other ways to keep in touch with progress.

Problems need to be brought to everyone’s attention early on before they become big issues. Over-communicate here with clarity over the nature of the problem. Is it a real problem or one of perception and is it dealt with in the proposal or contract or do things need to be modified?

9. When things go wrong

When things go wrong it is often that expectations were not managed well and people (sometimes at a distance from the programme) have not understood how things would be run. Typically, in fundraising work people expect large donations to arrive almost as soon as the consultants start work and have little patience once they have paid the first set of fees.

Keeping everyone informed and on board is crucial to the smooth running of the programme.

Your consultants have probably been high-flying fundraisers managing large teams and dealing with huge budgets but as consultants they lose the control they once had and must work by persuading you and your staff and volunteers to carry out their recommendations. Things can easily go wrong if you or your people decide not to carry out the consultant’s recommendations, ignore their advice and do things like chickening out of making asks in the right way. The latter can be a key problem when it comes to capital appeals.

10. Making the most of your fundraising consultant

Just like any partnership, good relationships need to be maintained by hard work, open lines of communication and sometimes the recognition that as things develop, everyone must be flexible enough to ensure the programme achieves the results set out at the start.

When things go well, do tell all those involved both in the organisation and in the consultancy. A call to the consultant to say, “Thank you!” or a brief note can go a long way to keeping everyone motivated.

If you have had a good experience of working with a consultancy think how they could help you further with other problems, and don’t forget to recommend them to your colleagues in other organisations. They may well repay that kindness at a time when you really need it.

Did you know we can also help you? Our consultants provide expertise ranging from: HR policy reviews, learning needs analysis, helping you develop a strategic/business plan or a fundraising strategy. Find out more.