Sunday, February 17, 2008

So, you want to be a consultant?

I have never had a very positive view of fundraising consultants.

Even today, I remain a bit skeptical about their capacity to deliver meaningful results to clients. Fundraising is a business driven by long-term relationships -- something that short-term consultants can rarely improve.

Most non-profits could achieve the same results by simply doing some internal reorganization of priorities and business practices.

(And here I will say that I am deeply thankful to Karen Larabee Waller and the Dini Partners for their work at driving such changes at Central Dallas Ministries in preparation for our current capital campaign)

Using the expertise and perspective of consultants to reassess strategies and realign priorities can be an effective way to improve your organization's work. Hiring contract grant writers to build important proposals can also have some significant impact, as long as they work closely with the staff who will be in charge of implementing the program upon receipt of the proposal.

But engaging consultants to do the work of full-time employees is likely a mistake for both parties.

I can say this now with slightly more credibility, having recently served in such a consulting role to a non-profit organization. It was quite a thrill to enter a circle of accomplished fundraising executives and to have my opinions valued more highly merely because I was: a) from the outside, b) charging them by the hour.

Amazing how those two facts alone can increase someone's perceived value.

When I began the venture, I asked for advice from one of my friends and mentors, Janet C. Davis of Davis Interventures (and, of course, Janet Davis and the Velvet Living Room). Here is some of what she offered:

  • It is really all about scope.
  • Make sure that you are very clear in your contract (and get a signed agreement if you have not already) about what you will deliver and what they will deliver, and hold the line. It is easy to be in a meeting where you collectively discover an additional task that needs to be done for the project and for you to say “I’ll take care of that."
  • Make sure that you add it to your fees if it is significant.
  • Charge what you are worth.
  • Track your hours so that you know your actual hourly recovery.
  • Try to communicate with the client every day at least once so that they know that they are top of mind for you.
  • Make sure to reflect back to the client what you think they need so that their expectations are very clear.
  • Have a good time!
Janet is very good at her job. Her advice is incredibly valuable -- simple though it may seem, it is incredibly difficult to set boundaries with clients (particularly when you feel incredibly connected to their mission). For example, in my recent venture, I quickly found myself being attracted to the usual 50-60 hours of work despite my 8-hour weekly contract.

My congratulations to the non-profits and the individual consultants who are able to successfully navigate these treacherous waters.

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