Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Role of Consultants

Consultants assist philanthropy-seeking organizations in two basic ways:

1. Helping Advancement show the CEO and Board the real cost of long-term fund-raising success.

2. Helping the CEO and Board objectively evaluate Advancement.

Above and beyond that, consultants can provide specific tools to assist with specific phases or aspects of advancement but you can spend way too much for too little if you fail to remember these precepts:

Strong leaders make for effective consultants. Don’t cede the leadership of an advancement operation or a campaign to a consultant. If your advancement operation is not well-led, a consultant won’t fix the problem. If your advancement leader sits at the knee of a consultant, the operation is not well led.

Emphasize organic growth. Over-reliance on consultants, either in number or duration of contract, doesn’t build fundamental strength in your organization. When the consultants go away, the capability to perform certain task or fulfill basic functions goes with them. Use consultants to identify capability gaps in your organization but challenge them to make themselves obsolete as soon as possible.

Augment, don’t rely. Don’t assume that one service provided by one consultant is all you need. One service provided by many consultants, for instance, is conducting confidential interviews with potential volunteers and donors to determine the feasibility of a campaign. It’s an important function that almost always yields valuable information. But even large feasibility studies (over 100) are very small samples of your potential base of support. The findings of a feasibility study should be compared to what your advancement officers are hearing in the field and to other qualitative and quantitative market research. Many organizations, for instance, have telefund staffers who can be converted to pollsters. They can make a thousand calls or more to solicit the opinions of donors and to broaden your understanding of how your organization is perceived.

Remember who works for whom. Don’t treat consultants like celebrities; they will start to believe they are. While the best of them can provide insight and comparative analyses, most haven’t actually raised money in long, long time, if ever.

Ask the right person for the right thing. If you want to know about the day to day challenges of running a campaign, for instance, don’t turn to a consulting firm, go to someone who is actually running a campaign. You will be surprised how many working professionals will provide advice or consult for you. Since they have full-time jobs, they won’t stay too long or try to sell you anything you don’t need.

Know what you really need. Consulting firms can sometimes be like deodorant companies; they have to convince you that you stink to get you to buy their products. If you are insecure and turn the wrong consultants loose, they will come back with a long list of deficiencies – that, interestingly enough, only they have the ability to solve!

Don’t get me wrong. Consultants can and do serve a very important role. Defining the right role at the right time with the right direction and confidence is the key is to making sure they do their best work – for you.

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