Or “What I know now about consultants that I wish I knew then….”

Running a fundraising ‘shop’ is demanding. With expectations that always grow, no matter what, internal constituencies to service, a staff to lead and, of course, a substantial pool of prospects to manage, there is often little time to think strategically. It’s very easy to become focused solely on execution and not leave enough time for strategy.

However, you might be suspicious, or at least have a healthy scepticism, when it comes to hiring consultants to help with this. You might feel that consultants seem expensive, need a significant length of time to be effective, and are an uncertain solution to the complexities you face.

I was previously the director of a rapidly growing fundraising department in a major university, and before that the executive director of a non-profit organisation. Now that I’ve just completed my second year as a consultant, I’ve learnt one or two things along the way I wish I’d known back then. And I’m happy to share!

   1. Hire the right person for the right job

Consultants do their best work when:

  • Both consultant and client understand the issue and the desired outcome
  • Efficiency and efficacy are critical
  • Speed, both of initiation and execution, is important
  • Specialised expertise or experience is needed

So, make sure you hire a consultant and/or firm that:

  • Has a reputation for both listening to your brief and for being efficient and effective in execution
  • Has capacity to take on the work according to your timeline
  • Can bring the right capabilities to bear
  • Has the right personality fit for your organisation, so that they can become quickly effective

   2. Think of a consultant as a business partner, not merely a contractor

The very best consultant interactions I had in my previous roles (and the best relationships I have with clients now) were more like partnerships than the usual client- contractor relationship. From my current perspective as a consultant, this partnership approach provides access to a deeper understanding of the context and issues my clients might face, allowing for more nuanced and adaptive support than working slavishly to a brief. I can bring our firm’s entire expertise to bear on a client’s issue, and flex as their needs change.  Being deeply involved gives me and the GP team the opportunity to fully impart our skills and knowledge to meet a client’s needs.

I was delighted when one of my clients recently said they were surprised at “how genuinely interested in and committed everyone was to [their] mission, values, needs and strategy”.

This is so satisfying to hear—and something that I constantly strive for!

two people elbow bumping instead of handshaking

 3. Consultants can bring speed and momentum

Consultants can be effective in commencing work quickly and executing according to a known timeline—an advantage in itself, but with the significant benefit of also building momentum in the organisation more broadly.

For many of the projects we conduct, you can specify a brief, receive and accept a proposal, have the work completed, and be reading the final report in the time it would take to place a recruitment ad and wait to receive CVs for a new hire!

   4. Consultants can be influential both inside and outside of your organisation

Consultants bring with them knowledge and expertise honed through working with multiple organisations, across multiple sectors, based on hundreds of conversations with both internal and external stakeholders. This gives their advice a level of authority that can make them very influential within your organisation. Use this to your advantage!

As independent 3rd party spokespeople interacting directly with your stakeholders, they can also be powerful advocates that help accelerate understanding of your mission and vision. Make sure you use this, too!

   5. Consultants seem expensive if you look at their daily rate, but be sure you’re making the right comparison

Think of a consultant as a highly experienced and specialised short-term staff member, who has the capacity to self-manage after your first meeting.

The value of this should not be underestimated when comparing a consultant’s costs against other methods of attaining the same objectives. For example, you may need to employ one or more staff to achieve the same breadth of knowledge and experience, with on-costs, including recruitment and management. In many instances, it will be less costly, overall, to engage the consultant.

   6. A proposal can tell you a lot about a consultant and their firm

Is the proposal detailed and accurate? Is it tailored to your organisation and your brief? It takes a lot of effort to write a good proposal. I spend time ‘walking in the shoes’ of the intended client, understanding the problem they’re looking to solve and its context, drawing parallels with other situations I have seen, setting out a way to address the problem, and then costing and estimating expenses.

Is the proposal delivered when the consultant said it would be? This is the first indication of whether the consultant is committed to meeting deadlines. And because you, as a client, will be making your arrangements on the assumption your consultant will deliver on time, you want to be sure that they’re committed to deadlines!

   7. Consultants are practiced at quickly ‘getting up to speed’

You’d be surprised at how quickly a consultant can ‘come up to speed’ on a problem or situation.

Part of this comes from being able to take an external, independent view. Not having biases about your organisation—and the way internal politics might play out around a particular situation—permits a much clearer view of the problem and possible solutions.

It’s also likely that I or my colleagues have seen similar situations before and can quickly advise on what will or won’t work.

Illustration of a man with a rocket on his back

8. It’s worth taking the time to build a relationship

Get to know the capabilities of the consulting firm you’re working with. If they’ve worked with you before, then they already have the background to quickly address any new situations and can do so within the context of your whole organisation.

Do their capabilities match your needs? A firm that can field a number of specialists is like having a Swiss Army Knife in your back pocket!

   9. Always mind the details

Spending time conversing with your intended consultant prior to the proposal stage is a great investment: the more you engage at this point, the more clearly the proposed project can be defined, and the better you both understand the issue or challenge to address and the desired outcomes.

Pay careful attention to estimated expenses as well as fees, and don’t be afraid to raise questions and ask for clarification on any uncertain points.

   10. Flexibility is key

The present crisis caused by COVID-19 has set much fundraising practice on its head. In Australia, it followed hot on the heels of the crisis caused by an unprecedented bushfire season.

It has been a privilege to be able to help our clients navigate this difficult year, using our unique vantage point across many different clients in many different sectors. We have seen clients set new organisation fundraising records in appeals centred on relieving the considerable hardship caused by COVID-19; other clients have experienced long-term major gift cultivation come to fruition in seven-figure gifts.

To achieve this, our clients have needed fast and reliable advice to address rapidly evolving contexts—and for assistance to be provided as flexibly as possible. In fact, flexibility has been key. This is perhaps best illustrated by a long-term client who has a retainer arrangement with our firm: not only could we provide advice, coaching and encouragement to keep moving forward through these difficult circumstances, but were able to pivot our assistance to help build back-office capability when face-to-face fundraising halted. Already accustomed to working remotely, we were able to bring different capabilities to diverse foundational projects quickly. They will be in great shape to continue their momentum as the crisis lifts!

Dr Colin Taylor is Vice-President and Senior Consultant of Global Philanthropic (Asia Pacific).