Why Fundraising Consultants Don’t Bring in New Donors
Fundraising consultants can be invaluable for nonprofits looking to optimize their fundraising operations. They can help organizations improve their visibility, create a more sustainable long-term fundraising plan, ensure appropriate solicitation strategies, and provide ongoing advice and support. However, some nonprofit leaders don't know the nature of what fundraising consultants do.
The reality is that some consultants present themselves as having access to a hidden network of wealthy potential donors with big checks. That's a red flag. And anyone who demands a hefty, upfront retainer fee is not adhering to consulting best practices. These consultants are typically ineffective with a limited capacity to deliver optimal improvement for organizations.
Still, nonprofit leaders often think fundraising consultants exist to bring money from the consultant's network. It doesn't matter how many times consultants say that's not how relational fundraising works. There's still a misguided expectation that fundraising consultants will make a couple of well-placed calls to people they know. Suddenly, millions in fundraising dollars will pour into the nonprofit.
That's not going to happen. So, let's explore the disconnect between nonprofit leaders and fundraising consultants.
Misalignment About What Fundraising Consultants Do
There is a legal distinction between fundraising consultants and solicitors. You need to be sure you're not expecting consultants to do things they're simply not equipped to do. Fundraising consultants aren't responsible for writing your mission statement or compiling your annual report. They don't design your website or write your newsletters. And they certainly don't decide where your organization should spend its money. They also don't reach out to their contacts to ask for funds for every nonprofit they consult. Think of how unrealistic it is for nonprofits to think that's what happens.
Fundraising consultants are similar to consultants in other industries. They are professionals skilled at helping you implement a plan to achieve your ideas and goals. They work with your sphere of influence and the people interested in your work. The people closest to you are where your gold mines exist. The fundraising consultant's job is to help you maximize that and make strategic asks. Most nonprofit leaders aren't professional fundraisers, so they don't know how to prioritize, cultivate and go through the process of making an ask — including dealing with donor objections.
Donors Don't Belong to Fundraisers
It may take a month or longer, but inevitably, in many cases, nonprofit leaders will completely ignore the work happening to prepare a solid case for support. The idea of a case for support, with a budget and measurable outcomes, may seem basic, but consultants know it's one of the most challenging things to extract from a nonprofit. It appears that many leaders believe their programs are brilliant. Who wouldn't want to support them?
Nonprofits that want to scale and grow understand consultants bring enormous value, but not a book of donors. And they also know they don't bring donor relationships created with other nonprofits where they worked. Suppose a fundraising consultant helped you develop relationships with donors and secure gifts. Would you want that consultant to turn around and tap into those very same people for their other nonprofit clients? Chances are, the answer is “no.”
Lack of Listening by Nonprofit Leaders
Nonprofit leaders need to be excellent listeners. They need to be willing to take advice from their staff and board, as well as their donors and volunteers. But most importantly, nonprofit leaders need to take advice from their fundraising consultants.
Talented and expert fundraising consultants will tell nonprofit leaders they need to see their databases. Unfortunately, sometimes nonprofit leaders only hear what they want to hear or create their version of what they want — regardless of what the consultant says.
Donors are people. They're not ATMs. Relational fundraising means building meaningful (and not transactional) relationships with donors. As fundraisers realize, donor attrition is high. If you want donors to continue supporting your nonprofit past the first year or in greater and more meaningful ways depending on their capacity, you need to treat them with consideration and respect. A fundraising consultant will help you navigate relationships and guide you in overcoming objections from your donors.
Again, they're not consulting to turn on a donor cash spigot. They’re there to help nonprofit leaders think about fundraising wholistically and creatively.
Wanting Someone Else to Blame for Poor Performance
One of the reasons why fundraising consultants are hired is to bring funding into the organization, when what the nonprofit has been doing previously hasn't resulted in budget objectives. However, the expectation is immediate funding from new sources or gains with existing sources without understanding the process. Fundraising consultants plan, plan, plan and implement, bringing the greatest success.
Some nonprofits reach out when it is too late. In other words, they have some money and claim they want to grow their organization. By the time they hire a fundraising expert, they are running out of operating revenue. Unfortunately, this happens a lot. During one recent engagement, I learned after starting that the organization would be out of funding in two months — that’s a lot of pressure.
Organizations need to take a hard look at what is not working. Lack of money points to a problem elsewhere, as there is plenty of funding out there. Hiring a fundraising consultant is a big decision. But, it requires a partnership based on mutual understanding, respect and trust. It shouldn't start with a desire for immediacy in finding money as quickly as possible. The relationship should begin long before solidifying the organization's financial well-being with expertise.
Fundraising is all about relationships, and the organizations with the most success at fundraising do the best jobs cultivating relationships with donors. This isn't something that you can outsource. So, the best fundraising consultants partner with you to help you create solid and meaningful relationships with your donors. If your nonprofit wants a winning partnership with a fundraising consultant, learn about board governance and ask several fundraising consultants about their methodology. You'll find that quality fundraising is relational and doesn't come from a consultant's friends-and-family list.
Paul D’Alessandro, J.D., CFRE, is a vice president at Innovest Portfolio Solutions. He is also the founder of High Impact Nonprofit Advisors (HNA), and D’Alessandro Inc. (DAI), which is a fundraising and strategic management consulting company. With more than 30 years of experience in the philanthropic sector, he’s the author of “The Future of Fundraising: How Philanthropy’s Future is Here with Donors Dictating the Terms.”
He has worked with hundreds of nonprofits to raise more than $1 billion dollars for his clients in the U.S. and abroad. In addition, as a nonprofit and business expert — who is also a practicing attorney — Paul has worked with high-level global philanthropists, vetting and negotiating their strategic gifts to charitable causes. Paul understands that today’s environment requires innovation and fresh thinking, which is why he launched HNA to train and coach leaders who want to make a difference in the world.