Part One: How Do You Choose a Consultant?

 In Smith & Dale Blog


Welcome to part one of our new three part blog series: How Do You Choose a Consultant?

By Angie Johnson Smith, Co-Founder, Smith & Dale

  • Counsel – to use or not to use?
  • Reviewing Counsel – RFP? – make sure there are guidelines, but don’t pigeonhole yourself, or your consultant. Important to compare apples to apples, but make sure that pricing is understood
  • Choosing Consultants – make sure you know the person you will be working with, this is a team, and should be a dynamic team.

Here at Smith & Dale HQ, we have an on-going debate on how prospective clients make decisions about fundraising counsel. Is it personality driven? Is it the consultant’s experience? Is it whether the consultant has done a project ‘JUST LIKE’ theirs? Is it price? Is it more important to be local or out of town? And on, an on…

We know there are many aspects to consider when choosing a consultant, but we would like to offer our insight on making the best match.

If you are considering retaining fundraising counsel – congratulations! That is a big step, and one that we are sure required several board conversations and deep soul-searching. After all, somehow unlike in the for-profit sector, in the nonprofit sector it is almost anathema to spend money to make money, right? So this is a big step! Next week get our basic advice on how to select counsel.

You relationship with your consultant should be like a professional ‘soulmate’. Yes, I said that. You need to be willing to share all the challenges, all the successes, and especially, all the dirty laundry, with counsel. And it should be accepted, by your consultant, without judgement. We had a client once tell us, “I don’t need to hire someone to make me feel stupid, I need a partner and a champion to help me succeed.” We couldn’t Agree more!

Some basic advice:

  • The CEO or Executive Director and selected relevant board members should form an ad hoc committee for the search.
  • Create a project scope of work, outlining you and your plan. Make sure you include:
    1. Your Mission
    2. Project Description
    3. Project Objectives
    4. Hoped-for Fundraising Goal
    5. Timeline
    6. Leadership Team
    7. Contact Person*

*This is so important… and please let applicants ask questions! Better to have proposals submitted that are ACTUALLY viable, not things that miss the mark because your RFP needed more clarity. This also signifies a ‘peer’ working relationship, which should be your goal.

We’ll let you in on a secret: we spend a lot of time creating our proposals. The bottom line is, the more information you provide us, the better our proposal will match your desired outcomes. For some reason we find organizations who hold details close to the cuff. Prospective consultant partners really can give you a much more comprehensive and detailed proposal when we know the Who, What, When, Where and How.

We didn’t mention an RFP (Request for Proposals), and there is a reason. Most consulting firms have a very specific way of presenting their services, which are typically pretty good. RFP’s sometimes stifle firms’ ability to present a full scope to the client. Additionally, it creates a boundary between prospective client and prospective consultant. Yes, it is a competitive bid process, but it shouldn’t be shrouded in secrecy, but rather a transparent, inclusive process.

  • Locate and ask two to three consulting firms to submit a proposal, provide them the project scope of work.

Even if you know who you think you want to work with, this step will provide you peace of mind, that you looked at options and selected the right group, and may fulfill and due diligence requirements in your by-laws.

  • Create interview questions

What should we ask prospective consultant(s)?

Discuss in detail their fee structure. We once lost (and then reclaimed) a prospective client because the other consultant seemed considerably less expensive. Well, turned out that the fine print made their fees considerably more expensive.

  • Make sure you are comparing apples to apples when weighing several firms; they may be pricing very differently.
  • If the consultant is from out of town, ask how they will bill for their travel and lodging, how often they will be in town, and how they work with you on a daily basis.
  • If the consultant is in town, ask how often you will see them, and how they work with you on a daily basis.

Make sure that you delineate which tasks will be fulfilled by the consultant and which fall to staff. There are several ways for counsel to provide help.

  • Some give advice and that’s all they provide… you execute all tasks (and that may be fine).
  • Others get into the trenches with you, providing advice and execution.

For Example: We were working with a very small non-profit on a capital campaign. There was no development staff, or administrative staff. When it came time to do a volunteer appeal, we wrote the appeal, sourced the mail merge and the mailing. All the Executive Director needed to do was approve it.

  • Schedule interviews from the three firms if their proposals fit the bill
  • Be ready to make a selection while the iron is hot! You’ve built momentum through this process, make the decision and move forward.

We hope you find this information useful! Tune in for Part Two of our Three part series focused on how to choose a consultant!


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