Advancing Philanthropy

Looking For Silver Bullets

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How to get the best from a consulting relationship

Once, after a long day of meetings and activities, a small group of co-workers and two board members turned their conversation from the ambitious project goal that would be announced soon to what they would need in order to meet it. The current staff had no campaign or major-gift experience. There was no qualified prospect list or research capacity. At this point, one board member jokingly asked, “Where will we find someone to ride into town wearing a white hat and a holster full of magic bullets?” Although the group knew that the board member was joking, several staff members left that night thinking that the “magic bullet” idea may be a pretty good one.

It Takes Two

While you know that there are no silver bullets, there may be a kind of magic or energy that can happen when mutually shared, well-chosen goals, institutional support and the right consultant come together.

How can you make that happen for your organization? Answering that question begins with agreeing on what a consultant is and does. It also includes what you and your organization need to do to make this relationship succeed, as it takes two to make a relationship.

To begin, does your organization actually need a consultant? Answering this question is a critical first step in the decision-making process. Your organization can benefit from using a consultant if

  • an objective assessment is needed,
  • your organization needs skills or capabilities beyond those of the current staff and
  • your organization needs facilitation for a group undertaking a specific task in which objectivity is important.

It is tempting to think that the arrival of the consultant means that the organization now “sits back” to watch the consultant produce the results. After all, you hired the expert, and now it is time for him or her to get on with it. If this were to actually happen, the success of the project would be in doubt.

Why? Engaging a consultant is really committing to a complex, collaborative relationship. Every relationship takes at least two. The foundation of this relationship is formed when both the organization and the consultant have a clear, mutual understanding of their roles and responsibilities.1

Each organization that enters into a relationship with a consultant should expect to be responsible for the following:

  • Clearly defining the consulting project’s goal or goals
  • Gaining the agreement of the majority of the organization’s key stakeholders
  • Honesty
  • Assigning a liaison person to be the organization’s contact for the consultant who will actively facilitate the consultant’s work, commit sufficient time to perform these responsibilities and regularly assess the progress of the project
  • Setting a reasonable budget, timeline and deliverables (products or services, such as a campaign plan or training campaign volunteers) for the project
  • Following through on all assignments in a timely manner
  • Communicating effectively about the project to help relieve any fear, rumors or suspicions
  • Being willing to make changes as needed
  • Ensuring the productivity of the consulting relationship
  • Regularly evaluating the progress of the project relative to budget, timelines and deliverables
  • Clarifying through the written contract who will do the consulting work (often, the person from the consulting company who participates in the screening process/interview is not the person who will carry out the contract, so it is important to know who will do the work at your site and to interview him or her as well)
  • Terminating the relationship should the project fail to make reasonable progress

The consultant also has responsibilities:

  • Understanding the project’s goal or goals
  • Accepting only projects that are within his or her expertise
  • Acting honestly and tactfully
  • Working through his or her assigned contact person unless problems arise from this arrangement
  • Staying within the agreed-upon budget
  • Meeting all deadlines
  • Completing all deliverables (objects resulting from the project that the organization anticipates receiving as a result of the consultant’s work, such as completing the campaign or writing a campaign plan)
  • Following through completely and in a timely manner
  • Communicating regularly and clearly about progress and any challenges
  • Identifying and solving issues before or as they arise
  • Working professionally and cordially with all without condescension

How to Find the “Right” Consultant

Not every consultant is “right” for every organization or project. So, how do you know which one or ones are a great fit for you? There are three basic areas that any organization planning to hire a consultant needs to examine:

  • The prospective consultants’ skill sets
  • Their personal style
  • Whether to work with a single consultant or a consulting team

The process of assessing a consultant’s skills begins with the organization having a clear and specific goal or goals. With those in mind, the screening committee or its leadership can develop a list of the experiences and credentials the consultant must have to demonstrate he or she has successfully completed other similar projects in the past. If the organization is searching for consulting services to carry out a $300 million capital campaign, for example, the search committee needs to focus on potential consultants who have had similar successful experiences. Skill assessment also takes place during the process of checking references from prior clients who have engaged the consultant for the same or similar service. It is also an excellent idea to speak with other clients and anyone else not on the reference list who may be knowledgeable about the consultant’s work.

To make the information gathered during reference checking useful, it is important to have a set of questions to ask that are designed to bring forth useful project-related information. These same questions also can be used for all prospective consultants. By using a uniform set of questions, you ensure that you are collecting similar data on all candidates so that their experiences can be evaluated fairly and that the consultants in your pool for interviews are appropriately qualified to carry out your organization’s project. When you are ready to begin interviewing potential consultants, you also will want to use a standard set of questions for the same reasons.

How to Assess Personal Style

In addition to having a set of professional skills that match the goals of your project, the “right” consultant needs to have a personal style that is a fit with your organization. First, it is important that you know before the contract is signed who the specific person or persons will be who will actually carry out the consulting work. Then, to identify the best personality match, you need to find someone who has the “X Factor.” The “X Factor” is the mix of character traits that make up an individual’s personal style. How can you find out if your potential consultant has these important qualities?

There are several strategies that can be helpful. You can try speaking in confidence to trusted colleagues who may know or have worked with your potential consultants. However, there is nothing to compare with your own personal experience. Try to attend a workshop or seminar that the potential consultants are presenting to observe how they interact candidly with participants. You also can do some research on your potential consultants by going online to learn whether they serve on a community organization’s board or committees. Try attending meetings these groups may have.2 If you know someone who has served on a committee or participated in an event with your prospects, whether the service was related to fundraising or not, try contacting that person in confidence for a recommendation. This can be a useful strategy if the prospective consultants are located at a distance. Suppose a consultant you had hoped was going to be the “right” one volunteers at his or her grandchild’s day care center by reading stories, but you learn that the candidate made all the children cry and the teachers angry. You will want to think again before contracting with that consultant. People’s deep personality traits do not change from situation to situation, so it is valid to learn what they are like outside of their professional lives.

When potential consultants visit your organization, such as during the interview process, those with the “X Factor” will demonstrate to you that they have the ability to fit quickly and easily into your organization in ways that others trust and with whom they feel comfortable. During the visit, you also can ask a staff member or volunteer to escort the candidates on a facility tour and then report back on his or her impressions. To succeed, the consultant or consulting team will need to create the minimal amount of disruption despite their often being on the frontline of change. These should be professionals who show that they are “authentic”—that they are themselves in all situations and not playing the “role” of outside experts.

Since consultants often work in situations where significant change has taken place and where there is pressure to succeed, it is critically important that the consultants your organization chooses understand how to listen actively and know how to help others feel comfortable in doing new things or doing their regular job in a different way. The consultants need to do so without being condescending, threatening, arrogant or preachy.3 Given that most people are not comfortable with change, the successful consultants will demonstrate their understanding of this fact. They should be able to explain what they do to manage fear, stress and rumors.

Do the consultants adhere to the AFP Code of Ethical Standards, A Donor Bill of Rights and the Giving Institute’s (formerly the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel) standards? Do they understand confidentiality and act accordingly, and are they excellent listeners and understand what is said and what is left unsaid? Do they possess boundless energy and patience and have the courage to take wise risks?

It is important that whoever becomes the consultant has the personality to create a nonthreatening environment while remaining focused on the project’s goal, so that productive work can continue taking place. Finding the person who knows that being effective is more important than being right will be essential for your project’s success.

Getting the Best From Your Consulting Relationship

Once you have identified the consultant, is there anything else you should do? Yes.

Your next step should be creating a contract that clearly states your project’s goal or goals and details budget limits, beginning and ending dates for the contract, what the deliverables will be and when they are due and how interim progress will be measured and by whom. These parts of the contract are often called the “scope of work.” They must also be included in the request for proposal (RFP). Additionally, the responsibilities of the consultant or consulting team should be specified along with what the organization will be responsible for, whom the organization has designated to oversee the contract and facilitate the consultant’s work, details about how and when the organization will make payment for consulting services and how performance issues will be addressed should the consultant or the organization who hired him or her be dissatisfied, including contract termination. Provisions also should be made for the possibility of adding additional tasks to the original scope of work with the understanding that those costs may be in addition to the original fee.

Once the contract is signed and your organization has prepared itself internally, you now are ready to launch the consulting project. There are two simultaneous processes that happen at this stage that continue over the duration of the project. The most obvious of the two is the development of the set of tasks involved in carrying out the project, such as recruiting and training campaign volunteers, setting meeting dates and agendas, providing prospect lists and research, creating plans and materials, etc. These specific tasks should be set forth in a project work plan that includes deadlines and delegations to those who will be responsible for accomplishing each one.

The second process involves how you and the consultant will shape your working relationship as you execute these tasks as a team. This part of the relationship is every bit as important as the work plan, although this is often the most overlooked part of consulting relationships. This is the phase where the building blocks of your collaboration are created and made firm. This is where trust, credibility, reliability and ethical behavior are made visible. If you have contracted with a consultant to provide recommendations to your organization, how will they be accepted, much less acted upon, if trust and credibility have not been built? The trust-building factor takes place every day in large and small ways.

For example, say you are the consultant’s contact within the organization, and you work with that person to set the agenda for the first meeting of your new campaign advisory committee. You both have agreed about who is presenting each report on the agenda. You are trusting each other to not only arrive at the meeting on time but to also be dressed appropriately and fully prepared. If either of you fails in these mutual responsibilities, the relationship erodes. Every time a deadline is not met, an important call missed or confidential information revealed, trust is damaged. Conversely, if it is your responsibility to review and approve materials created by the consultant and you consistently miss deadlines, you are failing to build the trust that creates a successful professional relationship. Sometimes, trust is damaged to the point where it cannot be recovered. At this point, organizational leadership needs to evaluate whether to move forward with the project or the specific consultant.

Reaching a Successful Conclusion

The most important resource any consultant has is his or her reputation. While it is important that your consultant is responsive to your needs, you should be reasonable in setting expectations and deadlines. A good consultant wants to meet your expectations, but the organization needs to be clear and consistent in expressing them. With clear expectations that both the consultant and the organization understand and agree upon at the start with the RFP, working with a consultant can be an experience that not only meets the project’s goals but also leaves additional, long-lasting benefits. Staff may have learned new skill sets. More donors may have been cultivated than before, and workflow and operations may have been improved, leaving the organization at a higher level of operation. If the organization’s contact person checks in regularly with the consultant, the project can avoid or promptly address problems. Observing that the project is falling behind, work quality is poor, there have been breaches of confidentiality or that staff, leadership or board members do not want to work with the consultant are all signs that need to be addressed quickly before the situation becomes serious.

While regular evaluation should have been ongoing during the project, at its conclusion the lessons learned from the whole project can help improve the effectiveness of working with consultants in the future. Although consultants do not have the power to make changes in the organization, institutional leadership can. The final measure of effectiveness of the consulting project is whether leadership makes the recommended changes that actually move the organization forward.

Sidebar: Choosing A Single Consultant or a Team and Who Asks for Gifts

Depending on your project’s needs, it may benefit from using either a single practitioner or a team of consultants. In general, single consultants are in their own practice or are part of a small one. A major benefit from this relationship is that you know whom you are working with consistently over time. A challenge can be getting sufficient attention for your project or the speed with which your questions are answered. Most consultants, whether part of an independent practice or a large national company, normally work on projects for multiple clients at the same time. If you choose to work with a single consultant, you should first learn how he or she plans to provide sufficient time for your project. Then, you will learn by experience, being sure to monitor whether your tasks are being completed on time according to your project work plan.

Working with a team of consultants is a common practice, particularly for very large projects like a comprehensive capital campaign for a large university with many colleges and programs. Large consulting companies can field a team. The benefit is that each person often has a specialty, such as prospect research, major gifts or publication design. Your project can be enriched by having the services of several specialists. The downside can be working with multiple practitioners and trying to ensure that they are all on the same page with you and that each one has the skills and personal style to work well in your organization. In the beginning, you did reference checks on the company but not on each of the individuals from that company who may be engaged on your project. At this point, you have to put your trust in the company to have the right match for your project on their staff.

The question of who solicits your donors is a complicated one. While having your donor relationships vested in your staff is ideal, sometimes fundraising projects come online before the staff has sufficient experience or numbers, even when working with campaign volunteers, to solicit all major gifts. In this case, you may have to compromise and have a consultant involved. If this is the choice you make to get the project completed, it is important to ensure that the consultant documents all calls in writing so that the staff can steward the gift and continue the relationship once the gift has been made. Growing the relationship becomes a staff responsibility.


1     Compassion Capital Fund National Resource Center. “Working with Consultants.” Strengthening Nonprofits: A Capacity Builder’s Resource Library, pages 7–11.…

2    Scanlan, Eugene A. (2009). Fundraising Consultants: A Guide for Nonprofit Organizations. Hoboken, NJ: John Willey & Sons Inc., pages 77–87.

3     Maiser, David H.; Green, Charles H.; & Galford, Robert M. (2001). The Trusted Advisor. New York: Simon & Schuster, pages 1–3.


Dove, Kent E. (2001). Conducting a Successful Fundraising Program. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gable, Julie. (2007). “Eight Tips for Working with a Consultant.” The Information Management Journal, July/August, pages 42–48.

Kibbe, Barbara, & Setterberg, Fred. (1992). Succeeding With Consultants: Self-Assessment for the Changing Nonprofit. The David and Lucille Packard Foundation. New York: The Foundation Center.

Perchthold, Gordon, & Sutton, Jenny. (2010). Extract Value from Consultants: How to Hire, Control and Fire Them. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group Press.

Petty, Janice Gow. (2008). Ethical Fundraising: A Guide for Nonprofit Boards and Fundraisers. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Schaefer, Susan, & Lysakowski, Linda. (2013). The Nonprofit Consulting Playbook. Rancho Santa Margarita, CA: Charity Channel Press.

Sheth, Jagdish, & Sobel, Andrew. (2000). Clients for Life: How Great Professionals Develop Breakthrough Relationships. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wagner, Libby. (2011). The Influencing Opinion. Cranbrook, England: Global Professional Press.

Prue S. Precourt, Ph.D., CFRE, is managing partner at Verdon Precourt Associates ( in Wyomissing, Pa.

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