September 19, 2012

Where to Find a Consultant: In Your Community or Elsewhere?

Among the decisions charities must make when it comes time to hire a fundraising consultant is whether to use someone local or someone outside the community. There are advantages to both.

Locals already know about donors in the community and will not need to be brought up to speed. Board members and staff who have already worked with them may trust and be comfortable with them.

Consultants who have been around a long time, however, even if they’re very good, may have detractors in the community. We've all heard the saying that "familiarity breeds contempt."

Certain kinds of work--like feasibility studies, organizational assessments, board training, and strategic planning—sometimes benefit from the fresh perspective of an outside firm, unencumbered by preconceptions or community politics. An example: One well-known local consultant insisted that a particular donor had not, and would “never,” give a seven-figure gift. An outside professional, new to the donor and the organization, went ahead and got the gift. What passes for knowledge and insight at times is just assumption.

Whether they come from inside or outside the community, consultants can boost a board’s courage in a major fundraising effort, especially if the trustees are new to this type of effort or if they face a particularly daunting challenge. The involvement of a respected consultant can also give donors confidence of a positive outcome, especially in the early stages of a campaign when evidence of success is limited, and this can inspire gift commitments.

But consultants can’t work miracles. Nonprofit boards at times believe that consultants can open doors for them they cannot open themselves, and donors don’t relate to ‘hired guns’ as well as to their peers.

Ideally an organization’s mission and track record are strong enough to attract gifts, and at least some members of the board will have the ability to open the desired doors. If not, perhaps the board needs further development before undertaking a major fundraising effort or feasibility study.

Do you encounter these issues in your practice? How do you handle them? How important are your own connections considered in the philanthropic community?