April 04, 2012

Who We Are Today and Where We Came From

Every year at the Association of Fundraising Professionals conference, dozens of consultants and vendors exhibit their services and wares in the conference marketplace. Some have been doing this for decades. But this year, at the conference in Vancouver, many of the exhibitors were of a far more recent vintage, well equipped to help and advise charities that use social media and other technology to raise money.

As professions mature, they have to change with the times, adapting to confront new needs and realities. But it’s a good idea every now and then to look back at our origins, remind ourselves of the spark that led to a whole new line of work, and look how far we’ve come.

Management and fundraising consultants originated around the same time and placein the late 1800s in Michigan.

Early management consultants came from engineering and science. The first known one was Frederick Taylor, who helped Henry Ford develop the assembly line in Detroit.

The first fundraising consultants came from public relations and journalism, helping create the campaign model of fundraising at the YMCA in Grand Rapids.

In the decades that followed, consultants from time to time tried to expand their area of expertise. But in a speech at a staff conference in 1977, Marts & Lundy fundraising consultant Melvin Brewer cautioned his audience not to stray too far from their origins:

“Through the years, we have effectively resisted the temptation to get into fields that were not really within our competency—business management of philanthropic agencies, student-recruitment programs, computer-programming counsel, mail advertising, etc. Early in the firm’s history, when it did attempt such kinds of business-getters, the results were less than satisfactory.”

Thirty-five years later, much has changed: Fundraising consultants have realized the difficulty of raising support for troubled organizations. Poor management or governance is often at the root of fundraising problems, and expanding services to help clients improve in other areas can mean success for clients and growth for the consulting firms.

How has your consulting work changed over the years?