Hiring a fundraising consultant is not a decision that nonprofit professionals take lightly. A consultant is a person who will enter your space and work directly with your team.

It’s important to find the right fit.

That said, a consultant can be an enormous asset to an organization. They’re fundraising experts, equipped with the tools and know-how to build sustainable solutions to your nonprofit’s most pressing problems.

They can help you achieve your vision and bring your projects to life. Or, they can serve as an extra pair of hands during a complex campaign.

No matter why you’re considering hiring a fundraising consultant, it’s important to understand the hiring process and what it entails.

The more you understand what you’re getting into, the better prepared you’ll be to tackle each step, and subsequently, find the person best suited to your nonprofit.

Specifically, we’ll cover these essential steps:

  1. Determine your needs and goals
  2. Identify the services you need
  3. Do your research
  4. Start a conversation with your top candidates
  5. Request proposals and check references
  6. Sign a contract

With these steps, you can start the hiring process (or even your fundraising year!) off on the right foot.

  1. Determine Your Needs and Goals

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If you’re considering hiring outside assistance, you’ve likely determined that your nonprofit needs additional help and support.

The more specific and realistic you can be about what you want to achieve and where you’ll need support, the better a consultant can accommodate your organization.

Perhaps you want to hire a consultant to assist with your capital campaign.

Will you need assistance with specific services, such as feasibility studies, or will you need hands-on management throughout your campaign?

You may need a combination of both services – the key is to know what you need so you know who to look for.

It’s important to have realistic expectations about the degree to which a fundraising consultant will need to fill in the gaps in your organization’s infrastructure.

Likewise, you should have a clear idea of what you want to achieve with your project by asking yourself these questions:

  • What is our vision?
  • How will hiring a consultant ultimately further our cause?
  • At the end of the contract, what would need to be accomplished for us to say we’ve had a successful engagement?

It’s important to have these discussions with your board and development committee. Your board and key leadership will be funding the plan and working directly with the consultant, so their support is vital.

Don’t just tell them about your grand vision; invite them into the conversation. Excite them. It’s important that everyone is ready and eager to tackle your project by working together.

  1. Identify the Services You Need

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Now that you’ve taken the time to consider your needs and goals, it’s important to understand what kind of consulting services can best serve your nonprofit.

Obviously, if you need assistance with something specific like prospect research, you should find a consultant who offers that service. That said, consultants generally offer more comprehensive services that seek to build sustainable solutions to your problems (issues, it seems, are rarely isolated).

Understanding the types of services that consultants typically offer can help you better identify the consultant who’s right for your organization.

Here are a few of the key services consultants offer:

  • Fundraising solutions. These services help your nonprofit build stronger donor relationships, and ultimately raise more money.
  • Strategic planning. With strategic planning, you can create an actionable plan to achieve your nonprofit’s goals. Whether you’re energizing your board with a retreat or providing stakeholder surveys, these services assess your nonprofit and build stronger internal operations.
  • Executive search. If you need to fill an empty development professional position, executive search services can help you find the right fit.
  • Leadership training. Nonprofits depend on strong leadership. With proper top-down training, your nonprofit can build sustainable skills among key organizational leaders.

Though consultants may offer specific services, you should think of them as partners who build a relationship with your organization. They aren’t pillars that will support your entire organization, but they also aren’t fleeting participants who will vanish as soon as they check off the boxes on your list.

A consultant is a whole package. They’re the specific services they offer, as well as the general expertise that can build sustainable solutions throughout your nonprofit.

Before you hire a consultant, you need to understand how these services can be used in context.

  1. Do Your Research

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There’s a sea of qualified fundraising consultants to choose from. As such, the process can be overwhelming.

To start your search, you should seek the recommendations of colleagues and peers you respect. Be specific in your request.

For example, if you want to hire a consultant to expand your online giving initiative, then it would be wise to ask for recommendations that have experience working with online donation software.

You can use recommendations in conjunction with resource directories offered by professional and community organizations. These directories are chockfull of fundraising consultants who can help your nonprofit, but again, they can be overwhelming if you start typing in search queries without any sense of direction.

To guide your search, ask the following questions:

  • What is the consultant’s specialty practice? Your consultant should have experience with the services you need, or better yet, should specialize in those areas.
  • Where are they located? Both local and remote consultants have their advantages. Local consultants can provide in-person assistance more regularly, while remote consultants can offer a fresh, outside perspective.
  • What kind of clients have they historically serviced? Consultants may service nonprofits of a particular type or size, so it’s important to find one who can assist your organization.
  • What are their founding philosophies or core beliefs? Your consultant’s founding philosophies should complement your nonprofit’s mission and your organization’s culture.
  • Do they provide client testimonials or referrals? Consultants should be able to back their claims with evidence. Many feature testimonials or referrals on their websites so  nonprofits can confirm the consultant’s past successes.

These questions should guide your research and help you narrow down your list of potential consultants.

You should end up with a compact list of consultants with whom you’re excited to speak!

  1. Start a Conversation with Your Top Candidates

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Once you’ve identified potential consultants, it’s important to have a conversation with them, either in-person or over the phone.

A conversation is important for two primary reasons:

  1. You can demonstrate that your nonprofit is a great client. A consultant may be more willing and eager to work with an organization that shows it’s ready to hire outside assistance.
  2. You can assess how well you and the consultant work together. A conversation is a chance to try out communication, to ask questions, and to assuage concerns you have.

The goal is to find a consultant who meshes well with your organization (after all, this person will be entering your space and working with your team!). He or she should work well with key leaders and inspire confidence in your project!

To start off your conversation, you should explain your vision for your project and how the consultant could help.

You don’t have to detail all of your fundraising ideas, but you should provide the consultant with a clear picture of your path to success. Your consultant should understand what role he or she would fill and what needs should be met to satisfy your expectations.

Once you’ve explained your reasons for wanting to hire a consultant, ask them questions and observe their responses.

Some key traits that can help you identify the right match for your organization include:

  • Interest in your organization and project
  • The ability to answer any questions directly and respectfully
  • Experience with similar projects and organizations
  • Strong listening and collaborative skills
  • Demonstrated ability to be responsive and organized
  • Confidence in the success of your partnership and project

A good working relationship is important to the success of your project.

Your partnership should feel natural and collaborative. After all, you’re working toward the same goal!

  1. Request Proposals and Check References

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To help finalize your decision, you can request a proposal from your top choices.

A proposal is a document that outlines a consultant’s process and approach to building solutions for your nonprofit’s problems. Additionally, the proposal should include logistical details that show how a consultant will help you achieve your goals.

When requesting a proposal, you’ll need to provide a clear deadline to your top picks, as well as any specific information you want them to include.

A good proposal will contain the following information:

  • An understanding of your nonprofit’s needs
  • Suggestions to fix the challenges you addressed
  • A projected timeline
  • Estimated costs

These proposals aren’t set in stone; in fact, you may negotiate the details of the proposal at a later stage in the hiring process.

However, these proposals should give insight into which consultants can best serve your organization and how their unique skill sets would support your project.

That said, you don’t necessarily have to request a proposal. If you’ve determined that a consultant is a good fit based on your conversation, then you need not request one.

You should, however, check your consultant’s references.

References are former clients who’ve used the consultant’s services. They can provide you with candid insights into a consultant’s strengths and weaknesses.

Reach out to two or three references. If possible, seek out references who used the services that you’re looking for.

After all, if you’re specifically hiring someone to help with a fundraising event, it would be most beneficial to learn about a consultant’s past experience with auctions and galas, rather than board retreats.

To guide your conversation, ask the following questions:

  • How did the consultant manage the project?
  • Did he/she communicate clearly with members of your team?
  • Did he/she meet your deadlines?
  • Did he/she stay within the budget?
  • Would you recommend this consultant?

Their responses should give you insight into how the consultant works in practice.

  1. Sign a Contract

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Once you’ve determined which consultant you’d like to work with, you’ll need to finalize the arrangement and sign a contract.

First, you can review the proposal (if you requested one) and make any necessary changes. You can even discuss changes before you choose a consultant.

Either way, the point is to discuss the proposal so you’re both satisfied about the terms of the project.

You may, for instance, need to adjust the timeline or negotiate pricing. It’s important to be on the same page before you sign a contract that outlines these details.

Specifically, your contract should cover:

  • Timeframe. A consultant can provide assistance for a few days (such as a board retreat) or a few years (such as a capital campaign).
  • Payment structure. Consultants generally accept flat fees, hourly pay, or retainer fees for their services.
  • Responsibilities. Your contract should detail the responsibilities of both your nonprofit and the consultant.
  • Specific services. It’s important to outline the specific services your nonprofit is paying for.
  • Goals and objectives. It should be clear to both you and your consultant what the arrangement will accomplish.
  • Measures of success. How will you determine whether the partnership was successful? What metrics or objective goals will you use?

Before you sign a contract, ensure your board members are supportive. Keep them updated throughout the hiring process, and make sure they’re accepting of the consultant you choose.

After all, they’ll be funding the consultant and prioritizing the budget accordingly.

Once everyone is onboard, it’s time to start your partnership!

Hiring a fundraising consultant isn’t the simplest process, but it all comes down to finding someone who can work well with your organization and accomplish your project goals.

With the right fit, you can build more than a temporary solution – you can build a long-term working relationship that sets up your nonprofit for future success.

About the Author

Jenny Goldberg, CFRE, is an experienced fundraiser, talented speaker, and respected advisor with a diverse background in development and media/public relations. As Vice President at Aly Sterling Philanthropy, Jenny is focused on leading and building a strong advisor team and helping her clients improve fundraising strategies, donor relations, gift cultivation, and overall team effectiveness.