The 3 Most Important Questions to Ask Before Hiring an Advancement Consultant

If you Google, “questions to ask before hiring a campaign consultant” (or something similar), you will no doubt wade through an almost-endless supply of results which purport to provide you with the keys to asking the most salient questions of potential consultants.

There are tons of numbered lists – “the 10 questions every consultant should answer,” or “the 5 most important questions to ask,” or my favorite “8 Questions Fundraising Counsel Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Answer.”  (As an aside, I don’t know that I’ve ever been asked a question as counsel that I was afraid to answer.)

In any case, the bulk of these results focus on the questions that you, as an advancement practitioner, should ask the consultant before hiring.  But, this focus on the “questions to ask the consultant” is not always the most helpful.  In fact, having been both a practitioner who has hired consultants and now as a full-time consultant for 12 years, I would quietly suggest that the questions you ask of yourself and your team are, actually, the most important.

To help you make the best possible choice around hiring a consultant, I would offer the following 3 questions that you, first, should ask yourself:

  1. Do you and the members of your team authentically want to be more effective?

You might think this is a no-brainer.  “Of course we want to be more effective.  That’s why we are considering a consultant in the first place!”  But, oddly enough, that isn’t always the case.

More pointedly, “are you and your team willing to change in order to be more effective?”  Unfortunately, for some professionals the answer is not affirming.  Yes, everyone wants better results.  But, for some, if better results means changing, working differently, grinding in new ways, or committing more time to the effort, defensive responses can kick-in.  There is a very good chance that a capable consultant is going to recommend strategies, tactics, or other tools that can be translated loosely as “more or different work.”

You might be surprised how many advancement leaders and teams hire consultants and, then, ignore their advice and counsel – not because the counsel is viewed as being substandard or off-the-mark – but rather because they are not committed to the implementation.  If you or your team aren’t interested in being open-minded about change, a consultant may not be the best use of your resources.

2.  Are you seeking a mechanic or an architect?

This question gets at the heart of the kind and type of consulting relationship you are seeking.

The “mechanic” consultant conducts a specific piece of work for you and helps you implement tactics.  This type of consultant helps you by managing a campaign or by implementing a special event.  The “mechanic” consultant typically works on a specific project for a specific amount of time with a specific deliverable.

The “architect” consultant, on the other hand, provides the experienced counsel to help you and the team become more capable.  The role of the consultant as “architect” is to journey alongside you, sometimes throughout a campaign for instance, and guide you in decision-making and strategy.  The “architect” consultant is experienced, has the heart of a teacher, is focused on a more comprehensive view of your work, and, is aiming to make you and your programs more effective and efficient.

To be certain, both the “mechanic” and “architect” consultants have their place.  However, if you are seeking longer-term impact and growth, or sustained improvements, hiring a consultant to serve as a mechanic is not typically going to provide you with those results.

3. Do you envision guiding the consultant’s work or are you open to having the consultant guide the engagement?

Some leaders hire the consultant and then proceed to tell the consultant how to consult.  And while every consulting-client partnership is a unique dance based on the needs of the client, the best consultants bring with them an expertise of how to consult.

In other words, consulting is a profession that has specific skill sets and best practices.  Just because the client may be an experienced and capable advancement or development professional does not mean that he or she understands how best to consult to achieve results.  The best consulting-client relationships emerge when the consultant’s expertise is mined in ways that adds value to the client’s efforts.  High-quality consultants will bring fresh perspectives and approaches – not only to advancement work – but also to the understanding of what it means to consult effectively.

If, before hiring a consultant you ask yourself these questions – and answer each earnestly – I can assure you that your results and experiences will be enhanced.

And, your consultant will thank you as well.


Permission-Based Relationships

If you are not asking your constituents what channels they wish to receive different types of communications, you are wasting a ton of time, financial resources, and energy.

If you are not asking your major gift donors when they might be open to discussing their next significant investment in your mission before inviting them to make that gift, you are running the risk of being offensive.

If you are not asking your prospective donors to identify the ways in which your mission matters to them, you are most likely inviting them to give ineffectively.

If you are not asking your closest volunteers if they might be willing to introduce you to new prospects in their spheres of influence, you are missing opportunities.

To be more effective, to enhance our influence, and to strengthen relationships during this extended period of disconnection and over the longer term, we need to be doing a lot more asking.

Far less of that asking should be for gifts, and far more of it for permission.


More Diversity

We know that the more biological diversity (at the species level, the genetic level, and ecological level), the more natural sustainability and productivity for all life forms.

We know that the more investment diversity in our retirement accounts, the more opportunity for higher returns with less risk.

We know that the more gender diversity on leadership teams of for-profit businesses, the more apt they are to realize more profit when compared with single-gendered leadership teams.

We know that the more racial diversity on leadership teams of for-profit businesses, the more likely they are to be innovative and understand the needs of their customers.

We even know that the more multi-channel solicitation diversity a non-profit consistently employs for its annual giving program (i.e., social media, direct mail, email, phone, video, face-to-face), the more likely it is to raise more money.

And the diversity-positive list could go on and on. . . In short, we know that nature itself teaches us that as diversity increases, more resources (not less) are created. Institutionally, more diversity – in a host of various forms – makes us healthier, more productive, more mission-centered, more innovative and more responsive.  Enhancing diversity allows us to create better strategies and provides us with the perspectives needed to come to better decisions.

But. . .

What we also know from Newton is that a “body at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by an external force.”  In other words, the status quo doesn’t change itself.  And simply knowing that it is good to become more diverse as a leadership team, or that it is more productive to offer donors more channel-diverse solicitation options, or that your institution will become more innovative as you hire more diverse individuals on your team is not enough.

To develop greater diversity and make our institutions stronger, each of us has a choice to make.  Will we be the body at rest that is content with the status quo?

Or, will we be the external force that makes an impact?


“How Do You Know. . .?”

When it comes right down to it, you are, at heart and in practice, an educator.

You educate donors regarding the needs of those you serve and how your institution can better fulfill those needs with the help of their support.  You educate new donors or “not yet” donor prospects on why their consistent, year-in-year-out giving is key to enhancing your institution’s capacity to serve over the long-term.  You educate older donors about planned giving options and how those gifts may provide benefits to them and their families.  There are any number of ways that you educate each day.

However, when we embrace and accept the concept of “development professional as educator,” we sometimes fail to grasp the full scope of that educating work.  Specifically, we tend to think of our role as educating donors or other external constituencies.  And while those populations represent the bulk of our educating work, those audiences do not represent the complete picture.  Nor, are those external constituents necessarily the most important audiences for our educating work.

Especially in our current climate of financial and budget concerns, are you educating your internal constituents – your institution’s leadership team for instance – on why cutting your advancement budget is short-sighted and unhelpful to the institution as a whole?  I’m not talking about making a philosophical case about the “impact of giving.” While true, such an argument may not be persuasive when real dollars are going to be cut. Instead, I mean a quantifiable justification for why cutting your budget will result in fewer resources for the institution to use.

Are you educating them on what happens to your gift income without that gift officer position being filled?  That you will have X fewer major gift donors included in your prospect management system which will likely lead to a decline in X dollars being given each year?  Or, how cutting X dollars from the constituent relations program budget will decrease the number of constituents who report that your institution is one of their top charitable giving priorities?  The “out of sight, out of mind” concept.

And what about the education that needs to occur when well-meaning Board members and other key volunteers suggest that you can reach your multi-million dollar goal by asking everyone to make a gift of $1,000?  We only need 2,500 of those donors, right?

When we use our data to consistently educate those closest to us – our colleagues and our volunteer “insiders” – we answer the most pressing question they can ask when budgets get tight or when they float their opinion of good strategy:

“But, how do you know we will lose donors or that it won’t work?”

In the process, we also help shape the thinking of influential people who make the educating of our external constituents that much easier.


Squirrels, Doritos, Social Media, and Leadership

Mamie McNeal

Our family dog, Mamie, a shepherd-mixed rescue, loves chasing squirrels.  It’s her natural instinct – her prey drive. If she sees a squirrel outside, she is immediately ready to hunt. She has learned to relate the animal with the word, “squirrel,” and, so, if you so much as whisper the word to her, she’s ready to bound outside in defense of her herd (i.e., our family)!

Mamie’s prey drive – or in her case, her shepherding drive – is built in. Trying to train that out of her, I imagine, would be a very long process or would be altogether impossible.  It’s part of her DNA. And her response to the squirrel stimulus is just about automatic.

Of course, we humans have our own “squirrels” – powerful, naturally-wired-in responses and impulses that drive behaviors.  Think sex, hunger, thirst, sleep, etc. In a host of circumstances, our behaviors are pretty predictable.  Given the right stimuli, each of us will end up responding in ways similar to just about every other human. So, a big part of our behaviors are already naturally mapped out for us.

Our more conscious choices (or, at least those choices we believe to be conscious), such as what food to eat, also tap into our hard-wired responses.  For instance, the Doritos brand of snacks are some of the most successful in the U.S.  With over $1.5 billion in sales each year, Doritos are heralded as “the perfect snack food,” by food scientist, Steven Witherly.

By “perfect,” Witherly does not mean “good for you.”  Instead, Doritos are, quite literally, lab-tested and engineered with salt, sugar, and flavor-boosters like MSG, other chemicals and acids, cheeses, and fat ratios (turns out we like half of our calories to come from fat and Doritos nails it), that, when combined together, cause our mouths to water and our brains to light up in almost-immediate euphoric response.  There is a reason we complain that we can’t eat just one.  Doritos have been engineered to cause that addictive response.

Similarly, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are designed to keep us coming back for more.  The seemingly insignificant action of liking a post, picture, or meme, turns out to be very significant.  You probably already know about the feel-good nuerotransmitter dopamine spike that happens when we see new “likes” to our picture.

What you may not know is that social media is engineered to keep us coming back for more.  Dopamine not only makes us feel good in the moment, it motivates us to crave the feeling again.  So when social media engineers realized that seeing more “likes” or “comments” to our posts and pictures also prompted our brains to release dopamine, the rise of social media had begun. The problem, of course, is that accessing your Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter is so universally easy, we wind up checking our phones incessantly.  The average person spent almost 2.5 hours per day on social media in 2019! And recent research suggests that engaging in social media and other online activities consistently is causing us to become more susceptible to distractions in all aspects of our lives. We, literally, are re-wiring and training our brains to become less focused!

With all the natural, hardwired impulses we’ve always had pulling and pushing us in various ways, combined with the new, seemingly-ubiquitous, synthetic, and engineered stimuli shaping our behaviors, the thoughtful among us are learning that self-awareness is more critical today than ever. Taking the time to better understand why we are drawn to certain behaviors – even when they are bad for us – and why we eschew other more helpful behaviors, is now a critical skill of effective leaders.

If we aim to achieve significant goals; if we want to be more capable of advancing our institutions in meaningful ways; if our desire is to build advancement programs that transform and serve more better, then a key objective is to grow even more mindful of the motivating factors related to our own behaviors and impulses.

We’ve understood for eons the impact of “squirrels” on our brains and our behaviors.  What’s far more recent and concerning is the need to have a better collective understanding of our brains on Instagram. . .and Doritos.


Territoriality And Raising Money While You Sleep


There is a characteristic that most financially successful people share:  They make money while they sleep.  This characteristic refers to the fact that financially successful folks have figured out a way to extend their ability to make money beyond their own efforts.

They have saved and invested their capital in ways that earns them interest and/or earnings 24 hours per day.  Or they have created a business operation which works even while they sleep.  Or some combination of the two.  The point is they are making money in ways that don’t depend on their own labor.

Similarly, the very best development professionals share this characteristic.  They reach out to others in the enterprise, they partner, they engage volunteers, they extend their ability to raise money beyond their own efforts. They understand that being strategic and involving others of influence with donors typically results in larger gifts being made.  As one multi-million donor once bluntly told me,

“The asker matters.”

So, why don’t we see more development professionals today reaching out to “natural partners” across silos within the institution, or working with volunteers on donor strategy, or partnering with institutional leaders to raise more money? One significant reason is due to a sense of territoriality some development professionals have for their assigned donors and prospects. These misguided prospect managers view their role as being the one who must invite the donor to give, instead of the one who must ensure that the donor receives the very best gift invitation.

“But,” you say, “its not the fault of the development professional, its the system.  The reason development professionals can be territorial is because they are evaluated on how much money they raise individually, and not on how much gets raised.”

And if you are a development leader then you should know that this, of course, is the real problem.


The Outcomes We Predict

In his thoroughly-researched 2018 book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, “running science geek,” Alex Hutchinson, makes a compelling and fascinating argument.  Gathering together decades of research from various fields, he argues that the limits of human endurance in activities such as running, cycling, swimming, hiking, etc., can only be partially explained by the amount and quality of sleep we’ve had, the amounts and types of foods and drink we’ve consumed, our strength and fitness levels, etc.

It seems that even for elite athletes, how we think about the effort we are giving – either during our exercise or (and ponder this!) even before we actually go on the run, the hike, the ride, etc. – will predict how long and how fast we will go before stopping.  In other words, our minds unconsciously control how tired we feel during the activity and will control our endurance and speed accordingly. It appears that even exercise science is now affirming the mysterious, but real, ability of the mind to deliver on self-fulfilling prophecies.

I have been thinking about the lessons from Hutchinson’s book as I’ve digested research on fundraising during the pandemic. It seems that many development leaders are getting awfully close to projecting poor giving totals into the future, even though donors are communicating something different.

Back in April, two studies came out that began to paint this picture.  First, was the survey of both charity leaders and donors conducted by Give.Org’s BBW Wise Giving Alliance.  Here is what they found:

  • 80.5% of charity leaders anticipated that 2020 giving totals would be lower as compared with 2019;  meanwhile,
  • 83.3% of donors surveyed stated that would give at least as much – if not more – in 2020 as they had over the past 3 years;

The second early pandemic study from Fidelity Charitable found that:

  • 79% of nonprofits stated that fundraising was being “somewhat” or “significantly” impacted by COVID-19; meanwhile,
  • 79% of the donors surveyed were planning to give either the same or more during 2020 as compared to 2019.

More recently come two reports that continue to paint this “giving will be down, even though donors are being more generous” picture.  First, a CAF America survey found that:

  • 72% of businesses surveyed had already increased their giving since the beginning of the pandemic, and;
  • 65% stating that they had revised grant guidelines to provide charities with the flexibility to use the funds for unrestricted purposes.

And, just reported a few days ago, the Association of Fundraising Professional’s Coronavirus Response Survey found the following:

  • 56% of nonprofit leaders believe they will raise less money in 2020 than they did in 2019, and, even worse;
  • 72% stated they believe they will raise less money in 2021 than in a typical year.

It’s important to keep in mind that these broad, macro-level studies have very little bearing on the specific fundraising results for any individual school, healthcare organization, university, or other nonprofit. Even in the darkest of severe financial depressions and our most recent Great Recession of 2008-2010, some institutions raised more money while others raised far less than they had previously.

And, in addition to these studies, I can also provide an anecdotal observation:  My clients who have continued to engage and invite donors to give – in thoughtful and sensitive ways – have raised more money since March than they did during the same period last year.  It doesn’t matter the type of nonprofit nor how big or small the organization is – if they have continued to extend the invitation to give, donors have responded with generosity.

So, what are we to make of these almost mirror-like findings – with development leaders predicting doom and gloom while donors are signaling a desire to help.

To bring further insight into this contradiction, here’s another intriguing tidbit from Hutchinson’s Endure book:

“The British military has funded studies of computer-based brain training protocols to enhance the endurance of its troops, with startling results.  And even subliminal messages can help or hurt your endurance:  a picture of a smiling face, flashed in 16-millisecond bursts, boosts cycling performance by 12 percent compared to frowning faces.”

It may just be that the development leaders who bring their most upbeat expectations (and their smiles!) into  tomorrow will also be those who, in fact, raise more money. Unfounded negativity, it would appear, can and will help create real negative outcomes.  Align your fundraising actions with the messages donors are actually sending – they want to help and they want to be generous.  If you believe that, you will invite them more often to do so.


Winning Donor Engagement Beyond The Pandemic

Donor engagement will be different for a long while – perhaps forever – even after a vaccine for COVID-19 is in place and distributed widely. The ways in which we engage or involve donors will change because of the reduction of in-person opportunities, events, and activities.  Additionally, a change in our approach to donor engagement will occur because societal-level expectations regarding the use of technology to communicate will increase while at the same time, the ROI of in-person donor meetings (think: flying to visit donors in your portfolio over a 4-day trip) will most likely be devalued.

Yes, of course, in-person events in the future will still occur.  And, yes, gift officers will still travel to visit key donors.  But, it is safe to say that these engagement strategies won’t happen nearly as often as they did 6 months ago. And, it is also wise to assume that we will all be expected to layer-on video-conferencing and other technology tools to engage donors well.

The challenge, today, is that many advancement leaders (and gift officers themselves) equate meaningful “donor engagement,” with “meeting in person.”  Yes, everyone can understand, from an intellectual standpoint, that our use of technologies such as video-conferencing is most likely here to stay. That’s easy to say. But I’m already finding the well-worn “engagement=in-person activities” mindset to be a hard habit for many advancement leaders to break.

We must dust off and remind ourselves what the authentic definition of donor engagement has always meant and will continue to mean into the future.  It is not synonymous with “in-person.”  It is far more comprehensive than that:

Donor Engagement is a process of gathering input from or deeply involving individuals, business leaders, community leaders, and other donor prospects who care about or are positively impacted by your mission.

When we accept fully that high-quality donor engagement starts with our being open and willing to listen and learn from them, we are setting our institutions on the right path. Those advancement leaders and gift officers who are creative, innovative, curious, energized, and willing to use all viable tools, channels, and platforms will be the ones who employ winning donor engagement strategies for years to come.

If you aren’t already, in the future you will be performing major gift donor discovery, cultivation, gift invitation, and stewardship outside of in-person meetings. You probably should start practicing now.


When Being “Efficient” Is Not The Primary Goal

Supermarkets price milk and eggs (and turkeys during Thanksgiving) below, at, or just above their cost.  These items (and others) are called “loss leaders” or “leader priced items.”  Every time you buy milk or eggs, your local supermarket is, most likely, losing money on that transaction.  If one were to analyze a supermarket’s value by sampling its profitability when selling milk and eggs, the analysis would be both inaccurate and incomplete.

So, how do supermarkets – both in-person and through on-line stores – stay in business and make money?  They count on shoppers to behave in 2 very specific ways over time.  First, they count on shoppers purchasing more than milk and eggs.  Yes, people need the “staples,” so those goods are offered at a reduced price point to get us in the physical or on-line store.  And, then, once we are there, they provide us with super large rolling baskets, or targeted ads on-line – to pile in far more, higher priced food items.  That’s one way they make money – on volume.

Second, supermarkets count on us being creatures of habit and shopping the same store brands over and over again.  So, their primary concern is never about how much profit they might make from our rolling basket or on-line grocery cart in 1 visit.  They count on us coming back, week after week, month after month, and, indeed, year after year.  They profit from long-term relationships, not from single transactions.

Think about this widely-accepted business model when a board member, a president, a CFO, or an advancement leader, asks about the “return” on an individual direct mail appeal.  Or, the “expense” of a gift officer traveling to visit (when we once again can!) with prospective donors for the purposes of cultivation or stewardship.

When done well, advancement is not about the number of donors, or gifts, or dollars in any single year. It’s not about any single gift from a donor.  It’s about building life-long relationships with donors where charitable giving and involvement accumulate over time to provide a lifetime value for the institution.

Effective advancement programs build those structures, processes, and relationships to encourage habits of giving and involvement over the long-term.  Assessing the “return” on the cost of a single activity – when that activity is part of a well-planned, relationship-based program – is not only unhelpful and wasteful, it suggests that we don’t even understand our “business model.”


Backward and Forward

Our culture is laced with references to both going backward and forward in time.

“Monday-morning quarterbacking,” and “hindsight is 20/20,” are two examples of spending time looking backward. Similarly, “looking into my crystal ball,” or “just around the corner” are idiomatic phrases of focusing on looking forward in time.

While we can’t physically go backward or forward in time, we spend of good amount of time and energy – in our personal, work, and civic lives – in both places. And, if not overdone, there is value in looking backward to assess and looking forward to plan.

There is, though, a leadership approach to looking backward and forward that is most healthy, most compelling and admirable, and most effective.  When we look backward in order to critique our own behavior and actions (to learn from, better ourselves, and make amends as appropriate) and look forward in order to plan how we can better include, engage, and help others, we build teams characterized by trust, integrity, results, and care.

Reversing this approach (i.e., focusing on the behavior and actions of others when we look backward while focusing on our own egotistical goals when we look forward), creates a leadership style characterized by blame, arrogance, and self-centeredness.