Selecting a Campaign Consultant

Selecting a Campaign Consultant

This post is adapted from an article originally written by William Krueger.

A critical component of successful capital campaigns is selection of the right type of counsel for your organization. Choosing the wrong capital campaign consultant can doom a campaign from the beginning. 

Follow a process to find the right counsel for you. Be prepared to spend time evaluating consultants, and don’t short-circuit the process in the name of expediency. Your process for selecting campaign counsel should include these steps: creating a pool to choose from, a preliminary evaluation, evaluation of materials, presentations by firms, and making the selection.

Step One: Creating a Capital Campaign Consultant Pool

Your pool should include five to seven consulting companies from which you would like additional information. There are several places to find qualified consultants, but the best is through associates who have worked directly with a consulting firm. Ask your board members, fellow development professionals and institutions who they have relied upon during capital campaigns. 

Reach out to associates or organizations that are similar to yours. The local University that raised $200 million might not be the best source for a small social service organization trying to raise $2 million.

Don’t limit your search for similar organizations geographically. If there are similar organizations to yours throughout the country, call and talk to the executives there to see who they might have used in their capital campaign. 

Use directories.The Association of Fundraising Professionals has an excellent directory that lists consultants, their web pages and contact information. 

Advertisements.National publications such as Chronicle of Philanthropy, Fund Raising Management, Non-Profit Times, and Contributions Magazine all have ads of ethical capital campaign consulting firms. 

Use these resources to gather the five to seven consultants to consider. 

Step Two: Preliminary Evaluation of Campaign Consultants

First, don’t send a Request for Proposal (RFP). Believe it or not, it is almost impossible to write an RFP that will cover all of the possibilities. Besides, if you aren’t sure exactly what you want, how can you write an RFP that will get you what you need? 

Instead, call the companies you have selected as your initial pool. Ask to speak to the president of the company. If the president isn’t available, leave a detailed message about what you want, the size of your campaign, when you would like to start and other pertinent information. Then see how long it takes for the president to return your call. Most consulting firms are small and getting to the top executive isn’t difficult, and, at least in the beginning, the president is the person to whom you want to talk. 

An interesting way of reducing the number of firms you are considering is to see who returns your call. If you have left enough detailed information, and your situation fits within the consulting firm’s business plan, you should hear back from the president very quickly. If you don’t hear back from a firm, they are either not interested, too busy or not responsive. Either way, your organization is probably better off not working with that firm. 

Arrange a convenient time to talk in detail with the president, or another executive of the company. Don’t just ask for company materials. The materials you get will extol the virtues of the company, but not really provide a lot of useful information. It probably won’t answer your specific questions. The president or other executive of the company should welcome the opportunity to discuss in detail your situation and how their firm can assist you. 

Have some specific questions pertinent to your capital campaign ready, including:

1. Explain your situation, including all pertinent information: size of goal, annual giving, strength of board, commitment of staff and board to the campaign, how you think your community views your organizations and other background information. Then ask general questions: How do you think your company would start a campaign process for us? Then listen for the answer. Most experienced executives will provide you with a lot of detailed information over the phone and should have at least a standard description of how they would start a campaign process with you.

2. Ask about the firm’s experience with similar situations. By this, we don’t mean that if you are a domestic violence shelter, the firm must have domestic violence experience. Look deeper. Explain what you believe the difficulties will be in raising the funds and ask if the firm has any experience with similar situations. Have they worked with organizations facing similar challenges?

3. Ask for a lot of details about previous campaigns conducted by the company. If the president can’t provide specific information about previous campaigns, chances are the president wasn’t deeply involved in that particular campaign. Keep this in mind when the president does the sales presentation and promises to be "deeply involved" in your campaign.

4. Has the firm worked in similar sized communities?

5. Has the firm worked with organizations with your fundraising history and experience? If your organization has only raised $10,000 through a special event, your campaign will be much different than one for an organization that raises millions each year. Look for similarities and differences.

6. Has the firm worked with organizations with similar staffing and board involvement?

7. It's okay to ask about failed campaigns, but don’t expect a firm to "spill its guts" about past failures (and every firm has campaigns that don’t make goal). Evaluate how the executive responds to the question – and what work they did outside the original contract to help a struggling organization.

Take this opportunity to learn. Learn about the company, learn about capital campaigns, and learn about how the process works. These executives will almost always take as much time as you want to answer your questions and share their experiences. Most small and medium size companies work on five to twenty-five campaigns a year (the bigger ones will work on hundreds). When a good sales lead comes through the door (and a good lead is dependent on the firm’s goals including type of organization and geographic location), most executives will be happy to share a lot of information. If they don’t consider your organization “a good lead,” then you should probably search elsewhere.

After you have received answers to all these questions, ask the firm to provide you with written information about its history, client list and philosophy. All firms should have a standard packet of information. 

Do not ask for a written proposal...yet. Just ask for generic information, but specifically ask for a client list, references and history information.

Step Three: Evaluate Campaign Consultant Materials

Once the initial information and materials arrive, evaluate them carefully. Did they include the information you wanted? If not, you can either call and ask again, or reject the firm from consideration. You want a firm that is responsive to your requests. How long did it take them to send the materials? How responsive are they to your needs? 

What do the materials look like? Are they printed or just copied? Is it a store-bought folder with a sticker on the front? Would you be happy presenting these types of materials to potential major donors? 

Remember, the firm you hire will be responsible for creating your organization’s image and materials. If they can’t create strong, quality marketing materials for their own company, how are they going to create quality campaign materials? Did the firm sacrifice quality to save money? Will they do that with your campaign? 

Step Four: Presentations by Campaign Consultants

After evaluating the materials, eliminate any firms you aren’t comfortable can do the job. Don’t be afraid to eliminate all of them and start over. It is better to delay the process now than hire the wrong consulting firm. 

A small committee might be helpful in selecting the finalists. A thorough discussion of each company by a committee will help in developing the priorities of the organization. Don’t over-structure the process, however. There is probably no need for a "scoring grid" or other quantitative analysis. Hiring a good consultant is more a qualitative process. Grids and the like may make committees feel better, but it rarely leads to retaining better counsel. 

Now ask for a personal presentation and a proposal. While it is perfectly acceptable to ask for the proposal prior to a presentation, organizations should not use that proposal as a barrier to the selection process. A presentation from the firm’s executives can be a great way for a committee to learn firsthand about capital campaigns and have their questions answered without paying a fee. 

While all proposals differ somewhat, they will contain essentially the same information. Generally speaking, committees will fixate on price and costs as a way of eliminating firms. Under the process outlined above, the organization has asked for proposals only from firms it feels are capable of conducting the campaign process – regardless of cost. 

Let the firms you have selected – the ones your organization feels are best regardless of price – make a full presentation. View the presentation as a learning experience and an opportunity for your leaders to have questions answered and your specific situation reviewed. 

Avoid "dog and pony" shows. Having each firm scheduled for 45 minutes at the top of every hour for an evening is not a particularly valuable way to gain information. Schedule one firm in an evening and take some time to get to know the people who will work with you. Chances are, the firm you select will be working with your organization for months andwill play an important role in your campaign. To determine whom to retain based on a written proposal and 30 to 45 minutes of conversation is not effective.

Each presentation should take a minimum of an hour and can often take up to 90 minutes to two hours with questions. Take the time to learn about the people in the company and whether you like them and can work with them for the next six months to two years. 

You are about to enter into a relationship with a firm and pay them tens of thousands of dollars – perhaps over a hundred thousand dollars. You wouldn’t hire a CEO based on a 45 minutes interview, why would you hire a consulting firm in such a short time? 

Take the consultants’ personalities into account . Your organization’s leadership will work with the people you select for months, possibly years, so you need to like them. Get to know everyone who will be working with you by insisting that every member of the team assigned to your project attends the sales presentation. Some firms will have an executive make the sales presentation and then a campaign director will actually do the work. Insist on meeting and interviewing the campaign director, preferably outside the presence of the executive. Make certain that the campaign director or person you will work with on a day- to-day basis knows what he or she is doing. This campaign director is the one that will have the greatest effect on the success or failure of the campaign. Make certain he or she is up to the job and reject any firm that refuses to include your campaign director in the sales presentation.

Some companies also indicate that if the organization doesn’t like a particular consultant, the firm will replace them. Unfortunately, replacing a consultant in the middle of the project delays the timetable as the new consultant learns what has already taken place. There also is no guarantee that you will like the new consultant any more than the one you are replacing. Insist on meeting and interviewing the firm member you will be working with before you sign the contract. 

Step Five: Select the Campaign Consultant

Assuming you are working with a committee, schedule a final meeting to discuss all of the firms you have interviewed. The selection process is really a subjective process and the collective wisdom of the committee must be considered. 

After the committee has reviewed and discussed all of the companies, prioritize each company and thencheck the references. Chances are the references provided will all check out. After all, no company is going to purposefully list a reference they know won’t say wonderful things. 

To really find out the performance of a firm, take a look at their entire client list. It should be included in their packet of information, and if not, request it. Pick three of four at random and call them. See what these clients think about the firm. 

Finally, evaluate the staff assigned to your campaign. Have the firm provide contact information for three or four clients each staff person has worked with in the past. Check out the individuals. Make sure to get references on the people you will be working with, not just the company. 

For more information on selecting the right counsel, consider visiting the following websites:

www.afpnet.com

www.ahp.org

www.apcinc.com


Kevin Wallace is president of CampaignCounsel.org, specializing in capital campaign planning and management. Kevin has 20 years of fundraising experience, conducting more than 70 campaign planning studies and capital campaigns around the country that have raised more than $175 million. Reach him at kevin@campaigncounsel.org or visit www.campaigncounsel.org.

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