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How to Pick a Consultant (and Not End Up With a Dog)

Sure, we’d like to go home with you. Just don’t ask us to roll over and play dead.

Nonprofit consultants come in all shapes and sizes. Which one fits your needs? Sedate and well-groomed? Specialist or full service? Lean and hungry? Local or global? Miniature or standard size? Finding a nonprofit consultant, fundraising consultant or firm that’s a prefect fit won’t necessarily be easy.

The search process has produced endless tales of presentations gone awry and participants—on both the consultant and nonprofit side—who went over the edge. The process can be stressful and time consuming for everyone involved, but that’s nothing compared to the pain of making the wrong choice. Fortunately, the hunt needn’t exhaust you, your staff, or your volunteers. With some clear thinking and a bit of common sense, you can take home the best and brightest blue-ribbon firm that will serve your institution well. Here’s a simple selection process, along with some guidelines, musings, and a few asides to keep you entertained.

Decide who’s boss.

A surprising number of organizations set out to find a nonprofit or fundraising consultant without identifying who the decision-makers and influencers will be. This is especially painful when a key volunteer or senior officer wanders in halfway through the process and wants to know what’s going on. Our advice is to cast a wide net: call together everyone who might want to be a part of the process, and clarify who will make the final decision, and who may contribute opinions but will not have a “vote.” In addition, make it clear that anyone who is a decision maker must participate in every minute of every firm’s final presentation. Hey, that’s the price of being a boss.

Decide what you’re looking for.

The next step is for the decision-makers to agree on the criteria for the selection. What kind of firm do you need? One that specializes in capital campaigns or member acquisition, a full- service firm that can provide comprehensive service, or something in between? What kinds of clients and experience should the firm have? If your institution is highly specialized, you may be better off finding a firm with expertise in your field—especially if you don’t have time to train them.

Size and style count too. Are you looking for comprehensive strategy, or local knowledge? Depth or desire? Someone who knows where every bone in town has been buried, or someone whom will bring a fresh perspective unencumbered by local baggage? Mega firms may offer a seductive client list and endless resources, but you might be treated like the runt of the litter. You might be better off as a much-appreciated client of a smaller firm.

Start looking

Once you know what you need, concentrate on whom. This is pure information gathering. Start with service directories published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy and other nonprofit publications. Check the corporate members of specialized organizations such as the American Association of Museums. Look at each candidate’s web site. Your best source of information is other clients. Ask your peers, your board members, and coworkers—what’s the word of mouth on the firm’s you’ve identified? Are there others they recommend?

Gather data

Now is the time for first contact. You can have a highly organized approach—send out a Request for Information. The RFI should ask for general information about the firm and its services. Or, perhaps you’ll just pick up the phone to have a casual chat with each of the firms. This may take a bit more time, but it will help you get a feel for what a working relationship might be like.

Either way, you’re likely to receive a stack of mail with each firm’s glossy capabilities brochure and a letter extolling their ability to help you raise more money. This is not the time to ask for detailed information about each firm’s approach to your specific project—anything too specific at this early stage is merely speculation which wastes their time and yours.

Make the first cut & get serious

Really serious. You and the other decision makers need to trim the list and request formal proposals from the firms that make the cut. Use your best judgment based on your needs and the firms’ resources. Remember, you’ll want to include enough firms to ensure at last three strong proposals, but the more consulting firms you decide to pursue, the more complexities you’ll need to manage. Select the pick of the litter early on and you’ll make everyone’s life easier.

Eight is a good number for your short list. Six is even better—especially if the data gathering process indicated that all the finalists would submit strong proposals. Give the firms enough time to respond. Too little time and you’re likely to get ‘cookie cutter’ proposals. Three or four weeks should be enough.

The formal request for proposals (RFP) is the time to get specific. Require each firm to describe—in detail—their process, deliverables, team members, timeline, fees, and other expenses. The more detail you request, the easier it will be to compare the proposals. And be specific about the due date for proposals, client references, the number of copies you require, and who should be contacted with questions.

While the firms work away at their proposals, expect that they’ll have lots of questions— sometimes because they really need an answer, sometimes because they want to build a relationship. They may even want to stop by for a visit—or invite you to their offices to take a look. Be open, honest, available, and fair. Answer all relevant questions—but let the firm know that you’ll be giving the same information to anyone else who asks.

Make the second cut

On proposal deadline day, you may be reminded of the holidays as a constant stream of overnight delivery services deposit each firm’s gleaming proposals. But the joy quickly dissolves when you realize that somebody’s gotta wade through all this stuff! As you and your teammates read through the proposals, keep the original criteria in mind. Don’t be seduced by a firm’s glossy campaign literature if what you really want is a campaign planning study.

And check those references! Call two or three of the references supplied by the firm – and pick one or two others off their client list. Ask if they’d hire the firm again—you’ll get some enlightening answers.

Now make the final cut. Pick three to be invited to make a final presentation.


This is the big one. The final presentation. They’re also called names like shoot-outs, pitches, body viewings. Everybody does them, even though everybody hates them. They are expensive, inefficient, and unfair.

The fairest and most efficient process keeps the presentation schedule tight. Three in one day, or one each on three consecutive days. No firm is going to be eager to present if they know their competition isn’t coming to town for two weeks. And remember that everyone who has a say in the final decision must sit through every presentation. Then make the decision quickly, while the impression left by each firm is still fresh.

Can you find a firm without a grisly shoot-out? Yes. If you have a suspicion that the final selection is a done deal—based on previous relationships, office politics, or other factors—then pull the plug. Save everyone time and money. A colleague once left physical therapy and spent an eighteen-hour day on the road to make a pitch in a distant city, only to learn that he was one of two pretenders being invited in to ‘keep the leading contender honest.’ He would’ve been happier with a day of lumbar traction.

Some final thoughts

Make your selection criteria and the names of the candidates known. It’s a tradition to keep these a deep dark secret. It’s a tradition you can and should break. Let each candidate firm know what you’re looking for and who they’re up against. If they see they don’t fit your criteria or that other firms have a competitive advantage, they may bow out. If so, they probably weren’t a good fit anyway.

And make your final selection known to everyone. After all, each firm invested time and money to put their best foot forward. They all deserve to know who was selected and why. And for all the runners-up, be ready to give them feedback on why. Let the firm know what they did well and what they didn’t. A good firm wants to get better—after all, nobody wants to be in the doghouse forever.

This article is adapted from “How to pick an agency without ending up with a dog”, which originally appeared in Buzz, a publication of the integrated marketing communications agency Buck & Pulleyn of Rochester NY. Thanks to ‘top dog’ Chris Pulleyn for allowing me to adapt her text

The last shall be first. Statistics suggest that the last firm to make a presentation is the one you’ll probably select, so every firm will try to maneuver into the last slot. (One prominent firm even has a reputation for pulling out at the last minute if they don’t get the last slot). Just knowing about the bias tends to diminish the advantage.

So what can you do? Well, if you’ve got a favorite, then give ‘em the last spot. Or if you’re determined to be impartial, draw names out of a hat. But once the presentations are scheduled, stand firm. No whining allowed.

Like our insights? Partner with Nonprofit & Fundraising Consultants Benefactor Group

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