Fundraising is a word that strikes fear and dread into the hearts of many school leaders. For some, it has been something long avoided, or undertaken with painful resignation. However, for those leading a school that is vibrant and growing, there comes a point in time when fundraising through one-on-one donor engagement can no longer be ignored. This is when school leaders work to educate themselves about fundraising through research, reading, advice from peers, or by contacting a fundraising firm. However, even with all the attention to detail there are still some consistent misconceptions about the fundraising process and consultants. Over the years, school leaders and boards have shared many of their fears and misconceptions about hiring a professional fundraiser, below is a list of those I hear most often.
Hiring a professional fundraiser will allow school leaders to avoid becoming fundraisers.
Infusing additional resources into a school through meaningful donor relationships creates momentum and excitement around a shared vision of the future. This preferred future, also known as the case for support, is the catalyst that drives the campaign and inspires donors to contribute. There is no one, no matter how skilled, who can do this better than the leadership of the school. School leaders are the keepers of the vision, and they are the ones who have built trust and loyalty with school families. While consultants can contribute strategy and best practices, casting the vision for your school is not a role that can be abdicated to a hired professional.
Finding the right how to book will allow us to manage a capital campaign ourselves.
Most often this thinking is driven by a desire to be good stewards and to save money. Hiring a fundraising consultant is expensive. However, it is unlikely that a board or school leader can learn from reading a few books what a consultant has discovered from leading multiple campaigns, every day, over 10, 20, or 30 years. And make no mistake, making bad decisions about a campaign, or mishandling donor relationships can cost far more than hiring counsel.
However, if your school is set on this course, then I would recommend reading John Kotter’s (2012) book, Leading Change. While this book is not about fundraising, it follows a logical path to relational engagement around a shared vision. It will not teach you how to ask for funds, but it can give you a better framework for success than many of the other books currently on the market.
Paying a percentage of what is raised will minimize the financial burden of hiring a professional.
Professional fundraisers, those with credentials, are prohibited from accepting this type of arrangement. There is protection in this mandate both for the consultant and for the organizations they serve. The first and most important reason is that when a fundraiser transitions from raising funds for the organization to raising funds for personal benefit it takes them off mission. This is the same reason that hiring development officers and assigning them the task of raising their own salary is an unfortunate decision. It takes them off mission, and bad things can happen with donor relationships when the focus of funding is self-serving rather than mission driven.
Aside from being an ethics violation, paying a percentage of what is raised is a risky business proposition. If the consultant benefits personally from donor exchanges, they may be more likely to employ high-pressure solicitation tactics that can damage long term relationships. Since their engagement with your donors is short-term, they may use undue influence to raise large amounts early, yet negate the opportunity for future gifts from those same donors. This is important because a donor’s first gift is rarely their largest.
The better choice is engaging in a professional relationship based on a scope of work, time on campus, and a shared vision. You are paying your consultant to guide you through unfamiliar territory. There is nothing better than being on mission together with someone who understands the path you are on and who has successfully led others to where you want to go as an organization.
If a consultant isn’t paid based on the amount raised, they will have no incentive to meet or exceed our campaign goal.
Reputation is everything when it comes to providing any type of professional service. Consultants are far more impacted by negative campaign results than the organizations they serve. A fundraising consultant who does not provide quality counsel or consistently misses the mark will not be in business long. Conversely, consultants who regularly exceed the expectations of clients are in high demand.
One of the first things that a professional fundraiser will help a school board accomplish is setting a realistic and achievable goal based on feedback from the school’s donors. While this is still somewhat of a subjective process because it relies on donors sharing personal and accurate information, a trained professional should be able to provide a solid framework to help with goal setting. This is why firms will often recommend a feasibility study to test alignment with donor expectations and interest before launching a campaign.
Obtaining a list of wealthy people from a consultant will make fundraising easy.
Remember those ethics violations mentioned earlier? This is another one. Donor lists are considered confidential, and sharing the names of donors with a consultant is a sacred trust. Consultants do not have a list of their own donors. The only donor names professional consultants have access to are from past projects. Meaning the donors belong to another client. If a consultant is willing to give you another organization’s donor list, then they will not hesitate to offer your list to the next organization. It is an egregious violation of trust.
Aside from the ethics of sharing donor names, the primary objective of donor development is building long-lasting relationships with those who are closest to your organization and care most about your mission. These donors are not wealthy strangers. They are the parents, grandparents, alumni, and leaders within your community. A consultant does not bring the donors. They bring the strategies, process, and experience to help you work with your donors in a meaningful way, and to avoid common mistakes and pitfalls.
A major fundraising campaign is not something that need be feared, but it is an endeavor that should be undertaken with respect for your donors and best practices. Having a strategic plan and an experienced consultant leading you through the process can minimize the potential hazards. Since being paid based on a percentage of what is raised is an ethics violation, be sure to ask your consultant for a scope of work and how many times a month they will be on campus with you. While consultants do not provide clients with lists of wealthy strangers ready to give millions of dollars, they do come with experience in donor communication, policies, profiles, practices, and timelines.
Whether you choose to hire a professional or lead a large campaign with your in-house team, remember that you are the vision caster and trust builder as a leader. You are the one that your donors want to hear from, and you are the senior fundraiser in your school’s most successful campaigns. However, hiring counsel can provide a strategic partner for the journey. One who understands your mission and can guide you around potential hazards to the future you desire for your school.
Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard business review press.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on fundraising myths and misconceptions.