With each year, more and more non-profit organizations are preparing to enter into capital campaigns to construct or update facilities, build endowments, supplement operations and pursue other worthy financial goals. The more successful of these organizations will hire consulting firms to conduct Campaign Feasibility and Planning Studies. Identifying the best possible consulting firm for your organization is a critical decision. But there are many consulting firms and the proposals for service can vary widely. How can you make a thorough evaluation of a firm’s proposal, projected costs, and services if you have little or no direct experience?
ANTICIPATING OUTCOMES OF A STUDY
Before you know the right questions to ask a firm, you must first be clear on what you expect from a Study. A well-conducted Study should reveal key information from those in a position to influence the success of your capital campaign. The Study should provide information and insights on how to strengthen your case for support, who the campaign leaders should be, who the prospective donors are, what a realistic goal is, and how long will it take to run a campaign. Other specific objectives of a Campaign Feasibility and Planning Study are:
- Gauge the interviewee’s perception of your organization
- Evaluate the interviewee’s response to the Case for Support and their willingness to give and volunteer
- Identify the most influential campaign leadership prospects
- Identify the affluent donor prospects
- Establish a realistic financial goal and timeline for a campaign
- Identify special opportunities (collaborations or previously unknown funding sources) and potential obstacles (competing campaigns, discontent, etc.)
- Assess the general climate for a campaign
- Cultivate the interviewee for a potential role in the campaign
- Develop a preliminary campaign plan, fundraising timetable and organizational chart
- Provide management with the results of the study, with a formal written report, outlining the findings, evaluating those findings and making fundraising and development related recommendations.
EVALUATING PROPOSALS FOR SERVICE
With a firm grasp of what outcomes you expect from a Study, you can now work backwards to determine how those goals will be met. Review each proposal to see how the consulting firm presents their methodology and the distinguishing characteristics of their Study approach. After narrowing the proposals down to a short list, speak with representatives of the firm to learn more about their service, experience, and ability to relate to your organizational needs. Develop a list of interview questions. Your questions may include:
- How many interviews would you conduct for our organization? Do they focus on 30 or 40 people closely involved with the organization, or will they expand the scope of their Study to include additional people on the periphery?
- What would be the composition of interviewees? What is the percentage balance between internal (trustees, staff) and external (community leaders, alumni, parents, etc.) participants? Seek a balance. If 75% of the interviews are with internal participants, will you have reliable information about what people outside the organization are thinking? Be sensible.
- How are the interviews conducted—by phone or in person? If both, what balance should we expect? Remember there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings when discussing important issues—particularly regarding giving and raising significant sums of money.
- Could you describe the interview process? Find out how each firm logistically approaches the interview process (letters, phone calls, etc.) and how each interview is conducted.
- Will there be a written final report? What about an interim report? How will you learn what has been discovered and the opinions of the study leader or team?
- What will be in the final report? (Remember the anticipated outcomes!) Will the firm allow you to review a representative sample report?
- Who will conduct the Study? Will it be the person presenting the proposal or someone else? If it is someone else, ask to meet them before signing a contract to ensure they have your confidence and can carry the relationship established by the firm’s presentation team.
- How long will the Study last? Why is one particular firm’s Study longer or shorter than others?
- What will be the fee and expenses? Consider each firm in relation to specific services provided. One company may charge only 1/3 of the most expensive proposal, but may offer only 1/3 the services. Discern between the varying levels of service and price to gain a sense of relative pricing. Ask why they are less or more expensive than their peers. The answer should be revealing as to what they do, how they do it, and what you will learn.
- Do they offer periodic consulting, or full-time resident campaign direction? Both the study and campaign will take longer with part-time or periodic consulting, and what seems like a lower monthly fee can end up costing more in time and money spent over a longer time frame.
- How do they conduct a campaign, and how much will that cost? When selecting fundraising counsel for the study, remember that you are really choosing your partner for the capital campaign to follow; so choose wisely. Before you get engaged for marriage, it is important to find out if this is the right person with whom to spend the rest of your life—a person who shares your values and will protect your best interests. In this same way, the non-profit needs to pick the right partner with which to build a successful campaign. And that is the firm they should choose to retain for the study.
Begin sorting each firm in regard to specific services offered, experience, price, and other considerations important to you. One of the biggest distinctions is the method of service delivery. Are they onsite full-time, or do they only show up periodically, leaving you with a long list of “things to do”? What seems like a lower monthly fee may actually represent a vastly higher hourly or daily fee, when you determine one firm is there full-time, while the other firm comes in only a few days per month.
Remember that price disparities may reflect significant differences in services offered. Learn what the differences are and why they are important. A well-conceived and executed Study will have a significant impact on the success of your campaign. Don’t cut corners—millions of dollars are at stake! Find the firms that provide the best service, and after narrowing your search to two firms, contact their references and ask very direct questions about their performance, their success, and whether they would be the first choice if that client were to do another campaign. (I would like to add a cautionary note here, since I represent a consulting firm—please do not check every firm’s references, and waste the reference’s time. Don’t check a firm’s references until you feel you are simply corroborating the choice you have made. Anything else is unfair to the firm and its references. Consider how many calls a reference may get if everyone calls them first—and takes 20-30 minutes of their time. It adds up, so please be respectful of the reference’s time.) Having your suspicions confirmed by this firm’s satisfied clients, you are in the best possible position to establish a working partnership to help you raise the millions you seek and deserve.
Custom Development Solutions, Inc. (CDS) is among the most sought after fundraising consulting firms specializing in the strategic planning and tactical execution of capital campaigns for non-profits throughout the United States and Canada. If you have a fundraising question, please call CDS at 800-761-3833 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.