[NPFX Ep. 12] Is Now a Good Time to Be a Nonprofit Fundraising Consultant?

consulting nonprofit fundraising podcast

Welcome to The Nonprofit Fundraising Exchange, a podcast from IPM Advancement. Our mission is to help you raise more money so you can make the world a better place.

Today’s topic: Is Now a Good Time to Be a Nonprofit Fundraising Consultant?

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Tips for nonprofit fundraising consultants who are just starting out
  • Why now could be a great time to start your consulting business
  • Opportunities for growing your business during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • How (and how not) to collaborate with other consultants
  • Ways to use collaboration to attract great nonprofit clients (and deliver higher value)
  • The importance of being flexible when providing solutions to your nonprofit clients

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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many nonprofit organizations to rethink their staffing needs. Some have even had to downsize and layoff staff members. As a result, many nonprofit professionals who have been thinking about moving into consulting are asking themselves if now might be the right time to make the leap.

In today’s podcast episode, we host a virtual panel of nonprofit fundraising consultants to discuss whether or not now is a good time to start a consulting business, the opportunities for consultants to actually grow their businesses during the pandemic, and how they themselves have adapted their own businesses to the changing landscape.

Let’s meet our panel.

Rich: Hi, I’m Rich Frazier. I’m the Senior Consultant for IPM Advancement. And because of the nature of today’s program, I also have my own consulting company, VisionConnect Nonprofit Consulting.

Nancy: Hi there, I’m Nancy Grace. I’m principal of Graceful Fundraising.

Frank: Hi, I’m Frank Baselice. I am principal of Consilium Marketing, and I’m grateful to be joining you guys today.

Jarrett: And hello, I’m Jarrett Ransom, President and CEO of the Rayvan Group, but most importantly I’m also known as the Nonprofit Nerd.


Tips for Nonprofit Consultants Just Starting Out

Curtis: Thank you all for joining me here today to talk about nonprofit fundraising consulting.

Between the four of you, you bring decades and decades of experience and wisdom to the table. And in that time, I bet you’ve learned lots of lessons. So what I’d like to ask first is, if each of you could travel back in time, knowing what you know now, and give that version of yourself who was first starting out as a nonprofit consultant one piece of advice, what would that be? Rich, why don’t you start us off?

Rich: I would tell that earlier version of myself, it’s okay to own your story. And I think that’s relevant right now as well. Because I’m talking to nonprofit professionals, fund development professionals who are out of work right now because of the pandemic and because of downsizing that’s taken place, and they’re looking at getting into consulting. It’s okay not to have all of the answers when you’re starting out in your own business. Go talk to other people who are doing what you’re doing. Go talk and get advice. Find out how to run your business, find out the things that you don’t know. Just be real, be authentic, and just go get the answers that you need. You don’t have to have all the answers.

Curtis: Nancy?

Nancy: So I’m going to echo what Rich said about reaching out to others. You know, oftentimes consultants such as ourselves are referred to as solo practitioners, independent consultants, and that’s true in terms of what our legal structure is. But I have really, really appreciated and grown to love so many of the people and organizations that I’ve affiliated with — from ASU Lodestar Center in the beginning, St. Luke’s Health Initiatives, the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits, the Piper Trust — I’ve had a lot of different organizations as well as a lot of people, including Rich and Jarrett and others who I’ve actually worked alongside, and you always learn something. I think what you end up providing to yourself as well as to your client is better as a result.

Curtis: Frank?

Frank: When I was originally considering doing this, I came across a book that was titled Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow by Marsha Sinetar. And all along, I was always — I was confident in the skill set that I developed running an agency and managing people and vendor partners and client relationships, but I didn’t necessarily have the confidence to say, “You know what? I can really do this on my own, and I can orchestrate other freelance resources and the same vendors and the same client partners, just without the big overhead of an agency and a 50 person staff and a big building and all that kind of stuff. So I think having the confidence to do what you love — if you love helping nonprofits fulfill their mission and their vision and live their values, then go for it. That was the message that I needed to hear back then was like, do what you love and the money will follow, and the path will reveal itself. And I have not looked back since I did that in 2010.

Curtis: Great advice. Jarrett, do you have something to add?

Jarrett: I want to say that it’s okay to say no. You don’t have to say yes to every client. In the very beginning I said yes to just about everything because money was green and I needed it. But as I really honed in on my own moral compass and family values over these 11 years, I say no more than I say yes. So if I had stuck to my nos a little bit earlier in my career, I think that would have been a lot more rewarding for me. But you know, there’s a journey for us all. And the other thing I’ve really honed in on and have stuck to as a best practice as a entrepreneur is to know my numbers. So really get clear on your numbers, your profit margins; know your value, you know, and don’t be afraid to take chances. So those are some tips that I would definitely like to share with any of you considering this lifestyle, and as well as if I could go back to myself 11 years ago, I think I would take a dose of my own medicine there.


Is This a Good Time to Become a Consultant?

Curtis: That’s great. Rich, I wanted to follow up on a point that you made. You brought up the pandemic; that’s a reality for everybody right now. So I wanted to ask the panel: What are you seeing in this field now, and is this a good time if somebody is thinking about becoming a consultant? Is that feasible now? What are your thoughts?

Frank: It’s a great time to begin an enterprise like this for a couple of reasons. One, people are more comfortable telecommuting and working with people via teleconference now more so than they ever have been. So if you’re going to be a — formerly I always felt a little guilty, like alright, I don’t have a big conference table and a big building and a big room where I could bring client partners and everybody together. But nobody wants to do that now. So you’re completely fine working from your middle bedroom with the technology support, and people are comfortable with it and becoming increasingly more comfortable with it. So on that front alone, I think it’s a great time to do it. And secondly, with the uncertainty that this pandemic and the economic crisis are bringing, there have been a lot of companies that are rightsizing or making some staffing decisions and reducing their staff, but they still have fundraising objectives. So they’re more likely, I would suggest, to work with consultants than an internal staff person, and I think the field has broadened dramatically. I think the opportunities are amazing.

Curtis: Jarrett, what are your thoughts?

Jarrett: So my story mirrors maybe what others are considering at this time, right? It was the last economic crisis. Now we can say that because we’re in one also, but in 2009/10 timeframe, I really did it by default. I joke and say my parents are entrepreneurs, which is true. And I lived that roller coaster; that was my childhood upbringing. But it’s not easy and it’s definitely not for the faint of heart but I really enjoy high-risk/high-reward, and that is the lifestyle that this offers. So I would say now’s as fine of time as any, right? But to truly take it seriously. There’s certainly been times in my 11 years when I’ve been caught off-guard by a bright, shiny object also known as a full-time job with health benefits, which seemed really enticing at that time, especially being a single parent with a young child. Those are stable lifestyle benefits I think that we all seek, but truth be told, it always felt like I was putting a square peg into a round hole. So for me, taking a j-o-b is just not an option. So if this is something you’re interested in, if this is something that catches your attention, create a business plan, create a market, create a strategic plan. What does that look like for you? What is your Why, your personal Why? Mine is freedom, flexibility, and travel, but we all have a different Why. So I say go for it.

Curtis: Rich, you had something you wanted to say.

Rich: Yeah, I mean, I wanted to echo what Jarrett was saying, that if you’re going to go into it, go into it, right? And that’s another thing I would have told earlier Rich, 10-years-ago Rich that there were a lot of times when I got distracted by the bright, shiny job opportunity as well, but I would not trade the lifestyle that I have now for anything. I truly enjoy the freedom to set my own schedule, to work out of my house. I like the travel, when I got to travel; I haven’t done that in a while. But I like the travel, and I like being onsite with different clients. And I like the variety of the types of clients that I work with. But as Jarrett says, you really got to commit to it. And I think that this is an interesting time because as I said earlier, there are a lot of development professionals who are finding themselves in that time of transition right now. Even some of the larger consulting firms are downsizing, and there are some consultants who are finding themselves in a time of transition right now. So I think this is an especially good time to be talking to other consultants around the country. As Frank said, there are a lot of nonprofits who are leaning into fundraising. I mean, this is — a time of crisis is when donors really step up and give to the organizations that they’re passionate about. And so those organizations that are leaning into fundraising might still need some help with consulting. And so I think it’s a great time to be talking to other consultants around the country, taking advantage of opportunities of scale, and looking at opportunities through other people’s networks. So I might not have the right network to find the appropriate business right here in my physical geography, but I might talk to somebody across the country who’s got an opportunity to partner or collaborate with. So it’s just a matter of talking with others and seeing where those ideas and opportunities are.


Collaboration – What Works and What Doesn’t

Curtis: Great points, great conversation. One thing that I’ve heard from I think each of you at some point is the value of collaboration. So I wanted to perhaps explore a little bit there. In your experience, what has worked really well in terms of collaborating with other consultants? And maybe what are some things that haven’t worked, and how could somebody who’s listening to this, how can they maybe avoid some of the negative experiences that the panel may have had?

Nancy: I think when you agree to collaborate with another consultant, to really put out all of the areas that you want covered, such as, how do you go about invoicing? How often do you do it? How does that work for you typically? So that you and that other person can really understand how that’s gonna work, how “I’m going to take the lead in this area, and it probably makes sense for you to take the lead in that area.” That seems like basic steps. But I think you have to vocalize and agree on how you’re going to operate together. I have had great experiences collaborating with other consultants, I really have. The only thing is I am so into the business that sometimes I’ve found other consultants, “Oh, invoicing? Oh, I forgot to do that.” I don’t forget to do that; that will never happen at Graceful Fundraising. Anyway, so I think as long as you’re on the same page with those that you’re working with, and you have an agreement of how to approach kind of the basics of working together and working with that client, that that’s a great thing. And the other thing I would say is, it works — in my experience, it’s worked well working with consultants who are in the similar areas of expertise, like Rich and I are both in fundraising. And I’ve also worked with consultants who are event planners, PR people, governance and board training consultants. And that kind of just little different twist on our perspectives has been a great experience, I think, for us and for our clients, the end users.

Curtis: Jarrett, do you have something to add?

Jarrett: I think when it comes to collaboration, you know, I’ve had the best of the best, and I’ve had the worst of the worst, and you learn from every opportunity. But there’s also times where you combine your efforts and work together, or you might be the trailblazer that leaves the path to the next consultant. There’s been times where Nancy has handed something off to me, or Rich has handed something off to me, or I’ve handed something off to someone else. And so I really — a couple of things here: One, don’t burn your bridges, right? I definitely come from a place of direct and authentic conversations. So communication is really big for me. And then also just like not being afraid to talk to a potential collaborator or colleague. I think it’s easy to get caught up into: Are they a competitor or are they a colleague? And I tend to lean towards everyone is a colleague and a potential collaborator. It just depends on what the project is. So some of the things that you can learn is, you know, really what I tell my clients is, it’s really important to have an agreement so you know, a memorandum of understanding or something between what is your role? What is my role? To Nancy’s point, if you are to invoice, great, what is the expectation of this? If I am to invoice, what’s the expectation? And to really have that written down and in agreement because when you get into the worst of worst scenarios — which again, I shared a little bit that I’ve certainly been in that position — you want to make sure that everything is more black and white at that time so that it is a clear severance, if you will. So I think, you know, just really understanding what is the collaboration, what is the agreement, and then also, how do we part ways? What is the best way to part ways both professionally and personally? Because chances are you will mix in the same pond with these people time and time again, especially in this nonprofit sector. So looking at this panel right now, unfortunately you cannot see our amazing faces but we can, and our journey between the four of us really continue to overlap in so — a lot of times. So I just want to say, be mindful of that for sure and just be honest with yourself and the other consultant that you’re seeking that collaborative energy with.

Rich: Yeah, I’d like to “Yes and” everything that Jarrett and Nancy just said. And it took me about four yours to understand that other consultants were not necessarily competitors, that consultants really dig one another. We like to help one another and we’re really fun to work with, right? So we are all colleagues and collaborators. And all four of us on this panel have separately collaborated either through our — well actually, both through our individual agencies, and I know that Frank and Jarrett and Nancy have all worked with me on IPM projects as well. So what Jarrett said about not burning bridges and you know, being mindful of those relationships is absolutely true and these are some of my favorite people here on this panel. Which leads me to my next point: When you’re collaborating with other consultants or other folks, find people that you like to work with. You know, it’s just so very important. We have a lot of flexibility and freedom in our lives. There’s no point in not paying attention to that. If you don’t like working with somebody, don’t work with them. Find somebody you like to work with because there’s a lot riding on the line. Beyond just a paycheck, there’s reputation of your agency. And there’s the client to think about. Are they going to be successful? And if you’re not getting along with the person that you’re working with, chances are your client is going to feel that and there’s going to be a bad vibe and the project’s probably not going to work out too well. I don’t mean to be negative. I don’t want to bring a negative vibe into this conversation but I just think it’s the flip side of everything that we’ve been saying. If you’re not mindful of all those great things that Nancy and Jarrett brought to the table just now, then there is some sort of a ramification down the road.

Curtis: And it’s a great point. It’s another one of the advantages of being a consultant. You don’t have to work with coworkers that you don’t like, like you might if you were an employee. So there’s a little bit more choice there. I like that.


Using Collaboration to Grow Your Consulting Business

Some consultants that we’ve heard from have expressed that they — they’ve expressed some frustration trying to take their business to the next level. It sounds like collaborating might open some doors in terms of making you more attractive to the bigger fish, whether that’s clients with a bigger budget or doing work on a national scale. What are your thoughts about that, about using collaboration to help grow your business, essentially?

Rich: So I think that there’s a lot to be said for having a team around you. I like to have people to talk to, I like to have people brainstorm with and to ideate with, and that’s the value to me of collaborating. And when we have that team, it is possible then to go out and look for and think about and conceive of bigger types of projects or different types of projects than we might conceive of individually. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t accomplish those things individually. Perhaps we don’t think about them or we just don’t think ourselves capable of doing them. Does that make sense?

Curtis: Yeah, very much so. There is a sort of a synergy that happens between team members that’s greater than the sum of the parts.

Frank: There’s some deep skills on this roundtable that we have here but no one of us is capable of doing everything. So by collaborating with other professionals, we deepen the bench strength of the solutions that we bring to our client partners and we’re able to do more. And because we are soliciting multiple perspectives, we bring better solutions to our client partners because it isn’t just founded on one person’s life experience and sphere of influence, it’s magnified and exponentially grown by each additional person that contributes. And that’s on the client side and on the agency or on the consultant side. So our solutions get better and better with more and more input.

Rich: So I want to, I want to follow up on that. It’s not necessarily larger clients, it’s finding the great clients — the great clients with great staff, where they have a great cause, and they’ve got a great board of directors, great volunteers, they’ve got a great goal, or a great case for support. So it’s really finding the great clients. My favorite clients have really been in this small to mid-size budget. They’re not really huge clients, but they’ve just been great people to work with. And they have great projects. Now, the other side of that is sometimes clients aren’t sure what they’re looking for in a consultant. And so that’s another reason for collaboration because sometimes clients think they need to look for a larger consulting firm, and they might gloss over the one-person shop. That’s another reason for sort of combining forces and making yourself appear bigger. Kind of like a blowfish theory. I don’t know why I just threw a blowfish theory in there. But sure, make yourself look bigger and stronger, because that’s what collaboration does.

Curtis: I love it. I also love how your point about finding the great clients echoes what Frank said earlier about doing what you love. I think those two things line up really well together. Yes, Nancy?

Nancy: I would add to that sometimes the change isn’t always growth, or getting bigger, or being national. I mean, for me, I focused on smaller nonprofits, almost from the get go. I mean, I’ve had some medium-sized nonprofits but for the most part, I really like the small guys. And I’ve always, you know, prior to the pandemic, I’m a big believer in face to face. I think I’m most effective that way. So I have wanted pretty much all the way through to work with either small — in some cases, this past year, I’ve worked with all-volunteer groups, which is a really different twist from working with nonprofits that have fully staffed functions. One way or the other, you know, you find what you’re most comfortable with. But be patient with yourself because it may take you a couple years to get to the point where you realize where you’re enjoying things the most. And because we’re consultants, guess what? We have better choice of finding scenarios that we enjoy, and we love. So take the time and energy to do that.

Hi, this is Curtis from IPM Advancement jumping in for a moment.

If you’re a nonprofit consultant with at least 10 years of experience, consider joining IPM’s Consulting Network. It’s a great way to connect with a group of like-minded professionals, get more business, attract bigger clients, and yes – make more money.

You can learn more and apply today at ipmadvancement.com/consulting-network. Thanks! Now let’s get back to the conversation.

How Consultants Can Better Serve Nonprofits

Curtis: So before we end here, I want to ask all of you to share your thoughts about the state of nonprofit fundraising consulting today. So broadly, looking at the field, what do you think consultants on the whole could do better to increase the value they provide to nonprofits? Frank?

Frank: I would suggest being flexible is the real answer to that question. And Rich mentioned it earlier and that is, so many times a nonprofit doesn’t necessarily know what they’re looking for or what will best serve them. And in discussion with a consultant, we can often identify — it’s like, “Okay, from this list or from this menu of services, you really need this, this, and this” and if it aligns with the skills that I can bring to the table and help deliver value around those things, then great. But if it’s a different list than that, then it’s all about bringing the right other people to the table either in collaboration with me or without me just in order to deliver value for that client partner. So there’s been times when I’ve met with clients, and it’s like, “You know what? You guys really do have needs but you don’t necessarily have the budget to support those needs. So here’s how we can accomplish that. You could bring on a full-time person and I’ll help train them, or I could develop a plan and then your team can execute against the plan and we’ll just check in regularly to make sure that you’re progressing against the plan.” So I think the flexibility is key and bringing broad skills to the table and understanding what the needs are, and can you satisfy those needs effectively and efficiently or not?

Rich: I just want to echo that. Oftentimes we will put together a proposal based upon what we read in an RFP, and we answer the questions in the RFP, and we make recommendation for what the proposal and what the project is going to look like. And then we get on site and we start talking more and more to people and we find out all the things that we didn’t know. And very often that changes the scope of the job. And we sit down and have the heart to heart with the client at that point and say, “Okay, well this is what we put in the scope of work. This is what we think the new scope of work is going to be.” And typically they are all for that because clients want a solution that works. They don’t necessarily want you to stick to the letter of the proposal, right? They want to make sure that their problems get solved. And so our job is to be flexible and solve those problems or help them solve those problems.

Curtis: Nancy?

Nancy: I think that sometimes consultants feel like, you know, when you’re a consultant, it goes along with being viewed as an expert and that sort of thing. But I think we have to be explicit in the ways that we provide that expertise and how that is differentiated from staff only kind of approach.


Takeaway Advice for Nonprofit Consultants

Curtis: Great. Well I wish I could ask you guys a half an hour more worth of questions, but it’s time for takeaways. So what is something that’s come up in our conversation today — or maybe something that hasn’t come up at all, but you think is important enough to mention — that you really want to highlight for listeners before we leave? Jarrett?

Jarrett: Well, first of all, it’s obvious that we’re all amazing. And chances are that you are too. So for me, you know, I’ve talked a little bit about the evolution of my career path but for myself as well, and it’s really just identifying — as I continue to evolve and shape on a professional trajectory — where is my true zone of genius? And how can I offer that service to my clients, to my peers, to myself, to my community? So that’s really what I would challenge you. And I have I have two questions I like to ask that you can do for a personal reflection. The first question is: What do you love to do? So if you can answer for yourself what is it you love to do. And the second question is: What do you think you’re great at doing? And recognizing those can be very different, right? So If this is a journey that you’re interested in, I wish you all the best, all the luck. Hang on; it’s a wild ride but it’s totally worth it.

Curtis: Great, thank you. Frank, what would you like listeners to take away?

Frank: I think the concept of co-opetition, which was a word that was coined a while ago and it’s cooperative competition. And you kind of put those things together and it’s co-opetition. And I think we, the four of us, have demonstrated that today. I think, becoming part of a consulting network is a great thing because it is either co-opetition — we’re either going to be cooperating with each other or competing but it doesn’t necessarily, it doesn’t it all have to be adversarial in any way. There’s increasing amounts of business out there; there’s certainly enough for all of us to do. There are more opportunities I think than ever, and there’s all kinds of things that we could be doing to help each other succeed and help our client partners succeed. So if we’re the right fit, or 3 or 5 or 10 of us are the right fit, great, we put it together and we make it happen. If we as an individual might not be the right fit but I know Nancy or Jarrett would be great for that opportunity, I’m all about getting those people right to the table, making the introduction, and helping them be successful. So it’s a love fest really but co-opetition is the way to go. And that’s the word that I would leave us with.

Curtis: I love that. Nancy, what’s your takeaway?

Nancy: So, I think listening to the four of us, you probably hear self-confident people that interact well with others, that have good relationship building skills, etc. And that’s true. But I think, regardless of what kind of personality you have, what your style is, you can be successful. And I think of two different grant writing shops. One led by a woman who does great at promoting herself. She’s out there all the time. And another one who’s really quiet — I worked with her, they were a client a number of years back — and really an introvert. And you would think on the surface, she might doubt that she could be successful. Well, I’m watching her from afar; she’s killing it. And so clearly she’s turned her own personality and approach to things and made it work as a consultant. And so, regardless of where you sit, extrovert/introvert/whatever, you can do it, there’s a way to do it. In fact, in the fundraising field, people assume that those that are the most successful at it are the outgoing, aggressive, assertive types. But studies have shown that those who listen really well and are more quiet and reserved and take in the donor better are actually better fundraisers. So you just never know until you try.

Curtis: Rich, what’s your takeaway?

Rich: So my takeaways: Work with amazing people. There’s a lot of opportunity out there to collaborate, even if you’re a solo practitioner. There’s opportunity to work with other people and to find jobs that perhaps you wouldn’t find otherwise. Provide excellent service, and that means understanding what excellent service you can provide, and that’s all about being authentic and understanding that you don’t always have to have all the answers, right? So I’d much rather sit down and talk with the client or talk with other consultants and get groupthink on the right solution than have to think that I have to come up with that right solution all by myself.

Curtis: Well, thank you all for your contributions today, I would love to get you back here and ask you lots more questions so hopefully we can make that happen soon. Before we leave, would you mind telling listeners where they can find out more about you? Jarrett?

Jarrett: Absolutely. You can find me, the Nonprofit Nerd at www.TheRayvanGroup.com, or nonprofit_nerd on the Insta.

Curtis: Thank you so much, Jarrett. Frank where can people find more about you?

Frank: Actually, Google Search my name and it’ll come up: It’s Frank Baselice, and there’s not very many of me running around. My company is Consilium Marketing, LLC. And if there’s any free marketing advice that I have to impart to anybody that’s listening: Pick the most simple company name that you can. My next company is going to be like Bob’s Company or something. I spell the word Consilium a thousand million times a day, and in case you do want to look it up it’s ConsiliumMarketingLLC.com.

Curtis: Great. Thank you, Frank. Nancy, where can people find out more about you and what you do?

Nancy: Well, as of the end of October I got rid of my nasty, bad, not updated in 10 years website because I found that people were looking me up on LinkedIn more anyway. So I’m NancyGrace1 on LinkedIn. That’s to differentiate from the Nancy Grace who’s the attorney.

Curtis: And Rich, I wonder where listeners could find out more about you and what you do.

Rich: You can find me at IPMAdvancement.com.

Curtis: That wraps up our conversation on nonprofit fundraising consulting. Thanks to the panel for sharing their insights and expertise. If you liked this episode, please subscribe in Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app. And leave us a review. For the consultants who so generously participated in this episode, we will link to their websites in the show notes so you can find out more about them. If you’re a consultant who’d like to learn more about how the IPM Advancement Consulting Network could help you grow your business, please visit our website at ipmadvancement.com/consulting-network. That link too will be in the show notes. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.


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