Choosing a Campaign Consultant

July 28, 2003

Despite the shaky economy and the slight drop in giving to higher education, my institution is moving ahead with plans to begin a capital campaign. After all, we still need the money.

The amount we can expect to raise will be revealed through a feasibility study. Most often, feasibility studies -- consisting largely of one-on-one interviews with 30 to 50 lead donors and prospects -- are managed by outside consultants. Participants are asked to comment on the college's leadership, its current direction, and its case for philanthropic support. They're also asked about their intent to give. Donors may be less inclined to speak candidly with a member of the college staff; that's why many institutions use consultants, who, in turn, keep all responses anonymous.

We recently reached the point of choosing a company to manage our feasibility study. The chosen consultant will also help us with development training for our trustees, many of whom would be involved in the study as well. Because of my role as campaign planner, I was elected to make initial contact with consultants and decide which ones to bring to campus for discussions.

I was slightly surprised to find that every company I spoke with eagerly wanted our business. Evidently the sluggish economy has scared many institutions away from campaign planning. All of the consultants agreed to come for an introductory conversation with me and our senior vice president, who oversees our fund-raising operation.

During these conversations I became more astute about evaluating these companies. Here, then, are 10 questions you might consider should you find yourself needing a campaign consultant.

1. Where is the firm located? Among the handful of businesses we invited to campus, some are within a two-hour drive and the rest are outside New England. We worried initially about including companies located beyond our geographic region. If we hired one, how reliable would our consultants be? What if we wanted them to come on short notice to meet with a trustee? And what about travel costs? Consultants within driving distance wouldn't have to fly up the night before an early meeting and stay at a hotel -- expenses that would likely be passed along to us. In the end, we didn't let location sway our decision, but it is something to ponder.

2. Does the company specialize in higher education? Does it at least boast a lengthy list of college and university clients? Some companies we entertained work primarily with hospitals or other nonprofit groups and only dabble in higher education. We were more impressed with those demonstrating campaign experience with a wide range of colleges, and suspected that our trustees would assume such a track record as well.

3. What kinds of institutions has the company worked for? Look carefully at that list of college and university clients. Do you see any similar to yours? We were leery of putting before our trustees companies that advise billion-dollar campaigns at Ivies and Big Ten universities. The first impression would be that we're hiring an expensive consultant. But more to the point, we looked for those who can claim they've helped young colleges with limited philanthropic histories run low eight-figure campaigns. They'd better understand our particular challenges. Of course, if you represent a major research university, your concerns are just the opposite.

4. Who are the the company's references? Can it provide at least one reference for every institution it's served? You can, of course, venture off on your own and call a colleague at a college it counseled. If you get a few great recommendations from people not on the company's reference list, then it's probably pretty good.

5. Are you meeting with your prospective consultant or someone charged with landing new business? If you're impressed with the representative the company sends, be sure to ask if he or she would be your consultant. You might be seeing a closer, who would then turn over your account to someone else in the company. If so, who might that be? What are his or her qualifications? Can you meet this person on the company's next visit? We didn't want any surprises, so we made certain to verify who would be working with us.

6. Does your individual consultant work solely for his or her company? Some companies feature full-time consultants, while others employ stringers who work elsewhere. For example, we found companies advertising "senior associates" who freelance for them but are actually vice presidents at other universities. We immediately questioned the reliability and loyalties of those people and strongly preferred companies that offer full-time consultants on staff.

7. What is your consultant's background? In general, we found two breeds of consultant. One is the career consultant, someone who may have worked in development years ago but has been in this role for decades. He's gained knowledge not by toiling in the trenches but by assisting others who do, learning vicariously along the way. The other type has recently been a development vice president or director of a certain specialty, like planned giving. She's once removed from the action and understands front-line fund raising, managing staffs, and juggling budgets. As a consultant, she no longer asks donors for money, but can relate firsthand to your challenges. I'm not suggesting that "career consultants" aren't as knowledgeable, but we preferred folks who can tell our trustees they've recently walked the walk. You can conclude from this and the previous item that our ideal choice is someone not long removed from fund raising and now dedicated full time to a consulting firm.

8. What does the company charge? This one seems pretty obvious, but be sure to dig deep. Does its fees include costs for travel and production of materials? Some of the estimates we received did; others didn't. Before you compare prices, be certain of what you're comparing. Also, if a company quotes a flat fee for a feasibility study, how many interviews does that include? What's the incremental cost for every interview beyond that number? What are the company's per diem costs, assuming you might want to contract for services throughout the campaign? What does it require for a monthly retainer? We had to sort out these variables carefully before we could get a handle on relative costs.

9. How well does the consultant understand your particular circumstances? A related question is, How much does the consultant want to box you into a predetermined process? Before embarking on this effort, we devised a format and a timeline for combining a feasibility study with trustee-training sessions. We of course remained open to consultants' suggestions, but we found that some wanted to remap our plans based on what they'd done at other colleges. In other words, they didn't listen very well. And we resisted being stuffed into a prefabricated, cookie-cutter process. Our people and circumstances are unique to us, so we expected a fresh approach from each company.

10. How might your consultant mesh with the personalities among your board and volunteers? This boiled down to subtle perceptions. We know our trustees well and have a good sense of how they would respond to different personalities and presentation styles. Assuming you know your key trustees' and volunteers' predilections, you can make similar judgments. If, for example, your board chairman prefers the straight-shooting, no-nonsense, get-to-the-point approach, he might not resonate to someone who subjects the board to war stories and circumvents the issues. The converse is just as true: An overly corporate style might offend trustees who prefer to wade in slowly and keep the atmosphere light. We had to make informed choices based on how we envisioned these personalities interacting.

After meeting with each consultant, we selected two finalists who will return to meet with a larger group, including a trustee. The decision proved difficult because we found merit with everyone we interviewed. But we think we identified the best matches and are confident that we'll choose the right consultant to suit our needs. Time and our board will tell us if we make the right choice.

Mark J. Drozdowski, director of corporate, foundation, and government relations at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H., writes a regular column about careers in university fund raising and development.