I have a friend who travels around the world facilitating board retreats and making keynote speeches. When she agrees to accept a client she has two criteria:
1. Does she believe in their mission?
2. Will their check clear?
That’s pretty much it. For the rest of us, it can be a little more complicated.
The first criterion is a standard for most ethical nonprofit consultants. The difference between the work we do for nonprofits and the guys who end up with Congressional subpoenas is mission. It doesn’t have to be a hot passion, but the organization’s mission and the consultant’s values must be simpatico. After all, we’re consultants, not mercenaries.
Whether you are beginner scrapping for every job to pay the mortgage, or a seasoned pro with a long track record, you will have to make some decisions every time a new organization calls looking for help. Even if you need every dime that comes your way, you will not want to waste your time, energy and reputation on an organization that will fail no matter what talent you bring to it.
A little experience helps to decide whether to accept a new client. In my case, that experience comes from making every mistake that could be made – until I make the next one! Your criteria might be different, but here’s the place I start:
I will not accept a client that:
- Is a new start up. I’ve broken this rule three times and was sorry each time. Founders of new nonprofits often have good ideas but no skill to implement them. Founders are visionaries and think that there should be donors lined up outside their door tossing in bags of cash. I use Mohandas Gandhi’s philosophy that good work is supported by the community – with a little help. I want a new nonprofit to find its niche and community support before I assist in broadening it.
- Is in deep debt. Unless they are making sweeping changes, the debt is an indication of many bad things to come. Their reputation with donors might already be endangered. Steer clear.
- Has had bad press recently. A crisis isn’t always a reason to avoid a new client, but it’s a reason to look closer.
- Has an inactive board. The quick way to find out is to ask. The ED generally doesn’t cover for the board’s weaknesses in private conversations.
- Has unrealistic expectations of a fundraising consultant. Do they want a miracle worker or a partner? Ask!
Without engaging a private eye, there will always be surprises in any new relationship. To keep those to a minimum, and to see how well organized my prospective client is, I have a list of documents that I ask to be delivered to me. If getting these together seems to be a problem for the organization, reconsider your relationship. These documents – and how easily and quickly they are compiled – will tell you volumes about the agency, how they are organized and how efficiently they operate.
Since you need these anyway, ask for them at the beginning. Note any holes. If you accept this client you may have to produce these documents yourself. Knowing that in advance will allow you adjust your fee and work plan AND keep your blood pressure in check.
- this year’s and last year’s annual budget
- 2 years of audits
- date the next audit will be completed
- IRS Form 990
- date the next 990 will be completed
- name of the auditor
- copy of the 501(c)3
- copy of annual reports and newsletters dating back at least 2 years
- detailed description of programs
- service statistics
- personnel list
- job descriptions
- organizational chart
- map or detailed description of service area
- accurate board list with the business affiliation AND their level of expertise
- percentage of board members who contribute financially and at what level
- corporation/foundation relationships of board members
- what is the committee structure? what are their responsibilities?
- types and dates of special events
- cost/revenue ratio of events
- allocations from federated organizations (United Way, Health Appeal, etc.)
- allocations from foundations and the longevity of relationships
- allocations from corporations and the longevity of relationships
- grants from government agencies
- program wish list (what do they want to fund?)
- percentage of individual donors
- types and number of appeals sent to donors
- types and number of face-to-to meetings with large donors
- thank you letters to donors
- percentage of lapsed or old donors that they lost contact with
- overall size of mailing list, data base
- copies of successful grants proposals
- list of prospects that would not make a large gift or grant
Fare well, and farewell for this week …