Why your agency or consultant drives you crazy

The relationship between nonprofits and the agencies or consultants who help them raise funds can be difficult and weird. Even when it goes very, very well — which it often does.

I’ve spent the large majority of my career on the consultant side, so I know I’m biased. But I’ve watched the relationship go right and wrong so many times, I have a pretty good idea what the problems are.

And here’s the big problem: You and your consultants aren’t in agreement about who the real customer is.

It might seem obvious that you,, the client, are the customer. After all, you’re paying them.

But the customer your consultant is aiming at (if they’re worth their salt) is your donors. So right away, there’s a large possibility of expectational dissonance.

You (and/or others at your organization) want to see fundraising materials that make you stand up and cheer … feel good about … that make you feel validated … that are fresh and new and different from the same-old.

But your consultants want fundraising that works. They’re serving up stuff that’s so familiar, so old, so disappointing. They have all this high-powered strategic and creative talent, and that’s all they can come up with? This is what we’re paying for?

Well, in their eyes, yes! They’re giving you the stuff that’s most likely to bring home the bacon. Which is what you’re paying them to do. They know that aiming their messaging at you and your colleagues is the quick road to fundraising failure. And that aiming at your donors means not aiming at you. And they’re completely sure that they’re doing the right thing.

So you can see the fundamental mismatch of expectations:

  • They think they’re doing exactly what you’re paying them to do.
  • You think they’re not doing what you’re paying them to do.

Houston, we have a problem!

I’ve seen three ways consultants approach this problem:

  1. The typical way. They’re not fully aware of the mismatch. They do their thing. If results are good, they expect results to speak for themselves. Which they do, but not effectively, and not for long. If the client feels underserved, the consultant will eventually get fired, no matter how good the results. I’ve seen that happen more times than I want to think about.
  2. The even more dysfunctional way. They aim everything squarely at the client. Clients love it. Thing is, it rarely works in the marketplace. You can get away with this for as much as two years before the fundamental failure of it gets everyone fired. Consultants that routinely operate this way usually go out of business within two to five years. You can only fool so many people for so long.
  3. The smart way. They put the whole conversation out in the open. They make it clear why they aim at donors. They listen to the client and work hard to find greatness in the client’s needs rather than dismiss it because of its surface problems. They test new and fresh stuff … and sometimes it works! These are the relationships that last for a long time and really create change for both the client and the consultant. It’s also where most real innovation comes from.

If you’re a client, do everything you can to make your relationships with your consultants or agencies operate the smart way. Don’t hire the agencies that just plod along with best practices without paying attention to you. And really don’t hire the flash-in-the-pan panderers who will make you feel good while they drive you right off the financial cliff.

Hire the smart ones. And be smart along with them.

That’s the basis of a long, effective, and satisfying relationship.

(This post first appeared on March 29, 2018.)


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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