How To Choose An Event Fundraising Consultant

Over my career, I’ve often been asked by potential clients for advice on how to pick the best event fundraising consultant. Initially, the question left me a bit bemused – after all, as the President and CEO of an event fundraising company myself, I could hardly be called an impartial observer! Well, let’s see… um, pick me!

But I have grown to understand the question. As event fundraising programs have become more successful, they have become a more important part of a nonprofit’s fundraising portfolio. This importance means many groups are looking for clearer guideposts. And, with increasing success comes increasing competition – more and more groups are entering the space, and there’s a need for a better roadmap. 

Here are a few suggestions. 

  • Area of Focus. Does the firm focus specifically on event fundraising in the nonprofit space? Many marketing and event production firms occasionally dip their toe into event fundraising. These forays seldom work. Producing concerts, competitive races, or product launches is often impressive and complicated work – but it isn’t event fundraising. Event fundraising is a specific discipline that involves creating an impactful experience to reflect an organization’s mission and coupling it with an effective, directed ask for support. It is one thing to create a fun event to sell a new product that someone may want or need; it is something altogether different to create a moving experience that convinces someone to contribute money out of generosity and empathy. Look for a firm with specific competency and experience in coupling event production with fundraising; this means experience not only in traditional marketing, but also in traditional fundraising practices as well. A good event fundraising firm understands the development pyramid and can speak to issues like donor retention and donor migration.
  • Professional Affiliations and Certifications. Following from the above, a legitimate event fundraising firm will have affiliations to prove it. Is the firm (and its principals) a member of AFP? APRA? The Giving Institute? And, has the staff spent time studying the discipline? Many of our consultants have or are pursuing certifications from the Fundraising School at the Center of Philanthropy at Indiana University. Similarly, we ask our project managers to pursue PMP certifications. 
  • Industry Familiarity. Here’s a quick litmus test: What magazines are sitting on the waiting room coffee table? Do you see the latest issues of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and the Journal of the Nonprofit DMA Foundation? Or do you see AdWeek and Fast Company? There’s nothing wrong with the latter two publications – I read both of them, plus Fortune, the Harvard Business Review, and many others. But I spend a lot of time learning about the nonprofit space.
  • Methodology. Can the consultant tell you how they will approach their work? What is their process, and how is it monitored? What tools and frameworks do they use, and have those been reviewed by peers in a public setting, or are they proprietary? My experience is that there is little in the space that is actually proprietary; almost everything is derivative. I mean that in a good way. The most effective tools, methods, and approaches are adapted and improved from earlier, tested work. Event fundraising, at its core, is fundraising, and there are many proven tools and approaches that have been tested, published, and refined.
  • Fees. As you begin to talk with a firm, do not hesitate to discuss fee structure right up front. In fact, doing so can save you much consternation later. 
    • How much? A good event fundraising firm will be able to tell you a range for their fees, and be willing to refer you to another group if your needs do not match their usual profile (more on that below). 
    • Flat or proportionate? It is against the AFP Code of Ethics, as well as any sense of professional integrity as a fundraiser, to base compensation on a percentage of the amount of money raised. As more firms enter into event fundraising, I’ve noticed that this line is getting blurred. Per capita structures that are based on the number of participants who attend or the number of web hits received are just cloaked percentage structures. It is tempting to believe that such structures “align incentives”; what they really do is give a firm a reason to overcharge you if they simply do their job, and a reason to ignore you if a program doesn’t take off. A real event fundraising firm is going to say, “This is our fee.” It should be a number, period. If you have to break out a calculator to understand the fee, it might be time to end the meeting. 
    • How are participant registration fees treated? Do you get them? Some events, particularly athletic events, charge participants a registration fee in addition to required fundraising. These registration fees are your money, not the consultant’s. Sadly, with the rise of pseudo-charitable events that give a “portion” of their income to charity, this wall is eroding. An event in which you receive a portion of the net and none of the registration income is a cause-marketing relationship, not a fundraising effort. On that note: Accountants differ in what they will allow regarding treatment of these fees. I have seen some count them as donation income, and others that are violently opposed to that accounting treatment and instead treat participant registration fees as an offset to expenses. In either case, registration fees from participants should be part of the nonprofit’s income, not the income of the event fundraising firm. And if you are actually paying for the registration fees yourself… take a closer look. 
    • Are there performance bonuses involved? In some cases, firms will ask for a performance bonus upon attaining some level of achievement. We don’t usually structure our engagements in this way, but it is somewhat common. Such bonuses are not unethical (as long as they aren’t based on percentages), but can be abused. Make sure the performance in question is actually the performance you want to reward.
  • Projections. Once you get further down the road and begin talking about specifics of an event, you may see some registration and income projections. Here are a few things to watch for.
    • Did you pay for the income projections? A good event fundraising firm, like any good fundraising firm, will be very wary of giving you income projections without first being engaged (that is, hired) as part of a defined, focused feasibility effort. Yes, that means a commitment on your part – but it ensures you substantiated, researched work. Be wary of income projections that float into your office free of charge. 
    • Are they intuitively realistic? I’ve seen concept projections that show first-year events generating thousands and thousands of participants. Does that seem right to you? Would you believe it if a major giving firm told you that you could generate thousands of major donors in one year starting from a full stop? A good firm will show a growth rate, and more sophisticated firms like Event 360 will show you sensitivity analysis with a range of outcomes and risks attached to them. Just like direct mail efforts, some programs might take several years to generate net income. If you see big numbers promised and an equally big page of disclaimers in small print, it is time to ask a few more questions. 
    • Does it promise money from nothing? No effort works without capital. While most event fundraising programs become self-funding, they never start that way. How much up-front funding is required? 
  • Intellectual Property. How will intellectual property be treated? A reputable event fundraising firm will likely retain rights to specific models and intellectual frameworks, but will happily tell you, at the outset, that the rest of their work is work for hire and that you will own the event marks, iconography, collateral, and tools. 
  • Expenses. How will expenses be treated? When you get into budget specifics, make sure you bring your finance team into the room. Again, some of these questions are worth asking right at the outset. 
    • Who pays the vendors? There are two models we use in our projects, and the model we use depends entirely on the wishes of each particular client. In one model, we pay vendors directly and submit full documentation for reimbursement; in the second, we manage the relationships but the client’s own accounting group pays vendors directly. Either works, and a good event fundraising firm won’t have any skin in that game. The documentation you receive should be very thorough either way. 
    • What approvals do you have? Regardless of whose logo is on the checks, the nonprofit should have full rights to approve all expenses (above petty cash amounts) before they are incurred. Is the firm willing to grant you contractual rights to this oversight?
    • Are you allowed to use your preferred vendors? There are times when my firm may have a special pricing relationship with a vendor, in which case we would strongly suggest that a client use one vendor over another. But those cases are few and far between. In all things, from catering to marketing services to software, you should have a large say in the decisions and, if you so desire, make sure your event fundraising firm is willing to issue competitive RFPs for the subcontractors it uses. 
  • References. I’ll end with one you probably already know, but is worth repeating – a good event fundraising firm will have many performance references.
    • Are they willing to furnish names of people you can actually speak with? When you do speak with the references, make sure to ask not only about performance but relationship. What was the firm like to work with?
    • Are the references recent? In fundraising, we’re only as good as our last initiative. It is great to get the story of what happened five or ten years ago, but what is the firm doing now?
    • Is the firm willing to tell you what didn’t work? Everyone has failures, and unfortunately in fundraising not all initiatives are successful. Be wary of firms that don’t have any mistakes they can tell you about. Can you speak with clients for whom the firm’s work didn’t pan out? Can the firm’s team tell you what they learned, and how their latest work is different?

I hope this list helps. I’ve been excited to see the growth in the event fundraising space over the last 20 years. There are more participants, donors, and nonprofits interested than ever before, and they are creating some great experiences with the help of event fundraising firms like mine. 

And perhaps that leads to my last piece of advice: There are a number of great event fundraising firms out there, and none of them do everything. I feel strongly that my team at Event 360 is the one of the brightest and most passionate you’ll ever meet. But I also know of – or actually personally know – most of  the other folks in the space, and like Event 360, each of them do some things really well. Jack Hudson at OP-3, Brian Pendleton at CauseForce, Steve Biondolillo of Biondolillo Associates, Billy Starr at Pan-Mass Challenge, Craig Miller at MZA, Dave McGillivray at DMSE Sports – all are great professionals who have made and continue to make a huge impact for nonprofits across the country. 

There is a lot of good advice out there. When you hear someone tell you they are the first, the best, and the only, it might be time to look for a second opinion.