The past 18 months have been a wild ride professionally, especially if you’re a fundraising consultant helping clients navigate the curveballs COVID throws at the third sector.
Illinois-based fundraising consultant Tamara Leonard, CFRE, shares the hurdles her clients are facing, shifts she’s seeing in the funding landscape, and how being a CFRE has helped her build professional credibility.
Since the pandemic began, what has changed the most for you as a fundraising consultant?
Internally, my staff had to all adapt to working from home. Client-wise, I went from having bi-weekly in-person meetings to having these meetings using Zoom. This was both good and bad. Although I no longer have to spend an hour driving each way driving to and from a meeting, the informality of Zoom hurried the calls along, and we lacked a lot of the brainstorming energy we had in person.
As a consultant, specializing in grant writing, the grant opportunities tripled for non-profits that provide food, housing, or education. However, for some of our other clients’ missions (such as art, recreation, or sports) the funding was not as plentiful as usual, as many funders shifted their giving priories to COVID-related needs/COVID response. We revisited strategies for these clients so they could keep their doors open and continue to offer some programming (including virtual programs).
How do your clients feel about 2022? Apprehensive? Optimistic?
For the most part, everyone is eager for the pandemic to be over. The biggest hurdle for many of our clients is they must stay true to their mission but must adapt their services/delivery model to the present circumstances. Clients know they need to build relationships, but they often do not have the manpower to do so – when staff time is limited, program delivery is prioritized.
Some clients who received increased pandemic-response funding are concerned this funding will diminish before the increased need for services does, making it difficult to maintain their increased capacity while it is still needed.
What is the most notable fundraising shift you’ve noticed from pre-pandemic 2019 to now?
The most notable shift is the outpouring of funding for missions related to food, housing, or education. We are also seeing quicker response times for many grant awards in these areas. In addition, the loss of/reduction in special event revenue has forced many organizations to increase their grant writing, increasing the competitiveness for some grant awards.
What is your advice to fundraising professionals who feel nervous about meeting their goals in 2022?
Many organizations have experienced funding loss due to cancelled special events or not being able to conduct major gift meetings. In fund raising, it is important to realize that donors very often are not life-long donors – that while you need to work on stewardship strategies and retaining current donors, you must also be constantly brainstorming new corporate/foundation donors and working on creating those new relationships.
Could you share a useful piece of fundraising wisdom you’ve received?
My wisdom is to research, research, and research. When we were doing a capital campaign, we went to visit a life-long volunteer. As we were walking through her house, I mentioned that the painting on the wall was incredibly beautiful. We had talked about her community roots, so I thought it was a painting of her grandmother. The woman then laughed and said that the painting was an original Edgar Degas. We had no idea of the potential level of gift that this woman could make because we had not fully researched her before the visit.
She did end up giving us a major gift, but we were originally preparing a much smaller ask. The more you know about potential funders, the more educated your ask can be!
You became a CFRE in 2000. What is the most pronounced benefit you’ve experienced as a result of holding the certification?
At one of my job interviews for a President of Development position in Chicago, I had made it to the final two candidates for the position. We were interviewed together, and I had raised more money, completed more campaigns, and secured more grants than the other candidate. After the interview, I was told the other gentleman had more experience. It was a real glass ceiling moment.
I took that frustration and the knowledge that I was really good in my field and decided to open my own consulting firm. The CFRE was my stamp of approval. It was my door-opener, my credentials that spoke for themselves.
When being interviewed by clients, they often mention that the CFRE indicates that I must know what I am doing. They often mention that over my educational degrees. I believe that the certification opens doors with clients who would otherwise not necessarily have considered my smaller company.
As a consultant, why do you feel it is important to continuously invest in your fundraising knowledge and maintain your CFRE certification?
Even as an experienced consultant, I look for one or two new strategies at every educational event I attend. I look for the newest ideas and concepts that I can bring back and share with my clients. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire landscape of fundraising changed and the webinars on virtual programing and fundraising were invaluable.
When you’re meeting with a prospective client, do you mention that you’re a CFRE? If so, how do you introduce the topic to the conversation?
My CFRE is on all of my literature (business card, brochure, and website), so prospective clients see that early and often. Some are already familiar with the CFRE and know what it means, but others ask what the letters stand for and what the certification entails. Often, a prospective client will ask if I will work on a commission rather than for an hourly or per-project wage, and my response to this question centers around the CFRE’s ethical commitment.
What do you believe are the three most important qualities a fundraising professional should possess if they wish to strike out as a consultant?
It is vital to have the ability to write a program from start to finish. While the client is the one that is conducting their program, they often do not know how to put that on paper. They may not know what their short- or long-term outcomes are. The information they provide is vague.
A good consultant must have the ability to ask the right questions to elicit the information needed for the grant and must be able to create written information about any program and any mission.
Someone who wants to be a consultant also needs to be a great researcher. A client that is in a major city has many more opportunities for funding than a small organization in a rural area.
You need to be able to find funding opportunities for many topics and in many locations. In addition, you must be able to locate research and statistics that support the client’s program model and need for funding.
It is also helpful to be a competent public speaker. A consultant is often the go-between the donor and the organization. You must be able to speak on behalf of the organization and clearly communicate what they do, the impact they make, and the impact a donation will have.