How does nonprofit consulting work, and which firms are best?
Nonprofit consultants can play many different roles. They may act as advisers — evaluating your situation, diagnosing problems, and creatively solving them. They can also focus on very specific tasks, like finding and implementing an effective customer relationship management (CRM) system or hiring a new executive director.
Use this guide on nonprofit consulting to understand what a consultant can do for your organization, how much it costs, and how to choose the right consultant for your needs.
Core nonprofit consulting services
The most common consulting services for nonprofits include:
- Creating fundraising strategies
- Managing major capital campaigns and fundraising pushes
- Coordinating an executive search, like hiring a new executive director
- Handling board development, like hiring or coaching new board members
- Developing a technology strategy and implementing systems
- Conducting prospect research or donor retention research
- Performing nonprofit feasibility studies
- Building a marketing strategy across web, social media, etc.
- Offering internal services, like extra accounting or human resources staff
- Overseeing grant writing
Choosing the right nonprofit consultant in 3 steps
Every industry is filled with people who can talk the talk but can’t walk the walk — even the nonprofit sector! Use these steps to find a qualified nonprofit consultant that helps you meet (or beat) your organizational goals.
1. Search for candidates 🔍
One of the best ways to create your shortlist of consulting candidates is to ask your fellow nonprofit professionals. Ask for testimonials and reviews from your peers, and look for firms with a track record of success.
Also, take advantage of professional networks like the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) or the Alliance for Nonprofit Management.
You’ll need to decide whether you prefer to hire a full-service firm or partner with an individual. Firms can invest more people and resources into your projects but come with a steeper price tag. On the other hand, a specialized individual may be the perfect fit if you’re clear on what you need and have a limited budget.
Once you’ve done some prospect research, reach out to the most promising candidates. A common way to narrow down the list is to publish a request for proposal (RFP) outlining the details of your project and soliciting proposals from potential consultants.
2. Interview and assess 💬
When you’re busy or need support fast, it’s tempting to skip the interview process. After all, it can be time-consuming to talk with multiple candidates and their client references too. But you can’t take resumes and reviews at face value. You need to dig into the details now, so you don’t run into trouble later.
At a minimum, note how many years of experience in nonprofit fundraising the candidate has as well as their education, certifications, and other qualifications.
You may be looking for a jack of all trades with a little know-how in every speciality. Or, perhaps you need someone with experience in your specific sector, like health care, higher education, or small-business funding.
Here are some other important questions:
- Have you worked with a nonprofit organization like ours before?
- Have you done a project like this before?
- On a typical day, how many other clients or projects will you be handling?
- How much time should our board and staff expect to dedicate to supporting your research, strategy, and services?
- Do you see yourself as an adviser, a facilitator, or a participant in this project?
- How would your clients describe your project management skills?
During the meeting, explain the goals of your project and confirm that they have the capacity to finish it on time and within your specified budget. Note whether they’re engaged in the conversation and asking probing questions about your team and your cause.
3. Sign on the dotted line ✅
Once you’ve selected a consultant, prepare a written agreement that summarizes everything, including:
- The scope of the work
- Specific tasks and deliverables
- Payment schedule and fees
- Timelines, roles, and responsibilities
- Description of the final product
This step appears quick and easy, but it’s the most important part in this process. Consider having a legal consultant look over the agreement for an added layer of due diligence.
How much does nonprofit consulting cost?
The short answer is that it varies based on the consultant’s level of expertise, industry/vertical, location, and more.
Generally, your options are to pay consultants on an hourly basis, project basis, or retainer basis.
With an hourly fee, you can meet as needed for general campaign counsel or advice. Be sure you understand what the consultant’s hourly rate is and how it changes based on the service or time of year.
The cost of project-based billing depends on the scope and complexity of the work. The firm or consultant may also estimate the time involved. They’ll likely quote you a flat fee for a project with a defined time period and specific deliverables.
Lastly, you can pay a retainer fee upfront or on an ongoing basis — such as biweekly, monthly, or quarterly — for longer-term projects. Always ask about additional charges. For example, a consultant may offer free video and phone calls but charge a higher hourly rate for in-person meetings and travel.
Expect to pay at least $100-$175 per hour for consultancy, and more for large projects.
Avoid commission-based fees
Steer clear of any consulting firms and individuals that encourage or accept commission-based fundraising. This refers to when an organization compensates its staff or fundraisers with a commission for each contribution they raise. It’s against the code of ethics for both the AFP and the National Council of Nonprofits.
6 nonprofit consulting firms that take you to the next level
We’ve given you all the steps you need to find the right consultant, but we wouldn’t leave you without a cheat sheet! Save yourself some research time by exploring our top recommendations for consulting firms, individual consultants, and other nonprofit services.
4 North Consulting
Based in: Brooklyn, New York
4 North Consulting is all about empowering organizations of all sizes to grow — even in turbulent times like the COVID-19 pandemic. Their tailored solutions, from high-impact fundraising strategies to individual training and coaching, help nonprofits build strong donor relationships and go the distance.
Founder Erin Levi Blondes brings over 15 years of industry experience, using her collaborative coaching style and insightful approach to relationship-based fundraising to give nonprofits the tools they need to transform their development program. She’s worked in all facets of development, with particular expertise in major gift programs.
Based in: Los Angeles, California
Lipton Strategies is a boutique strategic consulting firm working at the intersection of philanthropy, public affairs, and social impact. Their team creates innovative solutions for healthy, sustainable growth. In addition to nonprofits, Lipton Strategies counts public-private partnerships and mission-driven companies among its clients.
Founder Jonathan Lipton has extensive experience directing major fundraising campaigns. He’s served as a fundraising consultant for an array of organizations and sectors across the United States, beginning his career as a Partnership Specialist at the U.S. Department of State managing the Global Equality Fund.
Growth for Good
Based in: Maplewood, New Jersey
Growth for Good provides expertise in nonprofit fundraising, strategy, leadership, and marketing so that organizations can focus on what they do best: good work. They provide decades of experience with capacity building, helping clients develop the knowledge, strategies, and tactics they need to meet immediate and longer-term challenges.
Founding partner Katherine DeFoyd has helped raise more than $100 million over her 25-year career. She’s been involved with every aspect of nonprofit management and fundraising and excels at fundraising planning, event production, strategic planning, board development, staff coaching, government relations, and public competitive grant sources.
Based in: Seattle, Washington
Ariel Glassman offers a fresh alternative to common, outdated consulting models and practices that haven’t kept up with the changing needs of the nonprofit sector. She sculpts innovative fundraising strategies, creates donor engagement programs, and seamlessly leverages emerging systems and technology to help nonprofits galvanize real relationships with their donors.
Ariel strives to “help the helpers.” Over 18 years, she’s supported a diverse pool of over 100 nonprofits in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington D.C. Her expertise scales from running a single campaign to building a completely customized, data-driven fundraising strategy with optimized infrastructure.
Based in: New York, New York
Parkes Philanthropy was born out of a desire to channel the skill and raw enthusiasm of a generation into tangible, meaningful change. For every partner engagement and project, their firm builds customized, interdisciplinary teams, and provides oversight and management needed for flawless execution.
For the last 10 years, co-founders Brandon Parkes and Anna Fuselier have worked toward transformative impact in their own space; Brandon in the corporate philanthropy sector and Anna in nonprofit management and education.
Based in: New York, New York
Donorly is a fundraising consulting firm that helps nonprofits raise money and reach financial goals far beyond their size. They provide fundraising, board governance, strategic planning, and executive search services to small and medium organizations. The team conducts extensive research and analysis to create a strategic plan of action for everything from capital campaigns to grant writing efforts.
Partner with the best 👏
There’s no doubt that you have a talented nonprofit team, but some projects and initiatives will inevitably fall outside their skill set. When that happens, a nonprofit consulting firm can swoop in to evaluate your needs and assets, build out fundraising strategies, start hiring, or simply provide a second pair of eyes on your key campaigns.
The right consultant at the right time can transform your organization, leaving you better prepared to fulfill your mission and serve your community. But first, you’ve got to find a match. If you’re ready for the tailored services, insights, and advice a nonprofit consultant can provide, explore the offerings from our trusted partners.