The Mikuska Group  

The RFP shake-down

Why do charitable organizations think it’s appropriate to ask for a donation or pro-bono work in an RFP?

Not that we have any intention of responding to a request for proposal, but my blood still boils when I read an often used clause that goes something like this:

“X Organization is a registered charity which provides funds for research, programs and other activities which promote and advance the health of all members of the community. Our organization is able to engage the citizens of the province in philanthropy by working with donors and partner suppliers. As such, we ask that you please indicate your company’s interest in supporting our organization through philanthropy or sponsorship: e.g. direct discount, no-charge services, etc.”

I call it the RFP shakedown. Where else do you see the beginning of a business relationship where you’re already being asked to do free work (ok, I know graphic designers get this all the time, too) or give money back?

Consulting work is similar to philanthropy in that both are based on trusted relationships. When you engage a consultant, you’re making an investment in your organization. In turn, we provide guidance based on our experience and expertise, and we are fairly compensated for the value we bring.

If, in the course of our relationship, we are moved to make a donation, we may do so, and we often do. But don’t ask us to make that part of any proposal or contract.

Julie Mikuska.


Marcy Heim interviews the twins

In June, Marcy Heim interviewed Julie and Laura as part of her Major Gift Success Club. We had a great conversation on a number of topics including:

  • educating board members to talk about impact rather than overhead
  • why concentrating on low overhead is a race to the bottom
  • the most common mistakes we make when talking to donors
  • the importance of life-long learning for fundraisers
  • why you may be able to ditch your fundraising events

Marcy has generously provided us with the audio of the conversation – have a listen.

Marcy presented at the AFP Manitoba 2013 National Philanthropy Day professional development session. She is a coach and frequent speaker on asking for major gifts among other topics. She is the author of the book Empower Your Board to Serve As Effective Development Ambassadors. Check out her website!

Laura and Julie Mikuska.


Finding the right consultant

So, how do you go about finding the right consultant?

Do your research. Start by asking around. Get referrals from people you know who have worked with particular consultants.

Understand that fundraising and creative consultants work best with relationships and the value provided. It’s not about methodology and deliverables, it’s about achieving desired outcomes with the help of their expertise.

Consider that working with a consultant is an investment, not an expense. Be prepared to pay for expertise you need to advance your organization.

Let them know your budget. That way they know what kind of proposal to put together.

Consider engaging them in a discovery/needs assessment project (paid) to determine whether you can work together on the larger project or process. Your organization will get a clearer picture of what the real challenges are and get recommendations to address them.

Julie Mikuska


Inherent suspicion

I love to network. I’m out at Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce events, at meetings of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, at community events and just generally around town. I’ve even been called a busybody, but I don’t mind. I just love to meet people and help build a stronger community.

There’s a distinct difference between my meetings at the Chamber and those with fundraising or nonprofit leaders. The Chamber welcomes and embraces its members, encouraging them to do business with each other, to refer those they do business with to colleagues, friends and family, and to connect businesses with each other when it makes sense. All of this contributes to a strong economy where people invest in local businesses. My membership in the Chamber has a huge return on investment by allowing me to meet people in this way.

Why is it, then, that many nonprofit leaders I meet at AFP meetings or elsewhere practically turn their backs when I tell them I’m a consultant? In the corporate community, it’s recognized that working with an outside consultant can result in huge ROI. Why is this different in the nonprofit sector?

My conclusion is that there is an inherent suspicion of consultants among nonprofit leaders.

I believe it’s perceived that we’re going to come in and do things to you and your organization. That we’re there to “sell you something” that you can’t afford. After all, you are nonprofit. I also believe that some of you have been sold a bill of goods by so-called “fundraising consultants” who promise big dollars with little effort on your part, with little or no results to show at the end of it. Or they throw piles of paper, plans and methodology at you when it has nothing at all to do with your organization.

Any consultant, in the for-profit sector or nonprofit sector, should be working collaboratively with you to improve your condition. That’s how we work and our clients are happy with that. We bring our vast knowledge of the sector to you and see where we can help. We’ve outlined our process here so you can understand how we proceed. We are most interested in building your own capacity so you can carry out your mission and keep the knowledge in-house.

Now, that’s not so scary is it?

Laura Mikuska


Why we don’t respond to RFPs

The solution to RFPs is to get rid of them. Entirely.

They serve no purpose and don’t result in you getting the best consultant for the cheapest price – if that should even be a goal. That should be reserved for ordering quantities of widgets, not for consultants.

Here’s why we don’t respond to RFPs (requests for proposals):

  1. They don’t define the problems to be addressed. What, you say? We spent 24 pages describing the work to be done! In our experience, self-diagnosis usually misses the mark.
  2. They impose unreasonable conditions on us as consultants. Such as asking us how many hours we might devote to this or that aspect of the project. First, we don’t work on an hourly basis and second, how would we even begin to speculate on that if we haven’t had any discussions?
  3. Most times the organization has already picked their consultant and need us to pretend they had a competition. No thanks.
  4. Some RFPs want us to tell them exactly how we would go about such and such a project. We like helping out with clients or prospective clients but we won’t tell you how to solve your specific problem for free. That is consulting – our business – and we deserve compensation for it.
  5.  We aren’t widgets. Our work is customized for each client and our expertise doesn’t come out of a box. So don’t try to define it in an RFP.
  6. We build relationships. Imagine starting to date someone after you’ve filled out a 24-page questionnaire with silly rules. Nuff said.
  7. Relationships are based on trust. RFPs are based on the organization holding all the cards and assuming a lack of integrity on our part. Like trying to hold a “right of approval” over future clients because of a perceived conflict of interest. Or refusing to look at our proposal because we presented it in a slightly different format than requested (because we don’t work that way!).

If you’re looking for consultants and want to have a conversation with us, we would love to chat and discover how we might work together. Just don’t send us an RFP.

Julie Mikuska and Laura Mikuska.


By-laws are forever – not!

When was the last time your organization reviewed its by-laws?

Good on you if you said, “within the last three years.” If it’s been longer, or, as in the case of some organizations, not since they were written in the 1970s, it’s time.

Your by-laws are your governing documents. They are important and deserve your attention. Circumstances change over time, including changes to legislation that governs non-profit organizations.

By-law reviews are opportunities to look at how your board is working. A couple of examples:

  • previous boards may have thought it was an honour to allow all living past-presidents to be on the board. However, you may now find that rather than being a helpful resource/organizational memory, these members just add to the sheer size of the board, making it unwieldy. Your review may then recommend an advisory council for past-presidents, rather than seats on the board.
  • current by-laws stipulate no term limits for board members, so your board becomes stagnant when members don’t see a reason to leave. Ensuring turn-over is healthy.

By-laws lay out structure and the legal duties and liabilities of your board. They should reflect and refer to the act under which your organization has been created, and outline the powers of the board, composition, voting, membership and financial responsibility.

Be careful not to put too much into your by-laws that would be better left to board policies. By-laws must be approved by the members, while policies can be changed by the board. For example, avoid too many standing committees and allow for ad-hoc committees or task forces.

And once you’ve reviewed and approved changed by-laws, schedule the next review!

Julie Mikuska


Engagement audit

You may think your organization is responsive to donors, welcomes them, promptly acknowledges gifts and is great at engagement and stewardship. Your donors may have an entirely different experience. How can you find out?

Ask several friends or colleagues from other organizations to help you perform an engagement audit. Ask each of them to donate or make inquires about donating, by phone, in person, by e-mail or through online donations. Essentially, the group should go through all the ways that people can donate to the organization, even through events (galas, runs, walks). Then ask them to evaluate their experiences. (You can offer to do the same for their organization.)

  • How are they received in person? on the phone? via e-mail?
  • Do frontline staff know about the mission? Do they know what happens with donations? Are they customer-friendly?
  • Are calls to senior people returned?
  • How friendly and up-to-date is your website? Is the donate button prominent? Is the donation form easy to fill out?
  • Are gifts acknowledged promptly, accurately and with a CRA-approved receipt?
  • Are donors welcomed as trusted friends or as ATMs?
  • Is there evidence of good stewardship and communications?

Use what you find out to improve your donors’ experience and engagement. External audits like these can be powerful when showing others in your organization what constitutes a culture of engagement.

Julie Mikuska


UnderDeveloped: Get out of the vicious cycle

Many organizations are stuck in a vicious cycle when it comes to their fundraising, says an important report released in January, 2013 by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund (San Francisco, CA).

UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising reveals a number of concerns about expectations of fundraising operations:

  • too often, non-profits base everything on one person, the development director, without understanding what supports should be in place
  • there is a high level of instability in the development director role, with high turnover, long vacancies, performance problems and large numbers who are not committed to careers in development
  • the talent pool is inadequate and smaller organizations feel they can’t compete for experienced fundraising talent with larger organizations that offer much higher salaries
  • organizations lack the conditions for fundraising success i.e. no fundraising plans, no database, little to no board involvement, CEOs/executive directors who lack development skills or hate asking for gifts, lack of good relationship between the development director and the executive director

In the study, the authors note many non-profits don’t have a structure that supports fundraising success and that they don’t have a culture of philanthropy. Large organizations, while having larger development departments, often said they had no culture of philanthropy because their development function is more compartmentalized.

Further, there is a disconnect between executive directors and development directors about their organization’s culture of philanthropy. For example, “34% of executives strongly agreed that there is an understanding in their organizations that fund development has a documented body of knowledge, code of ethics, certification, research, and continuing education; the comparable figure for development directors was 18%.”

Calls to action

What I like about this report is that while the results are from US respondents, they mirror what is happening in Canada. And while that’s not necessarily good news, it does give organizations something to work with. The authors put forward ten calls to action, meant to move “away from an approach that is passive, apologetic and siloed in nature, to an integrative approach that deeply values donors and constituents and puts them right in the center of our organizations and movements.”

Embrace Fund Development – A Mental Model Shift Across the Sector – A call for leaders to embrace fundraising as a central and valuable part of their work.

Elevate the Field of Fundraising – Leaders need to join together to promote fundraising as a rewarding career and the development director role as integral to positive change in communities.

Strengthen and Diversify the Talent Pool – Target efforts to get a healthy and diverse pipeline of fundraising professionals, and focus on developing the next generation of development directors.

Train Boards Differently – Address what it takes to build and sustain a culture of philanthropy including the partnership among the board, executive director and development director.

Apply the Transition Management Framework to the Development Director Position – Include assessments of fundraising strategy and capacity when conducting searches for development directors.

Invest Strategically in Grantee Fundraising Capacity – A call for funders to invest in grantees’ leadership and organizational capacity, and provide support for building skills, developing systems and creating cultural change for fundraising success.

Leverage Technological Innovation – Embrace Creativity – Embrace social media as a way of multiple staff and board to have continuous dialogue with donors; potential to draw in new generation of activists to the development role.

Set Realistic Goals for Development – Revise expectations to include development and maintenance of the development department, cultivation and stewardship of relationships, staff and board relationship-building, and contribution to the vision, strategy and overall leadership of the organization.

Share Accountability for Fundraising Results – Include fund development goal-setting and evaluation as part of the board and all staff annual work planning.

Exercise Fundraising Leadership – A call for development directors to embrace the challenges in the report and drive the change required in their organizations. A call to executive directors to commit to inspiring their boards and staff around a culture of philanthropy.

I, too, urge non-profit and development leaders to read the report and have serious discussions about how they can change their culture to one that will ensure fundraising – and by extension organizational – success. It’s worth the conversation.

Julie Mikuska


Stop the crazy talk

Last week I went to two events featuring two highly respected and experienced presenters on entirely different topics. One male, one female.

I was astonished to hear these thoughts come out of their mouths:

  • Your board should reflect the subway i.e. be diverse. Oh, on second thought, maybe not – there’s a lot of crazy people on the subway.
  • On one hand, you should do this, on the other hand, you really should do the opposite. I know that sounds schizo…

Language is very powerful. It defines us. So we need to be especially careful in how we use it. The stigma about mental illness will never go away if we continue to use these words for a cheap laugh.

Julie Mikuska



Demystifying fund development – one client’s view

Mikuska Group has been working with The Centre for Christian Studies to develop an culture of engagement, and has been mentoring the new Development Coordinator, Lori Stewart and the Principal, Maylanne Maybee in the principles and practices of fund development. Maylanne recently reflected on their experience in the CCS newsletter:

“Lori Stewart is growing into her Development Coordinator role. Since starting in July, she has been connecting with many grads, students, and friends of CCS…listening to their different stories of being touched and changed.

Lori and I have been part of weekly coaching sessions over the summer and early fall with Laura Mikuska, a member of the Mikuska Group which specializes in helping non-profit groups build strong relations with their donors.

Together we have had discussions on donor-related policies, thinking about a development page on our website, creating and using a fund development plan. We’ve talked about the message we want to send out about CCS – what sets us apart, avoiding jargon and “inside” language, how people find out about us. Lori has paid close attention to the “how to’s” of building a case for support, writing and distributing an appeal letter, receipting donations, thanking donors. We’ve talked about making connections, through visits, phone calls, and the telling of stories.

From my perspective, these sessions have helped to demystify the role of “fund development”, to reframe it as building a culture of engagement and generosity and creating an inviting context for people to support the important work of CCS. Lori has re-introduced the Development Lunch at the Learning Circles as a way of engaging our students in building relationships with our wider constituency. And Laura will be doing a workshop with staff and Central Council as a way of empowering them with the permission and tools to act as ambassadors on our behalf.

This fall, you will see the result of Lori’s learning and research. She plans to mail twice as many appeal letters as before, as a benchmark for future mailings. You will see a fresh, thoughtful, and we hope persuasive invitation to make an annual or monthly donation to CCS. Join us as we grow our spirit of engagement and generosity!”

Lori and Maylanne are both passionate about the mission of CCS, but were not very familiar with fund development or the concept of a culture of engagement. Through understanding the principles and processes, they are building their fund development program and engaging their constituents by inviting them to have an impact as a donor.

Can Mikuska Group demystify fund development for your organization?

Laura Mikuska



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