Friday, June 25, 2010

Please, more consultants speaking at conferences!

I feel a bit weird this year - it will be the first conference 'season' that I am not planning on whizzing around the world to learn and present at conferences.  I am sneaking over to Canada in November (I know, madness) and speaking at the ADMA Forum (26 July) and the F&P Forum (Sep 1) here in Australia.
Speaking at conferences is important for consultants and suppliers like me, but should there be more charity people speaking?
At the recent fundraising conference in New Zealand, an inspiring plenary from Richard Woodward reminded me why I am in this business, and even more importantly, gave me some tools to use whenever things get tough. Richard is a consultant, based in Australia, who helps charities raise money.  
I also learned things from Simone Joyeaux, Gregor Drugowitsch, Tom Ahern, Christiana Stergiou, John Godfrey and Trevor Garrett. All are consultants, except Trevor, who is head of the NZ Charity Commission. I did not attend a session presented by a charity employee.
My gripe this month is not the fact there are not many charity people speaking. What agitates me is the number of people complaining about the fact that at fundraising conferences - AFP (USA and Canada), IOF (UK), IFC (Holland) and FIA (Australia) -"there are not enough charity people speaking!"

This ‘problem' is so rife that some conferences ‘positively discriminate' to have charity people speak. This is one of those problems that's all about prejudice rather than substance. The consultants I named above work either mostly or exclusively with charities. They are charity people. They are just paid indirectly as opposed to directly, and they work for more than one charity. Surely the fundamental purpose of going to a conference is to gain learning and raise more money?

I think we should make demands about what we learn and the quality of the teaching - not who teaches us. Why should we care who delivers the training, as long as it is good? Most of these consultants used to be charity employees. For example, Gregor worked for Red Cross and Amnesty for many years.
When consultants stop working at a particular nonprofit they don't suddenly lose their knowledge. In fact, by the nature of their business, they are exposed to many more variables and initiatives than would be possible within just one charity. A consultant's session may not necessarily be better than that of a charity's ... but it's not inherently worse!

One pro-charity speaker argument is that they can include case studies and results. But from  my experience, consultants are more likely to present case studies, results and comparisons - and across several charities, not just one. This is valuable contextual information. Sharing the results of one charity using a survey to identify bequest leads is great. But having several case studies is better. It gives the student a broader context to consider.
Pareto staff members are encouraged to speak at conferences, and we give tons of information away. 

We also show real case studies with real results often (with permission from our clients, of course). We are not unique. Most consultant speakers include case studies and results; hardly any spruik their services in a crude way. Yes, they will (and should) mention what they do, and they may be cheeky or involve clients. But as long as you are learning, why do we care so much about the fact they are a supplier?

I believe most of these suppliers get up there and present for a host of reasons: ego; a desire to create change; passion for the sector; passion for their area of expertise (e.g. face-to-face fundraising); personal development - or a free ticket. Tom Ahern and Simone Joyeaux, for example, will "work for scenery"! 

Of course those reasons (except maybe the scenery one) are the same for charity staff. The big difference boils down to the last motivator for consultants: that it is good business sense. Getting up and showing people the ropes, teaching, building, challenging - this exposes them to potential customers. They don't need to do the ‘hard-sell', they just need to be genuinely helpful.

Most of what we teach is already in the books. Very little is new to the sector, but it could be new to the attendee. Explaining it well, giving examples and inspiring others is our job. And if we do it well, people will be more likely to talk to us about our business. It also means there is a lot of pressure to be a good presenter. I think that leads to probably 70-90% of presentation submissions coming from consultants.

Consultants can justify their investment in presenting because it is really good for business.  They can justify the use of company resources and the hours put into the preparation to compile the data, put together a good presentation, cruise YouTube for good video to embed, put in some practice time ... well, at least that's how I justify it to my board!
So what should (we) charity people think about all this?
Good! Great stuff! Let the consultants put in the time, let them massage their egos, let them live and become!  But they better bloody teach me something that I can do without hiring them to improve my charity's income.
Next time someone says they are "sick of all these consultants presenting" - ask them why. When they say "I want to see more charity staff up there" -  ask them why again.
(This blog is a slightly updated version of my most recent Agitator Column in F&P magazine E-bulletin.



John B said...

Hi Sean

I agree completely. The argument is futile and conferences should pack their agenda with those speakers whom deliver the most useful and insightful material t the audience. That being said, charities and consultants do have different perspectives and experiences, so a good agenda should have a good balance.

You are right to touch on the concerns related to vested interest and I’m glad you have started the discussion. I do think, however, that we need to go a bit further. During my time, I’ve attended many a conference, read many a paper or blog and listened to many a pitch (solicited and unsolicited). As a small selection these are some of the things I’ve heard or read:

• A senior staff member of a phone room tell an audience not to upgrade Regular Givers by mail (the same company has data that refutes this which the audience was not told)
• A Major Donor consultancy, who specialises in assisting charities build one on one personal relationships (nothing wrong with that) release a report claiming that major donors do not like direct mail, based on a tiny sample size.
• A myriad of new media/social media/web 2.0 companies claim that direct mail is dead.
• An Australian ABL consultancy told me they had just invented the term ‘chugger’ and that F2F was dead in the water.

And the list goes on. In many cases we could write this off as opinion and it is my job as a fundraiser to evaluate opinion. That is true, but in also in almost all of these cases data was available to the consultancy that would clarify their claim as incorrect. Charities implementing this advice would suffer decreased income and a reduced ability to fulfil their mission. It would appear most of these claims are either a deliberate attempt to mislead in the hope of gaining work or are displaying inadequate knowledge of the product they are selling. Not quite sure which is worse.

As long as consultancies are displaying this type of behaviour, charities (clients) will gravitate to those whom they believe they can trust. That is other charities. That is the basis of why charities prefer conferences with more charity content. There is no inherent conflict of interest in a charity presentation. That doesn’t mean the charity presenter is any good, they could be rubbish, but you do know that you aren’t having distorted information shoved down your throat

This is not universal of course and there is real currency in being a known a conference speaker from a consultancy who knows their stuff and can back it up. The joy of listening to these speakers is refreshing, the frustration in listening to a thinly veiled sales pitch that denigrates other forms of fundraising is palatable. Particularly when your charity has paid a fair quid for you to be there.

Currently the solution for charities to this behaviour is twofold:

• Question those claims when they are made
• Not engage those consultancies who engage in this type of behaviour.

This means essentially that charities are the ones regulating the behaviour of consultancies through the marketplace. Nothing wrong with that and it should continue. Consultancies who mislead or do not know their stuff do not deserve work.

It is, however, not enough as the practice continues. Fundraising industry associations (AFP, IoF, FIA etc) maintain codes of conduct for a variety of fundraising work. Perhaps it is time to consider a code of conduct for the manner in which consultancies engage with the fundraising community. Charities are not permitted, and rightly so, to deceive their donors through either misleading information or sheer ignorance. Perhaps it is time consultancies were held to the same standard.

Then the debate would disappear.

Penelope Cagney said...

Hi Sean

I agree!

Consultants often invest a great deal into presentations because it is the core of what they do...they are expected to provide thought leadership. Because of this, the quality of the material is often very high.

I often involve my nonprofit clients or other leaders in my presentations to provide different perspectives and in general, make them more interesting.

Penelope Cagney said...

In reference to John B's remarks, I recommend my forthcoming book, "Nonprofit Consulting Essentials: What Nonprofits and Consultants Need to Know" (Jossey-Bass September 2010), in which I devote considerable attention to ethics and standards for consultants to nonprofits.

Disaster Fundraising Guide download it here