Building the fundraising dream team

My choice for consultants and agents to serve the perfect client.

Written by
Ken Burnett
May 15, 2013

Just before Christmas a few years ago now I was lunching with a hugely respected ‘grand old man of British fundraising’, one of the architects of the UK’s Institute of Fundraising and co-creator of two seminal, ground-breaking capital campaigns of recent British fundraising history. Over a glass of port we were talking about a particular client we had both shared, when he said to me, without hesitation, ‘This was the most satisfactory relationship I ever had with a client.’ I was obliged to agree. This same client that we were talking about would also top my list of ‘most effective clients’. Oh yes, don’t be surprised. Even if it’s unwritten, every agency and consultancy will have such a list and will review and amend it regularly. Few things are more important to us. This particular client would have topped my list consistently over the past quarter of a century, and that of my port-drinking buddy too. Plus the lists of a few others that I know of and, I’m sure, a few more that I don’t.

I began idly collecting together some of the many and diverse things that I think make a truly great client. Because only a charlatan would disagree that it’s the chemical reaction created when a good client and a good agency combine that brings about really great work. This explains why a great agency team produces great work for some clients and mediocre, even bad, work for others.

The first, most essential, member of the dream team is a truly great client. This led to me thinking about the best team that I could assemble, to provide the best of the best clients with the best possible service, the means to consistently produce truly earth-shatteringly good work to lay before his, or her donors.

Since (and even before) Burnett Associates opened its doors in 1982 as the first agency in Europe specifically for the promotion of good causes, a valuable body of skills and expertise has developed and grown up in the UK, to support charity clients. And it’s getting better all the time. Are the clients, I found myself wondering, developing at the same rate?

I confess that the ‘dream team’ listed opposite is written mostly from the agency’s rather than the consultant’s point of view. I worried long about whether or not I should name names. Originally I did, but it proved impossible to be both comprehensive and objective so I’ve confined myself to broad generic descriptions of the kind of people I’d like to see batting for my charity, helping us to produce the best work we possibly can. For economic reasons many of the roles opposite would need to be combined. But that’s no problem as in agencies such talented types abound.

So what are the qualities that make a truly great client?

Courage, of course. Professionalism. Self-awareness. Understanding. Sympathy and empathy. Vision is needed too. And judgement, to back hunches loaded against success. Honour, that respects the right of others to fair pay for their work and fair treatment for their workers. Punctuality. Even-handedness. And appropriate humility: a rare one, this. In the vastly unequal relationship that is the client/agency norm, arrogant, ignorant clients destroy more good work and waste more money, passion and enthusiasm than a hundred broken marriages. It is the overwhelming tragedy of our profession. There are a lot of old-fashioned virtues here. And I could go on.

Anyone who thinks it is easy or automatic to be a good client needs his or her head examined. Regrettably, most fundraisers will spend and waste more money in the client role than at any other time in their lives. And far too often clients will be unprepared, untrained and unsupported in the role. Except, hopefully, by their agency or close consultant. But even then their client may well not allow her or him onto the kind of respected footing that will make help practical, or possible.

It would be churlish of me to suggest that there might be a parallel list in preparation of crap clients and inept agencies. There isn’t, not yet anyway. But at least it’s time to acknowledge that there should be new rules for pitches, or best practice guidelines at least. Pitches are not free, and only a foolish client imagines they are and abuses the process. Sadly for our sector, this happens every day. There are several articles on this theme in SOFII’s showcase on how to be a good client. Of course, as a disclaimer, all the foregoing is just my opinion.

On the subject of naming names, the legendary consultant mentioned above was the late Redmond Mullin. And the ‘best of the best’ client is, of course, Giles Pegram of the NSPCC. I can identify him comfortably now, despite his embarrassment, as he is now retired and for his sins has become a consultant himself. Will the next generation aspire so high?

Dream letter: Is this – apart of course from the strong language and excessive ellipsis – the perfect client letter to the perfect consultant? I mean, how often do you get, ‘ whatever you want and please say how much money you would like.’? Click on image to enlarge.

A fundraising dream team for the UK

Here are some of the roles that might make my fundraising dream team though I’ve decided to resist naming specific individuals, as I can’t include everyone who deserves mention.

The opportunity spotter
I’d talk to one of these right at the start of whatever campaign I’m thinking of launching. The ability to lift sights above the day-to-day is a hallmark of a great client and the agency opportunity spotter helps them do that. It helps if this team member is also an ace fundraiser in his or her own right and someone who really knows donors: how they think and behave. I’ve often wondered why a good charity client would pay much attention to a senior adviser who is not first and foremost a fundraiser.

The planner/researcher
Most projects fail through lack of ‘doing the homework’. This role needs cool logic, plus deep experience. A slightly nerdy attention to detail helps, as does the ability to think in three dimensions.

The implementers
These are the organisers, the people who do. Call them your account handlers if you will, but think of them as an extension of your organisation and treat them very well, for most other clients will treat them casually, if not shabbily. So if you treat them right they'll die for you, gladly. They are the frontline foot soldiers and they get things done. The good ones are worth their weight in precious jewels. A good client treats them accordingly.

The creative spark
Just sit back and let them weave their magic. But give them room to work so their ideas can flow and grow.

The writer
Real heart-in-your-mouth, utterly credible human drama is what they must provide, day after day – a rare skill. At its best it’s truly thrilling to work with a great writer. Words matter, so cultivate your storytellers and abolish bad use of language in your organisation. Most clients can’t write but on the slenderest of evidence convince themselves they can. So the best clients cultivate self-awareness. If you want to be a copywriter, don’t be a client. Simple.

The producer
The steady backroom expert who gets the job delivered, physically, as expected, on target, on spec, on time, on budget. Rare and well worth nourishing, these people.

The data master
Few agency people really get data and donors. If your agency doesn’t get data, change your agency.

The media planner/creative results analyst
Immaculate record keeping shows where your message should and shouldn’t be, with which offer version in what format, and when.

The safe pairs of hands
British clients are lucky to have such wide choice of safe hands to stand alongside them as their agency. The good client values and respects this choice and never abuses the power it gives them as client.

The quarterly reviewer
These are the challengers, who you probably can’t afford to have at every meeting but you build in time and budget for at intervals because you can’t afford not to. They may not always be comfortable. Nor should they be.

The close-to-heart consultant
For the rare really good client, these are like a second skin. Anyone who thinks they don’t need one is probably a fool – or perhaps a genius. It’s not a case of one mind in two bodies, rather a pairing that operates like binary planets. But it takes time and talent to build the trust. Thankfully there are quite a few really good, experienced consultants around in the UK now.

The genius inspirer
The master motivator: of inestimable value for the really ambitious long-term campaign. There aren't many of these around, (though email me if stuck and I’ll try to point you in the right direction).

And the dream client?
He or she is still to be appointed. Candidates can pitch for the position, at their own expense of course. The competition will be many and hot, so an ‘all whistles and bangs’ presentation is recommended. Apply opposite.


Ken Burnett’s books on fundraising and communication include the classic Relationship Fundraising: a donor-based approach to the business of raising money, Friends for Life: relationship fundraising in practice and The Zen of Fundraising. To fill the gaps in your library, click here.

This article first appeared on Ken’s website in 2010.

About the author: Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett is author of Relationship Fundraising and other books including The Zen of Fundraising, (Jossey-Bass Inc, San Francisco, USA). The Tiny Essentials of an Effective Volunteer Board and Storytelling can change the world, both published by The White Lion Press, UK

He is currently working on a new book about campaigning fundraising, to be published in 2021.

Ken is also SOFII’s managing trustee.

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