Solving the Right Problem

Lately I’ve been thinking about how I can help my clients get more from the work we do together.  It was, I admit, spurred by a frustration that sets in sometimes.   At those times, I can’t seem to move my clients forward. Then I wonder:  Is this the result of not having set the stage properly? Organizations turn to a consultant because there is a (sometimes vague) sense that they need help for something.  The consultant (that’s me) thinks she has an understanding of how she can best provide that help.  But occasionally, I find, we end up trying to solve the wrong problem.

For example, I get hired to help the organization develop an individual giving program.  So I assess their data, talk with staff and board members, work with whoever has been charged with fundraising to create both a plan and the implementation steps for an individual giving program that fits with their needs and resources.

Most of the time, the issue really is the need for an individual giving program.  Then things move forward.  Board members and staff are invested, interested, willing to get together to ensure that the program becomes a reality.  From time to time, however, the real work is not  (say) in developing an individual giving plan.  Perhaps it is that the Board isn’t willing to be part of the development process, or the development director doesn’t want to prospect for potential donors or, even more frequently, there isn’t a consensus of what really needs to happen—or how.

In those cases, meetings are not set or if set, few people attend.  Things are decided at the edges.  Not everyone involved in building the individual giving program knows about those things—and along with some unintended consequences there are frequently consequences that were very much intended.  Anger, disappointment, a sense of wrongness can ensue.  And then everyone gets off the bus.

Fortunately, this is only a once-in-awhile occurrence, but it did start me thinking how, by being more purposeful at the start of what we were going to be doing and what we expect our outcomes to be—even if it appears to be obvious (we’re interested in a capital campaign; we want to get this grant out the door, we want to train our board members to be fundraising)—my clients would benefit.

What I realized was that I need to ensure that there is total clarity on where the organization wants to end up.  If you now have an individual fundraising program, what does that look like?   When your Board members are fundraising, what—precisely—are they doing?  And by extension, what is staff now doing to keep it all on track.  And how does it change what is happening now?

That means I must take a lot more time at the start.  But it also means that I have to resist providing solutions before WE are all sure what the issues are.  And then, truth be told, I serve my clients better if I help them find their own solutions rather than simply supplying my own.

Janet Levine works with nonprofit organizations, helping them to build their resource development capacity.  To learn more about her, her online grantwriting class and Get Ready, Get Set, Get Grants the only grantwriting book you really need, check out  You can buy the book directly at