Be crystal clear regarding what services you offer and what services you don’t. Honing in on your particular skills helps you position yourself as an expert and differentiate yourself from your competitors. I focus my work on “fundraising strategy”, a broad category, but one that captures both my knowledge of frontline fundraising and support services that are important for fundraising success.
As a part of my series called “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started My Consulting Business ”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Schwartz.
Stephanie Schwartz leads Little Bean Group, a fundraising consulting firm located in Washington, DC. Stephanie helps organizations start, improve, and sustain their fundraising so they can achieve their goals. Stephanie has extensive experience in raising transformational gifts and stewarding donors for long-term organizational engagement.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Like many people who work in fundraising, I didn’t set out with that career path in mind. I was looking for a job and the hiring manager of an advocacy organization asked me, “how do you feel about asking people for money”? I was fine with that idea! The rest is history.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I am struck by the diversity in people and organizations that contact me. Just in the last week I heard from people in Australia and Vancouver who reached out to seek fundraising advice. It’s so interesting for me to hear from people far and wide.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Several years ago, I worked in higher-education fundraising. My boss there who was the most the savvy, thoughtful person I had ever met. He was adept at leading large staff meetings, building deep personal relationships, and navigating complicated organizational politics. He believed in my skills as well as my ability to execute. He was incredibly generous with his time and helped me become a stronger analytical thinker. Now that I run my own consulting firm, he jokes that he wants to come work for me. But I wouldn’t have had the confidence to go out on my own without the skills I learned from him.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Margaret Mead said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I work daily with organizations comprised of thoughtful, committed citizens who want to improve our world. Helping them raise the funds they need to do their important work is a real honor.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Almost every non-profit, organization, and institution needs to raise funds to achieve its mission. Fundraising is hard. It’s a pain point for organizational leaders. I work with organizations to improve their fundraising capacity. I develop strategies to grow an organization’s fundraising capabilities, help organizations to scale their fundraising, and also identify solutions to challenges and impediments to successful fundraising.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My company focuses on delivering deeply personalized fundraising expertise for our clients. We work hard to determine exactly what approach will generate the best results. We engage with the organization at all points throughout an engagement. This strategy means that we are closely aligned with the organization at all times. I find that other consulting companies have a more rigid, structured approach that they bring to each client. I prefer a more tailored, custom approach.
When you first started the business, what drove you, what was your primary motivation?
My initial primary motivation was to create a sustainable business and prove to myself that I had a viable business model. In doing so, I went after every piece of work I could find in order to build my business.
What drives you now? Is it the same? Did it change? Can you explain what you mean?
Now I am more driven by finding work that is meaningful to me. I seek out organizations whose missions are important to me. I am also motivated by work that is varied in scope, meaning that I like to work with organizations at different points in the development process. It’s fun to work with small organizations looking to launch their fundraising efforts as well as with more established organizations who want to take their fundraising to the next level.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am working on a project with a community-based organization. The CEO is committed to community outreach and social justice. It is exciting to work on a project that will directly benefit my city and community.
Does your company have a sales team? If yes, do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
I’m the sales team!There are parallels between sales and fundraising — follow-up is key. Always do what you say you will do and do it promptly.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
It’s important for me to be clear about what services I offer and what services I don’t. There are many fundraising consulting firms that provide all types of services. As a small business, I can do many things, but not all. Therefore, I clearly communicate my services and areas of expertise. When I have been approached by clients whose needs don’t align with my skillset and work, I am glad to refer the work to another consultant. In doing so, I create a better match for the client.
Based on your experience, can you share a few strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
First, communication is key. Take the time to talk through your approach and strategy. Lay out what you plan to do and then pause for feedback. Really engage the client in conversation. Listen! Don’t just assume that you know what is needed. Then, make sure to check in regularly and seek feedback. Ask directly if your approach is meeting their needs. I find that it is much better to communicate clearly and course-correct than to let issues fester. Not tackling issues head-on leads to frustration on both sides.
Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started My Consulting Business”. Please share a story or an example for each.
1. You will likely not make any money for a while. It took me about 5 months before I had a paying client, and it was a small project. Be patient and don’t panic, just keep working to make connections and talking about your work.
2. Be crystal clear regarding what services you offer and what services you don’t. Honing in on your particular skills helps you position yourself as an expert and differentiate yourself from your competitors. I focus my work on “fundraising strategy”, a broad category, but one that captures both my knowledge of frontline fundraising and support services that are important for fundraising success.
3. It’s ok to make mistakes. Early on I hired a contractor to perform a project. I was not happy with the result. I learned from that experience how to better set expectations with people I bring on to help me with my work.
4. Keep yourself organized: track expenses, revenue, projects etc. I just recently found the software systems that work for me — a combination of Honeybook and QuickBooks. I wish I had begun using these systems earlier rather than tracking things manually.
5. Work ebbs and flows. Sometimes my work is very busy and other times it’s a bit slower. I wish I had known to expect this change of pace. Now I see it as an opportunity. When I am less busy with client work, I have more time for business development and writing. When I am busier with client work, I bring in more revenue. Now that my consulting business is two years old, I finally feel like I have a better understand of the tempo of the work.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d like to trigger a movement for more local philanthropic giving that benefits those directly in our community. In my area alone, there are many families who are struggling to make ends meet. I’d love to inspire local giving to help those families and have that effort be a force-multiplier throughout neighborhoods in DC and beyond.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Michelle Obama. I admire her courage, openness, and commitment to important issues. She actually lives near me in DC and I always hope to catch a glimpse of her around town.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!