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Guest Post: Minna Jung, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation

Some of my best friends are consultants.  (No, really.  I can name names!)  Which makes me hesitate a little bit before confessing the following:  getting pitched by consultants for business drives me absolutely batty.

Ever since I began my job as communications director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, in September 2010, I’ve been pitched almost daily for business.  Phone calls.  Endless emails.  Drop-by visits, even.   Everyone begging me for a meeting, or a phone call.  Graphic designers, communications/public relations firms, people who want to help me with media lists, with web sites, with our social media strategies, videographers, photographers—you name it, it feels like the whole consulting/PR world is beating a path to my door.

I find this endless pitching irritating. I find it especially irritating when someone won’t take no for an answer.  If I say to someone straight out, I’m not looking for this type of service right now, and I’m way too busy to meet with you,  so I will keep your name on file for future reference, many of them will ping right back to me and say, “Are you less busy now?  Can we meet now?”  With the subtext being, I know that if I could just get in the door and have a half hour of your time, you’d be so dazzled by the work that my company does, you’ll wonder how you ever existed without me.

Here’s the dilemma:  one, I have a soft spot for people who are trying to make a living.  I know that for many of these consultants and firms, they have no choice but to pitch.  How else are they to grow new business?  And then there’s the issue of fairness and openness:  foundations tend to play favorites.  The philanthropic sector is a networked sector.  We pass around recommendations to each other about which firms and consultants we like.  So it can feel like new firms and consultants hardly ever get a shot with us, even if it’s not true. But I really prefer dealing with the fairness issue by encouraging foundation staff, and grantees, to put out communications work for bid, with RFPs.  RFP processes are giant pains to execute (does anyone really feel like reading twenty proposals, and sometimes conducting in-person interviews?), and giant pains for firms and consultants to respond to, but I often find them worthwhile.

However:  I don’t want to paint all consultants and firms with the same brush.  Not every consultant and vendor is aggressive about pitching, and I’d be the first to admit that so much of the work foundations support would not be possible without consultants and vendors.  I’ve worked on big and small communications initiatives with lots of different types of consultants and vendors, and many times I’ve been humbled by and appreciative of what they’ve brought to the table.  In fact, I’m sponsoring a breakout session on this topic at the upcoming fall Network conference in Boston, so people can talk about the highs and the lows of working with consultants and firms.

I will say that I am puzzled by how much I’m getting pitched in this job as opposed to when I was at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for almost ten years.  While I was at RWJF, I had more substantial communications budgets to directly manage—here at Packard, it’s a different, less centralized approach to strategic communications, so believe me, I’m not just hoarding resources that are just crying out for the hiring of consultants.  So maybe this is a case of mistaken identity—like, posting a classified ad that indicates you’re single when you’re not?

In any event, I’d love to hear from Network members—from foundations and consultants—about what you think about the pitch.  Does this just happen to me?  Is this just a reality of this job that I need to learn to live with, or do you have tips on how to better manage?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Minna Jung is communications director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and a director of the Communications Network

 

8 Comments

  1. Keneta AndersonKeneta Anderson07-25-2011

    I can’t think of any instances when someone who’s cold-called me has proven to be a gem, so I tend to ask them politely to move right along. I just keep scanning for work I admire (outside the foundation world too), find out who generated it, and invite the consultant/vendor to meet when the time is right. This approach doesn’t fully solve the “echo chamber” problem you mentioned, but it does tend produce a few options to add to other referrals without sitting through a bunch of pitches/sorting through a bunch of proposals.
    I’m a consultant myself, and was pitched at this year’s annual Council on Foundations conference by someone who is working to create a certification process and directory of consultants who would bear COF’s stamp of approval. She asked me to join the cause and was so enthusiastic I couldn’t quite bring myself to tell her I think it’s a horrible idea. Inevitably, that type of thing becomes a directory of large firms plus a few “C+” independent vendors. If it gains too much traction, the “A+” independent consultants are pressured to part with time and money simply so no one will wonder why they’re *not* certified. It creates the appearance of a strong resource but doesn’t really get at the more important problem: how do you find vendors who are great?

  2. DVStrategiesDVStrategies07-25-2011

    The people who keep showing up at Minna’s doorstep must have been inspired by that scene in the original “Wall Street” where Charlie Sheen appears at Michael Douglas’ office and waits…and waits. And we know how that turned out.
    Having been in Minna’s shoes as a former director of strategic communications at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and now as an independent consultant, I do feel her pain. Many consultants/contractors have little idea of the inner workings of foundations so when they see the title, VP/Dir/Czarina of Communications, they presume that’s the office to call. They don’t understand that resources are often divided among program officers, discretionary budgets, as well as those of the communications department.
    Perhaps one solution might be to host an annual vendor day at the foundation, where consultants could display their wares, and your communications team and program colleagues would browse through and interact with vendors who attend. This could turn out to be a useful resource for program staff who usually know little about the range of communications disciplines. Another suggestion would be to add a blurb on your website for vendors that states: “The X Foundation rarely accepts unsolicited proposals for communications and professional services. If you wish to submit a proposal, please send it by mail and we will respond if interested.”
    I have met several “cold callers” who did turn out to be gems because they understood our foundation’s priorities, what programs had available resources, and who did what on our communications team. Just like those communications folks who don’t research or understand a journalist’s interest before pitching, clueless consultants can count on being bad-mouthed and ignored.
    Despite that, there’s no excuse for rudeness (the old-fashioned term for not taking “No” for an answer.) And I don’t think we can blame the economy or social media for the onslaught and bad manners. Well, not completely.
    Dana Vickers Shelley

  3. David BrothertonDavid Brotherton07-25-2011

    As a former foundation communications director turned consultant, I feel your pain, Minna. I am constantly amazed (and sometimes embarrassed) by other consultants who think self promotion and aggressive badgering are the way to win business. Clearly, such tactics do not work – and those who employ them give other consultants a bad reputation. (Though in my view, RFPs are not always the solution for finding the best talent either. But that’s a gripe I’ll save for another post.)
    In professional life, and especially in our cozy little sector of philanthropy, good work must be earned. Contracts aren’t won by cold calling and they don’t fall from the sky. The best path to earning business starts with demonstrating competence, being responsive to the unique needs of your foundation clients and solving problems creatively and efficiently when called upon.
    Good communication often requires more listening than talking. And I, for one, hear you loud and clear. I’ll see you at your session in Boston!

  4. Joanne Edgar, Gathering Stories for Social ChangeJoanne Edgar, Gathering Stories for Social Change07-29-2011

    First of all, full disclosure: Minna Jung and I ran the Office of Communications at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. I subsequently reinvented myself as a consultant, working exclusively with foundations and nonprofits. Minna moved onward and upward in the foundation world.
    My second true confession: I hate pitching. This character trait may possibly make me a lousy consultant, but like most human beings, I prefer to be wooed.
    In the real world, of course, consultants must make the case for getting work. Some of us are better at this than others; a few are, no doubt, inexcusably relentless and impolite.
    However, since foundations and consultants do need each other, I have a couple of suggestions that could possibly lead to a more positive, synergistic relationship:
    • FOR CONSULTANTS: We need to target what we have to offer and focus our pitches. And we absolutely must do our research: learn how the foundation works, where they use consultants and for what topics. In addition, although the squeaky wheel makes noise, being a pain in the ass is not the ticket to a long-term relationship, which for me at least, is how I like to work.
    • FOR FOUNDATIONS: Although it is the consultants’ responsibility to search the foundation’s website and get familiar with program areas, communication officers can help us learn “how” you work, particularly how you work with consultants. If you don’t work with consultants at all, let us know that upfront. If you do work with consultants, it would help us if you develop a process (not a full RFP) to streamline our communication with you. You could, for example, put a Consultancy Opportunities link on your website and describe specifically what you are looking for and how we should respond and by when. This would save you – and us – valuable time. (It would also help with unfocused, cold pitches as well. Just send people to this page on the website.)
    I feel very fortunate in my career to have philanthropic work I care about and foundation colleagues I deeply respect. I have carved out a consulting niche that works for me. I have had to do little in the way of cold pitching, although I always explain what I can bring to the table and show how my piece of the communication pie will help the foundation achieve its goals. Which is, in the end, the bottom line for both consultants and foundations.
    What a great topic to explore at the Boston meeting.
    Joanne Edgar
    New York City

    • Gabriela FitzGabriela Fitz08-16-2011

      Joanne:

      I love this idea of posting consultancy opportunities. Like you, I hate pitching and am horrible at it but know that there are projects where I could really add value.

      The cold call is misery for everyone, so why not give folks who you may not know a chance to answer to a very specific project and show you what they’ve got? Why do you think so few foundations (or nonprofits for that matter) post their opportunities?

      Gabi

  5. Roxanne JoffeRoxanne Joffe07-30-2011

    Getting inquiries is a fundamental within the foundation world. Whether it’s an organization seeking an audience for funding prospects, or an investment advisor hoping for an appointment to manage assets. I feel that we all have a responsibility to be courteous and direct on behalf of the foundation’s interest. Communications professionals have the added luxury of managing the public face of the organization – so it is incumbent on us to be all the more clear about opportunities for communications support.

  6. Marc FestMarc Fest08-16-2011

    I want to second Roxanne’s comment. It’s important to stay courteous, patient and open-minded — especially for us foundation folks who have the money and the power. I try to err on the side of spending two kind minutes on another phone call, rather than to say “I’m too busy, don’t call me again.”

  7. Rich NeimandRich Neimand08-16-2011

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. Many years ago I finally sat down and traced where all of our work came from—the project that led to another project. One was helping Charlie Cook market his Political Report. The other was a small messaging project for The Nature Conservancy. None of the hundreds of projects we did since came from a cold call. Only one came from an RFP. Zero came from PR and self-promotion.

    So I took our marketing budget—roughly 10% of gross income—and dedicated it to two things: 1) Over-delivering on existing projects; and 2) Taking on projects that interested us that we would otherwise not afford to take on.

    This means that we get to do cool stuff and make an impact instead of doing lunches and pitches that are fattening and deflating respectively. And, it means that we control our future. Do a great job and get hired. Do a bad job and set yourself back a year or two.

    So, I’m going to take your post and show it to my colleagues here who make fun of my one remaining stab at marketing: Stare At The Phone. Here’s how it works. We finish up projects and I wonder where the future ones are going to come from. That night I sort of toss and turn in bed. I get into the office in a funk, turn off the email, don’t even bother to open up Safari and then stare at the phone until lunch. Within two days it rings and off we go.

    Crazy? Yes. But it works for a business that is more of a calling.

    –Rich Neimand
    Neimand Collaborative

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