Does Your Fundraising House Need a Remodel? When to Hire a General Contractor vs. DIY

diy how to project management Feb 07, 2022

With Google, YouTube, and the blogosphere, it’s easier than ever to DIY just about everything. Fundraising is no different. I often encourage clients to Google things and use the internet to help them brainstorm or overcome hurdles. What I do find, however, is that there is great confusion around the topic of when to hire a professional, like myself or Mission By Design, and when to DIY your project. One of the best skills needed is the ability to determine when NOT to do it yourself.

To achieve this, I am going to draw an analogy around a home renovation project - doing it yourself or hiring a general contractor.


While we all want to be like Chip and Joanna Gaines and "Magnolia" the heck of out our homes… gutting a place, taking out walls, reconfiguring a kitchen, and even the interior design isn’t always in our God-given skill set. In addition, the timeline might not match up – while you may be very capable of learning to drywall by watching videos, removing your walls and learning as you go may not be a luxury you can afford. Leaving your house torn apart for months on end may not be worth the savings. Step one is to be honest with your own skills and the scope/timeline of the project. It’s usually safe to say that if you have a relatively large project in mind, like taking out a wall, adding a room, or a project that involves heavy machinery, turning to professionals is usually a good choice. The same goes for fundraising. If you are trying to take on a large fundraising endeavor (like a capital campaign), fix a problem that seems to persist (like a decreasing annual appeal), overcome a hurdle that you haven’t been able to do on your own (engaging donors using your database), if you are in a development position without amble outside experience (working your way up), or if you are looking to restructure a department or build a team, the scope is likely too large for one person or even a group to undertake without guidance.


When you have the scope and timeline in mind, if you do need help, it’s time to think about a general contractor or an expert. In the construction industry, these are called contractors and subcontractors. How do you choose? Subcontractors, or experts, are good to come in and fix one thing. Unclog a sink, for example. These are people you find and hire for a small project. For fundraising, this might be someone to come in and re-design a brochure that is already written.

If your scope is bigger you are going to want help planning or overseeing the various elements – that can save you time and money. We call this project management. Think of it like this: If you want to renovate your bathroom… you can hire a plumber to change out the toilet and re-work the plumbing. But what happens when the plumber needs to cut a new hole in the drywall, then it needs to be repaired. Some plumbers can do a respectable job, but it’s likely you will want to hire someone else. Then, you need to change out your light fixture and exhaust fan. That’s an electrician’s specialty.  If you want to update the flooring, you may want to work with someone who can lay tile or who has a wet saw. You must know to lay the tile before putting in the toilet and you may need to know the size and height of your sink and the fixture placement before the tile is in place. Otherwise, you may be your own worst enemy. These services could be one handyman, or they can be multiple people, but there is a benefit to planning things out and having an action plan. You can typically save both time and money by knowing the overall strategy in advance. Fundraising is no different. A general contractor can help you figure out what order to do things, oversee the execution, work out deals with the sub-contractors, provide value-added tips and tricks along the way, and speed the completion of the goal. A good contractor will be worth their fee just as a sub-contractor will be. Mission By Design serves as both at different times.  


Just like the construction industry, sub-contractors could be employees or contractors of the general contractor… and fundraising, again, is no different. Some fundraising firms do things in-house and others contract them out. It is usually the rule of thumb that in-house you do whatever you can do better/more affordably or add significant value, and you outsource other things. Capital campaign companies often hire marketing companies, photographers, videographers, etc. – but they do the strategy internally. Mission by Design, a general contracting firm I founded for nonprofit marketing and fundraising, does things similarly. With a team of strategists and managers, depending on the budget and the timeframe, they do some things in-house and outsource when necessary. Because they have done these things hundreds of times, they have their go-to people who are tested and true. They won’t be on Yelp figuring out who we need to work with! This helps them to assure results for their services which DIYers cannot do.

As the client, you are able to hire these companies as contractors – no need to pay, insure, or cover the overhead of anyone. You make one payment and you are done. There is no long-term commitment as there would be with an employee.


A good measure of your need to hire a contractor is the “sleep at night test.” I call it the “gut check.” If you can sleep at night with confidence that your project, effort, mission, etc. will be taken care of and things will work out, your DIY efforts are probably ample. If you’re hesitant (for example of your or some team members' skillsets, or the tight timeline, of the pressure associated with needing to succeed, etc.) you should consider interviewing a contractor.

Good contractors can totally provide peace of mind because their knowledge and experience bring confidence and assurance that you will meet your goal, or they will do anything they need to get you there. But they also bring practical and qualifiable value to the process: experience, expertise, licenses, insurance, history, know-how, tips, tricks, etc. If you act as the general contractor yourself, you assume the responsibility for the end project by yourself. I notice a huge stress relief comes from the fact that when nonprofits hire Mission By Design or another reputable company for a project, responsibility is shared. If something goes haywire during the process the nonprofit knows the contractor will be with them to overcome the obstacles and fix the issues.


Some things, such as planned and structured giving, are complex. Tax laws change and so do many of the underlying benefits of some gifts over others. Just as you would want your new home addition to have permits and be up to code before occupying your space, fundraising professionals will come with the right licenses, skills, and knowledge to make sure your solicitations and operations are up to the right standards. This expertise saves you both time and trouble of having to learn on the spot or be forced to hire someone in a pinch.


Contractors bring with them a huge advantage… They've done it before. If the scope of your project, your timeline, the skills and knowledge needed, or your gut is telling you to consider seeking help… it’s probably a good idea. A contractor should be able to express their value, and hiring them should save you time, money, or sanity (or all three!). It’s always prudent to research and get a bid before undertaking something alone. From initial planning to final details a fundraising project manager will oversee and manage the project workflow like a conductor would manage an orchestra. They understand the entire composition from start to finish, how it fits into the whole and, they cue different musicians when it's their turn to take the lead. The best conductors should all have some musical skills and knowhow to play many, if not all, of the instruments themselves. This experience makes them better at their trade. I, of course, recommend Mission By Design. I am biased for sure, but I started it to address the issues that I see in this process. All of their strategists have been and are currently working in the trenches of nonprofits – keeping their skills honed and up to date.

It’s up to you to decide if you need professional help or want to DIY it like a boss. There are no right and wrong answers. If you need help with managing a nonprofit project… I encourage you to reach out - I am here to talk you through the process and see if your project may be a good fit for a third-party contractor or if you can do it on your own. If I can alleviate some stress or worry from your project, I stand ready to get you through to success.