Contracts: you can’t live with ‘em, you can’t live without ‘em.
Back in my fundraising paycheck life, I had a major real estate developer as a donor. On one visit, I caught him right after a protracted negotiation for a significant project. He said (to paraphrase)
“Contracts are funny things. If everything’s going great, nobody cares about the contract. When things are bad, everyone hates the contract! Still, you gotta have a contract.”
Yes, still, you gotta have a contract.
Could you do work without one? Sure. Would I recommend it? No way! There are at least seven reasons for you to have a contract on your next nonprofit consulting job:
- It could be required by law. In fundraising in particular, more than 30 US states have laws requiring contract between nonprofits and fundraising consultants. Does yours?
- It tells everyone you are a professional. Nothing says “I’m real” than a contract. A contract moves your work (in the eyes of your client) from a hobby to a business.
- It removes any confusion that you may be volunteering your services. This is important to clarify in a sector where volunteering is part of the labor force. With a contract up front, there’s no confusion at the end of a job when you present your client with a bill.
- It makes you take your work more seriously. “I have a contract to fulfill” maybe what gets your attention to get the job done.
- It can make you look good. If you say in your contract, for example, “only three re-writes,” you look great if you “make an exception” and give them four or five.
- It prevents abuse of your time. A contract defines exactly what your job is. Like nonprofits can suffer “mission creep,” you can suffer “job creep,” if what you are expected to do is not well defined in the contract.
- It draws a definite end date. The best contracts end on a specific date. It’s not to say you can’t extend them, but a clear date gives you (and your client) the means to rethink your relationship. After all, you may need an “out” if you don’t like working with a client.
What’s a good contract look like? This is where I’m going to send you to your attorney. S/he probably has some templates for you to review that are specific to consulting. If you are in fundraising (or even if you are not), many contracts must be filed with the state. That makes them public documents, so you may be able to request a sample from the state agency handling fundraising consultant registration. And while you’re at it (again, if you are a fundraiser) make sure that your contract covers the required points as mandated by the state in which your client resides. At least one state (New York) has a form which must be included in all fundraising counsel and solicitor contracts. Most states put their fundraising counsel or fundraising solicitor contract requirement on the same, or linked website, as the website that addresses nonprofit fundraising registration. Oh, and again for fundraisers, don’t forget to register in that state as a fundraising counsel or solicitor (or whatever they call you), if it is required.
So… should you have a contract? Yeah. Are contracts fun? No. But like my friend and donor said, you gotta have ’em.