Like Salt in a Recipe, a Great Consultant is Your Most Important Ingredient

My three great loves are food, travel, and fundraising.  I could try to measure their value in a quantitative fashion – how many places have I traveled to, how many Michelin-starred meals have I eaten, how much money have I raised?  With all three, I’d be missing the point completely if I tried to simplify their value or measure their worth with simple metrics without of the context of the big picture.  Because all three feed the soul and give meaning to life in ways that can’t, and shouldn’t, be measured and evaluated in arithmetical isolation.  And, if you try, you miss the nuances, the details, the real benefits, and the magic completely.

This weekend, I took on the daunting task of spelling out my career and accomplishments in resume format.  I wanted a way to quantitate the value I’ve brought to my clients over the past two decades and this seemed like the socially acceptable way to brag and highlight my achievements.  I wanted to explain in clear and tidy bullet points that, though the majority of what my clients see is wrapped up neatly in the form of a fundraising event or successful campaign, what I really do is so much more: I fundraise, set sustainable strategy, provide creative solutions, manage branding and communications, build relationships and develop donor loyalty, lead committee meetings and guide exemplary volunteers to success. 

I failed.  Yes, I updated my LinkedIn and pulled together a summary and chronology of my work.  Yes, I created a basis of an impressive resume.  But rather than completing the project with a sense of accomplishment, I hit “Save” on my document and felt that I have failed as a professional.  How could I take credit for projects where so many people gave so much of themselves?  How would my clients feel reading that “I” had raised all the money and “I” was the reason for the success?  I’ve spent my career working both smarter and harder to raise critically needed funds for my non-profit clients while raising up the entire team and shining the light on others.  My mantra has been to showcase the organization and volunteers; in fact, for the first half of my career you couldn’t have even found my name on the project or event collateral.  So that begs the question – if I’ve spent my career elevating others, how do I now, neatly and succinctly, explain my value while still giving full credit to everyone else. How does someone say, ‘Yeah, the executive director and board and committee and staff all worked hard, but they couldn’t have done it without me’ without sounding like a complete pompous ass?  Even if my track record shows that to be pretty much (humbly) entirely true.

As a fund-raising consultant who has spent the better part of two decades producing successful and spectacular events, I am fairly well known for bringing the cocktails and caviar to a party. But when I really and truly think about what makes me a successful consultant and why even my best clients can’t quite put their finger on what it is that I do for them, I realize that it’s not the cocktails and caviar that are important, it’s the salt. I bring the salt and incorporate it masterfully.

Salt, according to countless stars in the culinary world, is the single most important ingredient in many dishes.  And also the most misunderstood.

The NY Times had a great article about salt and describes its “multidimensional relationship with flavor: It has its own taste, and it both balances and enhances the flavors of other ingredients.”

Salt bring out the best in other ingredients – from craft chocolate to dry aged beef to classic Caesar salad, to top-shelf cocktails…and even grandma’s chicken soup.  Salt elevates all of the other ingredients. And salt doesn’t just come in the form of plain table salt or sea salt or granules or crystals, it can come in the form of freshly grated parmesan on your pasta, the anchovies in the dressing, the prosciutto delicately wrapped around the perfectly blanched asparagus.  It’s complex, it’s delicate, it’s often misunderstood, underutilized and underappreciated.  And critically important. 

Celebrity Chef Charles Granquist said that “Teaching salt is incredibly difficult and it is the most important thing that you will get out of culinary school.”  I could say exactly the same about fundraising – bringing out the best in people and complex human relationships is incredibly difficult and also the most important secret to fundraising success.

If I think about my resume as a recipe, it’s easy to put salt at the very end of the ingredients list and mistakenly think it’s not all that important.  But without it, all of the other ingredients will fall flat, lack flavor, and ultimately won’t be worth the time and effort you put into crafting the dish.

Salt can’t be measured by the number of granules used in a dish any more than food and travel can be measure by number of trips taken or meals eaten.  Salt must be measured by the magic and mystery it serves in fully elevating other great ingredients to their fullest potential.

And like salt, my work can’t be measured solely on the dollars I’ve raise or the number of events I’ve produced or even by the years I’ve been honing my expertise.  Sometimes, the small contract that helped a client raise $60K is just as critical and complex as the huge gala that raised $600K.  And the capital campaign which may seem small on paper because it raised less than $1 million is actually huge because the creativity behind the campaign ensured access to healthcare in a small rural community with no donor base.  And sometimes projects fall flat because, no matter how well you salt it, the other ingredients just aren’t there to complete the dish.

So I’m going to share my professional success – and my resume – through the perspective of great recipes, passionately executed and perfectly salted, sometimes served as a simple caprese salad with tomatoes from the garden, sometimes a 5 course meal with tableside flambe. But worthy of a great review, nonetheless.

Bring out the best with the most important ingredient.