As Lighthouse Counsel concludes its celebration of 20 years in service to the nonprofit sector, President Jeff Jowdy can’t help but feel great gratitude for the blessings he and his team have received over the past two decades.
Since founding Lighthouse in 1999, Jowdy has built a team dedicated to professional excellence and fueled by unabashed passion for the nonprofit sector and the life-changing and life-saving impact it has across the whole of our society.
“The entire team at Lighthouse Counsel knows that pursuing excellence makes a transformational difference in our ability to serve,” Jowdy says. “We look at our profession as a higher calling. I am very fortunate to have a team excited for the opportunity to work closely with our clients to literally change the world in ways both large and small.
“Collectively they bring decades of experience, ongoing education and collaboration in our core services of fundraising, strategic planning and board development,” he says. “More importantly, they share a heartfelt desire to ‘be the change,’ and that inspires them to take on each client and each cause as a deeply personal priority.”
The Lighthouse team is a carefully curated combination of professionals from around the country who specialize in various aspects of fundraising, development and nonprofit leadership. Director of Marketing and Operations Chris Willis says the agency has been around so long thanks, in part, to a finely honed team dedicated to doing whatever it takes to help clients succeed.
Abit Massey, president emeritus of the Georgia Poultry Federation, agrees, crediting his friend and colleague with putting together a team of professionals who are as committed as their leader.
“Jeff and his team truly understand the importance of nonprofit organizations and being of service to others to improve life for as many people as possible,” Massey says. “They are not just doing a great job, but they are excited to see things happen in a worthwhile way. They become completely involved in whatever they’re doing at the time.”
Along with a strong foundation grounded in best practices seasoned with successful experience, the Lighthouse Counsel team shares a commitment to data-based strategizing. Without data, Jowdy says, providing highly customized guidance and strategy is impossible.
A personal touch, crafted from intricate data collection, analysis and management, is what allows Lighthouse Counsel to shine. Without it, fundraising and development approaches tend to be “cookie cutter,” Jowdy says: “Experience shows that a cookie-cutter approach is no different than a roll of the dice to see if the stars align and, by chance, you are successful.”
Lighthouse Counsel has worked with more than 150 clients over the past 20 years, guiding them adroitly through strategic planning; feasibility studies; board development; major gifts; donor communications and engagement; planned and endowment giving; prospective donor research; campaigns; foundation research and grant writing; and alumni and other constituent services.
A common theme among those clients is their appreciation of the personal touch that Lighthouse Counsel brings to each of its engagements, calling it a refreshing change from the one-size-fits-all approach.
Jeff Jackson, now president of the Georgia Independent School Association, was the headmaster at Atlanta’s Mount Vernon Presbyterian Academy when the school retained Lighthouse Counsel to lead its strategic-planning process following completion of its campus expansion. He is quick to note the difference between Lighthouse’s personalized care and attention and the less-so approach of an agency that he had worked with previously.
“At our first strategy planning meeting [with the other agency], the consultant was embarrassed,” Jackson said, “because he gave out a plan that obviously was from a template – and he had forgotten to take out the previous client’s name. What Lighthouse Counsel brings to the table is one-on-one, personal attention,” Jackson shares. “They work to understand you, your organization and your unique culture instead of just trying to do the same thing for you that they did for someone else.”
Lighthouse subsequently gave the same personal attention when it went on to work with the annual fund director when the school was without an advancement director. Both projects fared extremely well, even better than expected. And the school’s annual fund increased by 50 percent in one year.
The US Poultry Foundation is among the many Lighthouse Counsel clients that share similar success. After an intense national search, US Poultry partnered with the firm for a campaign feasibility and planning study. What it discovered was that while there was support for the foundation’s programs, there was a need for deeper engagement and understanding of the association’s work among key industry leaders. Lighthouse Counsel recommended a one-year cultivation program to prepare for the eventual endowment campaign.
“We were delighted to work with Lighthouse Counsel on our first-ever endowment campaign,” says John Starkey, president of the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association. “They were flexible, strategic and got to know our culture. With a great team of volunteer leaders and Lighthouse’s sound counsel, we doubled our campaign goal.”
Not being afraid to have those “difficult” conversations – the ones where clients might have to face facts they might not have wanted to face or even known about – is an asset that Lighthouse brings to its engagements.
“Lighthouse Counsel’s longevity can be directly attributed to Jeff’s leadership. He tells you the truth. He doesn’t equivocate. He’s relentless on what has to be done, even it’s not popular,” says Ralph Schulz, president and CEO, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Lighthouse’s trademarked InFocus Campaign Feasibility and Planning Study is a hallmark of its dedication to making the best possible moves in its clients’ best interests – even if that means having those difficult conversations.
“We consider each engagement as an obligation to the client – not only to the CEO or development officer but also to the board, who holds the institution in trust for the public good,” Jowdy says. “It is our responsibility to collaborate and share not only great news and insights but also, at times, findings and recommendations that they may not want to hear.
“One of our resolutions as we move into our 21st year is that as we talk to clients and prospective clients, we are committed to asking a simple question: ‘Are you willing to listen to our counsel?’” Jowdy explains. “We have incredible, wonderful clients who have experienced dramatic success. In every case when they followed our counsel, they have experienced success beyond what was expected or planned.”
Belinda Dinwiddie Havron, now director of donor engagement at the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, recalls Lighthouse’s no-nonsense approach from when she was chief development and marketing officer at Tennessee’s Adventure Science Center.
“Jeff and his team are always very professional, always prepared,” she shares. “They truly evaluate things and are honest. They don’t give you information you want to hear; they give you information that you need.”
The Lighthouse Counsel team is committed to ensuring early on that the client relationship will go well and the campaign will succeed. “At the end of the day, if the client is not willing to listen to professional counsel, then they are no better off with us,” he explains candidly.
Cookie-cutter strategies and taking the path of least resistance to appease clients are two questionable and unfortunate attributes that Jowdy sees as a plague in the nonprofit consulting landscape. “It’s up to those on the inside to focus more intensely on professionalizing fundraising,” he says. Doing so not only helps individual clients succeed, but also builds public trust in the sector.
He believes the U.S. nonprofit sector is at a crossroads. Giving is stagnating, despite all the new channels and mediums, despite the numerous conferences and webinars and whitepapers, and despite the growing number of agencies and consultancies offering their services.
“There’s a crisis in leadership,” Jowdy says. There are incredible staff and board leaders. However, there are also board members who serve for personal gain. CEOs who don’t listen to advice. And development professionals who don’t really know their craft or are not willing to stand up for the profession to their CEOs or board members.
“There are consultants who don’t uphold the highest level of integrity and who take short cuts on projects,” Jowdy says, citing nonprofit leadership that tries to forgo campaign feasibility and planning studies. Lighthouse remains committed to those studies and has turned away revenue for choosing to not work with organizations that aren’t.
Jowdy maintains that he has repeatedly seen first-hand “the unsurpassed value of that research and cultivation” and insists that a client agrees to it.
He also bemoans colleagues who take a “celebrity approach” to their work, who “fly in and offer magic elixirs” for a quick fix rather than positioning the organization to succeed long after the agency relationship ends.
The firm has earned a reputation of integrity, professionalism, consistency and a stalwart appreciation for basics – most notably relationship building.
“Jeff is someone you want to get to know. He is a man of integrity who is committed to offering the best guidance. The longevity of Lighthouse Counsel is due to the successful outcomes they bring.” says Howard Ragsdale, Lighthouse Counsel advisory board member.
“Jeff is very well connected all over the country,” says Joan Bahner, former vice president of advancement for Fisk University and now senior consultant at Lighthouse Counsel, who met Jowdy as a client years ago. “He’s built a team that knows just as much about fundraising, the rules, the basics, as the larger agencies, but they never forget the personal touch. Their approach is always personal and personable, and they always follow through.”
Susan Hosbach, chief development officer of the Adventure Science Center, agrees that Lighthouse Counsel has a commitment to relationship building, as well as a consistently professional approach: “I always know what I’m going to get when I work with Lighthouse Counsel, and that makes me feel confident,” she says. “I know that I’m going to get consistency, going to get the facts. It’s not going to be a lot of flowers and puffery – but solid, important information.”
Phil Pfeffer, a proud member of the Lighthouse Counsel advisory board, agrees that deep knowledge of the communities clients serve – no matter where they are or what size – is a critical element of the agency’s success and longevity.
“They have a very good knowledge of the marketplace and the capacity of the [key players] to support a particular nonprofit or campaign,” Pfeffer says. “They know what realistically can be done and what might be capable of being done.”
One question that Jowdy fields often is why he chose a lighthouse to be the symbol of his agency. Partly it’s because he has fond memories of growing up on the coasts of Connecticut and North Carolina.
But more importantly, the lighthouse reflects Jowdy’s thoughts about his clients and the nonprofit sector. He believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them.
“We truly believe that our clients are beacons of light to those they serve,” he says. “And it is our job to guide them to greater success through turbulent waters.”