Consultants are NOT Created Equal
Today’s ever-increasing demands for accountability, efficiency and effectiveness compels many nonprofit leaders to seek assistance from people and organizations with the expertise they lack. This needed knowledge may come from an open-enrollment workshop, such as those offered by the Nonprofit Resource Network. Though public training sessions provide information at low cost, their disadvantage is the diverse audiences they attract—with participants bringing a wide variety of needs/problems to address. To meet specific agency needs, then, organizations may retain a consultant to provide tailored, one-on-one analysis and assistance.
Though consultants are sometimes employed to do the work generally done by staff (e.g. grant writing, accounting, etc.), they are more likely to be hired for coaching, training and teaching in a particular area of knowledge. Once engaged, they identify current issues and to design a course of action that propels the organization to its “desired state.” They then assist the agency in developing the structure and processes needed to strengthen and maintain its improved status.
Regardless of the consultant’s role, however, the organization should guard against magical thinking. Simply bringing a consultant on board does not create miracles. In fact, sometimes the work does not get done at all or is completed unsatisfactorily. Factors contributing to negative results include but are not limited to: 1) the lack of a clear contract between the consultant and the agency, 2) underestimating the amount of time needed for meaningful results; and 3) one consultant trying to be “all things to all people.”
The truth? All consultants are not created equal. So before the recruitment process, the agency should clearly define the needed intervention. This needs assessment should involve as many stakeholders of the organization as possible—not just the executive director. In fact, when the board of directors supports the need to invest in outside resources, the entire process has a much greater likelihood of success than if they are not engaged.
Agencies should also delineate their desired outcomes. Consultants should be brought in to create the process that will lead you to those identified results. A good consultant will interview the director, key staff and board members—asking the pertinent questions related to your goals. Their proposal for change should inspire organizational confidence that results will be attained.
“Good Consultant” Qualities
Most consultants develop skills in a one to three specialty areas (e.g. fundraising, board development, strategic planning). Before hiring a consultant, agencies should ensure expertise in the area where they need help. Knowing—and liking—an individual should not be the primary criteria for making the hiring decision. Likewise the cost of the engagement should not be the determining factor. Many organizations have employed “specialists” based on cost, only to receive a substandard product of little use to ongoing operations.
Ideally, the chosen specialist should share the overall values of the organization or demonstrate the willingness to actively engage in learning about the unique culture and circumstances of the agency, staff, board and clients. Most important: the consultant’s main goals should be to build the organization’s capacity.
The selected expert should have a proven track record. Past clients can provide accurate reports provided the reference checks ask questions regarding overall results. For example:
- What impact did this consultant’s work have on the organization?
- Was your identified problem or concern satisfactorily resolved?
The consultant should be a professional not related to the organization in any way. For example, this person should not be an agency staff member, board member, advisory board member or consumer of agency services. This outside perspective is critical in providing a neutral and objective voice.
Steps to Making the BEST Selection
Step 1: Face-to-face Interviews
Once a few consultants have been identified, organization representatives should meet with each of them to determine whether or not he or she is good for the job. Most consultants will not charge for an initial meeting and this interview process can shed light on the person interviewed and can clarify the issues of the agency.
Step 2: Mutual Agreement
Ultimately, an agreement should be met in a number of different areas before you decide who to hire:
The Problem: What problem(s) will be addressed through this engagement? Be clear. Be concise.
The Objective: What precisely will be achieved through this process? What is the “desired state” of the organization?
- How will the consultant work with agency representatives to attain the stated objectives?
- Will there be regular meetings or conference calls?
- Who will participate and where will the work take place?
In the initial phase, at least one of the following methods should be implemented to determine the “present/current” state of the organization:
- One-on-one Interviews (In person or by phone)
- Focus Groups
- Requests for agency documentation such as mission/vision statements, meeting minutes, current strategic plan
The Timeline: How long with this engagement last?
- What is the beginning date?
- What is the end date?
- What, if appropriate,, are the interim reporting deadlines?
3. Written Proposal
Based on the discussions in Steps 1 and 2, the consultant should develop a writing proposal that addresses each point in writing. Organization representatives should closely read this proposal to ensure that the process’ “desired end” is clearly stated, along with steps that will be taken to reach that goal.
To assist with this process, the agency should present their expectations in writing so that each interviewee starts from the same premise.
4. Consultant Comparison
The organization should obtain written proposals from three or more consultants to provide the data needed for comparison. The ultimate goal of this process is to determine which consultant is best for THIS job. If one consultant seems to be the best “fit” for the agency, but the proposal does not adequately meet either pricing or process requirements, negotiation and clarification should take place. Both the organization and the consultant must clearly understand the terms of the contract before an agreement is reached.
Once the “right” expert has been chosen for a project, other interviewees who submitted proposals should be contacted—a basic courtesy that will maintain relationships that may be needed in the future.
Essential Ingredients to Success
Agency representatives must be truthful about the all aspects of situation that the consultant will be working with. Personal and group shortcomings should be candidly discussed in order for the engagement to produce the best results.
Openness to New Ideas
Agency representatives must be willing to explore new ideas and theories of practice, keeping an eye on organizational vision and how the ideas may help to further its mission.
Commitment to Implementation and Follow Through
For greatest success, the organization must commit to implementing the recommendations that come out of the consulting engagement. Evaluating the resources needed for implementation should start during the initial stage so that the agency and the consultant can determine the scope of the engagement. And this resource evaluation should occur throughout the engagement process to ensure that the agency can manage the work when the consultant is no longer part of the process.