Success with Consultants Starts Here

Every nonprofit leader seems to have a consultant horror story. The fundraising consultant who promised to raise you lots of money, but instead left your overstretched development team with a long list of “to dos” ... The impressive management consultant who dazzled you in the sales process, and then tapped her less impressive junior colleague do all the work. The [anything] consultant who missed deadlines, went over budget, and drove you absolutely crazy. Unfortunately, the list could go on…

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way! A successful consulting engagement can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience and, more importantly, can add tremendous value to your organization’s work and mission. And as a nonprofit leader and a representative of the hiring organization, you have the power and ability to ensure you get what you expect from your consultants - every single time.

Over the next several weeks, we will be writing a series of blog posts on how you can partner effectively with consultants to advance your nonprofit’s effectiveness and impact. Tune in to get practical, step-by-step tips that will leave you, your team, and your consultant thrilled with the results that you’ve created for your organization.

To kick-off the series, let’s start from the very beginning - preparing to work with a consultant. Before you drive into finding and hiring a consultant, it’s important that you spend some time laying the groundwork for success with these 3 steps.

1. Define the project

You’ve identified a need in your organization, which you don’t have the internal skills or capacity to fulfill. Time to hire a consultant, right? Wellllll, maybe. Before you can be sure, first you need to clearly define your project. Thanks to the fabulous POP model*, there’s a super simple way to do that. Get together with key members of the project team, and together decide:

  • Purpose (P) - What is the purpose of the project? Why are you embarking on this work, and why is it important to your organization? What is the overall motivation that is driving the project? Come up with a simple purpose statement that captures the purpose for your project (e.g. To conduct board training that will increase our level of board commitment, engagement, and effectiveness).
  • Outcomes (O) - What are the specific outcomes you want to achieve? What results do you want to create that will help you to fulfill the project purpose? What, specifically, do you want to be different at the end of the project? Create a list of specific outcomes you want to achieve, including things that are both measurable and less tangible (e.g. improved board meeting attendance, 100% board giving, stronger team morale among board members).
  • Process (P) - What process will achieve the project purpose and outcomes? What steps do you need to take for your project to be successful? Brainstorm some ideas with your project team, and also know that any good consultant will recommend project activities that will serve your goals (e.g. conduct board training, hold facilitated board meetings or a retreat, revise our board Roles and Responsibilities, etc.).

2. Determine what resources you will commit

Once you have clearly defined the project, you’ll need to decide what organizational resources you are willing and able to dedicate to its success. Ask yourself:

  • What is our level of commitment to this project? How much is this project a priority for your organization? How committed is your leadership team, board, and staff? Be honest and realistic with yourself when answering these questions, knowing that if you choose to make this project a priority, you will need to dedicate some of your limited resources to ensure its success.
  • What staff and board resources and time will we dedicate to this project? Which staff and/or board members will need to commit time and energy to this project, and how will you make it possible for them to give this time? Do you need to allocate staff and/or board meeting time to this project? Even if you choose to hire a consultant to help with the project, staff and board resources will still be required.
  • How much money can we dedicate to this project? And finally, the million dollar question (well, hopefully not that much!). Revisit your project POP, and be realistic about the financial resources it will take to achieve your project purpose and outcomes. Then, take a look at your budget and be realistic about what you can afford. Consider project costs such as consultant fees, software, materials, printing, and meeting costs. If you haven’t budgeted enough money for the project, explore whether any of your current donors would be willing to provide you with capacity building support.

3. Decide if you will hire a consultant and define his or her role

Once you have clearly defined your project and the resources you will commit, take a step back and ask yourself if you need to, and can afford to, hire a consultant. You may realize that your budget is tight and in actuality you can use staff and board skills to achieve your project goals. Alternatively, you may have learned that your staff and board resources are limited, and you do have some money to spare.

If you decide to move forward with hiring a consultant, clarify what you envision the consultant’s role to be. What specific project responsibilities do you need the consultant to take on, and which will be handled by internal resources? Do you need a client to work as a “pair of hands,” to complete work that you don’t have the staff time or expertise to undertake? Or, alternatively, are you looking for a collaborative consultant who will bring his or her specialized knowledge and skills to help your staff and board build new capacities and solve organizational challenges themselves?

Now, I’d love to hear from you!

In the comments section below, jump in and tell us your top tips for how you prepare to hire consultants at your nonprofit organization.

And don’t forget to tune in for our next blog post in this series, when we’ll talk about how to find the perfect consultant to partner with you on this project.

Thanks as always for reading and sharing!


*(c) 2013 Robert Gass.