60 critical minutes to get your consultant relationship off on the right foot.

Two weeks ago I compared finding a nonprofit consultant to dating. If you haven’t already, go read that post now. It’s the second article in this five-part series on how to partner successfully with consultants (this one’s the third, so come on back and keep reading when you’re done!).

 Startup Stock Photos

While the comparison I made in that post was mostly a cheesy metaphor, it does hold some truth. When you’re working with a consultant to create transformational change - in your nonprofit and in yourself as a leader - your relationship requires deep trust, honest communications, and complete transparency.

This kind of intimate relationship takes effort to create and maintain. You need to start building the foundation from the very beginning of your work together, and you can do that with this one simple step:

As soon as you have a signed contract with your consultant, schedule a 60-minute meeting with him/her/them that is solely focused on your relationship. The purpose of this meeting is to consciously and deliberately discuss and agree how you will work together to achieve your desired outcomes for the project.


This sounds simple (heck, I even called it simple myself), but there’s a trick. At mission-driven organizations, the urgency and magnitude of the work at hand are so great and compelling that we often feel we MUST GET INTO ACTION NOW!! You and your consultant will likely both feel this pull towards task and may be tempted to use your first meeting to talk about the project plan, first steps, etc. Do not fall into this trap!

Here’s what you’ll want to do to get this meeting set-up.

Start by getting the right people in the room. If you’re the owner of the project, it’s important that you facilitate relationships between the consultant and other people in your organization - both staff and board. When you imagine the success of the project, who are the individuals that will play a key role in making that happen? Those are the folks you want around the table.

At the meeting itself, you’ll want to make sure you cover the below agenda items. Because you’ve done your homework and found a great consultant for your project, you should expect that agenda-setting for meetings is a collaborative process between you and the consultant. Your consultant will likely take the lead in drafting an agenda, so use the below list to express your desires for the meeting and to provide input and feedback on his or her draft.

1. Client-consultant relationship. Start the meeting by talking about how you will design your relationship so that you can work together effectively and achieve the most powerful results for your organization. The purpose of this intentional conversation is to surface your assumptions and clarify your expectations of one another. You may discuss previous disappointments and successes in working with consultants, and what you learned from those experiences. It’s also good to discuss any potential obstacles that you may face in the relationship, and how you will work together to overcome them. Ultimately, by the end of this conversation, you want to clearly agree to the conditions that need to be in place to support an effective partnership between you and your consultant.

2. Client-consultant communications. How will you communicate with each other throughout the project? There are two parts to this question to answer. First, there’s the structural side of the communications: What’s the best way to reach each other? How often do you need to talk? Will you have a scheduled project check-in? Who is involved in those conversations? Are these conversations in person or over the phone? Etc, etc...And then there’s the more nuanced conversation about the way in which you will communicate with each other - the nature and the quality of the communication. What seems most important about how you communicate with each other? How can you be honest and transparent in your communications? How will you give each other feedback? How will you communicate about the difficult, sticky, hard-to-say things? Having this conversation up front will create a safe container for honest and courageous conversations between you and your consultant throughout the project.

3. Commitment and accountability. For your work together to be successful, every person in that room has to make it a priority and commit to holding themselves and each other accountable. In this conversation, talk about the level of commitment that you expect of one another, discuss the importance of making real and clear commitments when each of you takes on assignments, and agree how you will directly communicate with each other if commitments are not held. Reconnect to the purpose of this work, and remind each other that you’re doing it in service of your organization’s mission.

With this one meeting, you will set the groundwork for a solid partnership with your consultant - one that will lead to great results for your nonprofit organization. As you gain experience in working together, keep this conversation open and continually explore and agree new, more effective ways of working together.


Now, over to you! Let us know what you think about this meeting, and other ways in which you’ve built and sustained strong relationships with consultants for your nonprofit.

Happy meeting!

PS - Next up in the series, I’ll share what you can do when(if) things get off track with your consultant. See you then!