Deciding to Use a Consultant

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Consultants can address a great range of organizational needs. They can be hired to provide an independent perspective or because they have special skills, experience, knowledge, or access to information. Consultants can be used to free up time for managers and directors or to fulfill short-term requirements. Although consultants can potentially be useful in a variety of ways, this doesn't necessarily mean they should be used. One of the most important steps is recognizing when not to hire one. For instance, it wouldn't be cost-effective to bring in a consultant to complete a job that could be done by a board member or by someone whom your organization is already employing. It's important to carefully consider your purpose in hiring a consultant and determine whether this is an appropriate way to achieve your goals.

Organizations hire consultants for various purposes.

Consultants can provide substantial assistance to organizations. They are usually hired to complete concrete tasks within a defined time period. Here are a few reasons why a nonprofit might hire a consultant:

  1. Help search for a new executive director
  2. Start or fix a fundraising or capital campaign
  3. Offer legal services or prepare a legal defense
  4. Create or fix accounting or investment strategies
  5. Identify problems in an organization and help solve them
  6. Research new trends, obstacles, or events and assess their potential impact
  7. Train staff or volunteers in essential skills
  8. Mediate or resolve disputes
  9. Help an organization's management team reach its goals
  10. Develop new systems for conducting daily business or offering services
  11. Identify and solve communication or conflict issues
  12. Help recruit and train new board members
  13. Find and install the best equipment for a particular task
  14. Offer a fresh perspective to organizations which are stuck in their ways
  15. Get a new project or program off the ground
  16. Give an independent perspective on a management decision
  17. Execute highly specialized work for a limited time

However, before you decide to hire a consultant to help with a project, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Could in-house staff do the job if they had additional training?
  2. Does a board member have the expertise or experience to help?
  3. Could someone from trade, government, or sister organization help instead? What about someone from a university or college?
  4. Are there volunteer advisors or organizations that could provide free advice?
  5. Can we afford to hire a consultant?
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Relationships between nonprofits and consultants are not always successful.

Although there are many success stories about relationships between nonprofits and consultants, there are some disappointments as well. Some managers complain that the consultant they hired didn't provide the outcomes they were expecting, focused on the wrong problems or, worse yet, created new problems.

To make sure you and your organization don't become a cautionary tale, it's important to look at some of the reasons why things can go wrong. For example, things can go badly when the organization fails to define the project properly, when the consultant selected doesn't have the appropriate knowledge or skills, or when the consulting firm replaces the people you thought you were hiring with less-qualified substitutes. Problems can also emerge when the consultant isn't properly supervised or when he or she isn't given the necessary information and support from within the organization.

However, organizations have the power to prevent many of the things that can potentially go wrong. Problems often result from a lack of understanding of the consultant's role and from limited knowledge about selecting, hiring, and managing consultants. To get the most out of a consulting relationship, managers need to be informed and take a proactive approach throughout the entire consulting process.