Preparing for a Consultant

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Success with consultants starts long before the first interview or reference check. Once you've decided that you have a valid reason for hiring a consultant, there are a few important steps your organization should take before placing that listing or writing a request for proposals. The most important step is to clearly and accurately define your project. How can you be sure you're picking the right consultant to meet your organization's needs if you don't actually know what those needs are? Also, before you make the decision to hire a consultant, project out the costs that are likely to be involved, and make sure you know how you'll be able to afford them. If the costs are beyond your means, can the project be restructured? Can you split the costs with another organization that shares the same problem? Being realistic about costs is critical to your success. Finally, you can have a perfectly defined problem, select the best consultant to solve it, and still end up disappointed if other members of your organization aren't truly committed. Without key stakeholders on board, the project will have little chance of success.

Defining your project is an essential first step.

To get a consulting relationship started on the right foot, you need to take the time to carefully define your project. For example, perhaps you want to focus on fundraising, but for what reason? Is your current fundraising system broken, or do you need advice on how to efficiently expand it? If it is broken, do you know what the causes are? Or are you hoping a consultant will help you identify the causes?

It’s not uncommon, when defining a project, to mistake the symptoms for the problem. This kind of misidentification can send your consultant down the wrong path, resulting in an unnecessary waste of his or her time and your money. Taking the time to really think about your problem can make a huge difference. For example, “We need a new executive director” is one problem.  “We need a new executive director within ninety days, while at the same time resolving the communication and conflict problems on our board that led to the departure of the last three directors, and we need both of these things done for less than $10,000” is another problem entirely. These two very different projects would require different sets of skills.

Another important consideration is to determine whether you can legally hire a consultant for the project. For example, in many states it is illegal for a consultant to fundraise or collect funds for you unless they are a licensed solicitor. It would not be a problem, however, for them to train your staff or help implement policies which could increase your fundraising capability. It may also be worthwhile, once you’ve fully defined your project, to once again ask yourself if hiring a consultant is really the right choice. Could this work actually be carried out in-house? Will hiring a consultant for this project be a valuable investment?

It's important to realistically estimate the costs of hiring a consultant.

To estimate consulting costs, break the project down into elements and make an estimate for each one. These can include:

  1. Consultant fees
  2. Overtime pay for in-house staff
  3. Photocopying
  4. Supplies
  5. Equipment
  6. Events
  7. Seminars

Although consultants may be expensive, this shouldn't necessarily deter you from hiring them. Letting a problem go unfixed can be an even more expensive proposition. When you determine which consultants you might want to work with, you'll receive estimates from them for your project. Consultants charge either a flat rate for a project, or they bill by the hour. They may be open to working under either type of fee system, depending on your organization's preference. Their rates will reflect their level of expertise and experience, as well as how readily available that expertise is in the marketplace. For some types of projects, a consultant might offer to work based on a commission, such as fees that are tied to success in helping the organization raise funds. However, this is considered highly unethical. A reputable consultant will not work on commission. Compensation should always be directly related to the services the consultant provides (paid as hourly or flat rates) or be reimbursement for travel and administrative expenses.

If the estimated consultant fees are more than you can afford, there might be ways to cut costs. For instance, you may be able to restructure your approach so that more of the work can be done by in-house staff. You could also approach funding sources that have a particular stake in the project's success to see if they'd be willing to provide extra funds. Also, nonprofits sometimes arrange to get consulting services donated or provided at a reduced rate, particularly if the consultant wishes to support the organization's mission in this way. However, don't assume that just because you're working for a worthy cause that a consultant can afford to work for you for free.

Before hiring a consultant, make sure you have support from key stakeholders.

Make sure to gain the support of important stakeholders such as board members, managers, staff, or key donors before you move ahead with the project. If you don't have their buy-in, members of your team may be disinterested or even actively try to thwart change.

As part of this process, make sure you know which members of your team are going to be involved in the project and what roles they will play.

  1. Who is going to be the lead contact with the consultant, responsible for regularly evaluating his or her work and making sure things are on track?
  2. Which in-house staff members will be doing aspects of the work?
  3. Who will be supervising them?
  4. Who will sit on the committee which oversees the project, and what will their responsibilities be?

Also, make sure that all of these people know what will be expected of them and that they are willing and able to do the job.

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