Tips for working with consultants

Trisha Lester
Trisha Lester

Trisha Lester

Any nonprofit leader can tell you about the time she worked with a consultant and how – for one reason or another – it didn’t work out.

On the other hand, more nonprofits are successfully using consultants to extend their staff capacity and get things done quickly.

Many have good stories to tell about how they chose the consultant, the things they did to make the relationship work well, and what they were able to accomplish with the  consultant’s help.

Identifying consultants for your project is the first step.

Many statewide associations of nonprofits, as well as management support organizations, have listings that group consultants by area of expertise.

Culling names from these sources is helpful, but you’ll also want to ask around.

Ask people you respect — and whose styles mesh with your organization’s culture — whom they’ve used and what their experience has been.

Consultants who do good work become known by word of mouth.

Before you start talking to prospective consultants, outline clearly what your project entails, the deliverables, a preliminary timeline, and any other relevant information.

It’s important to have this in written form as most consultants want a framework around which they can respond.

If you’re using a more formal request-for-proposals strategy, these components are essential in order to get the same information from all your prospective consultants.

Interview the consultants just as you would a potential staff member.

Get a sense of their style and see if it meshes with your own.  So much of an effective relationship with a consultant has to do with chemistry.

If you like the individual on the phone and are encouraged to move forward, you might want to meet them in person, too. Experiencing someone face-to-face can sometimes be very different.

And, when all is said and done, trust your gut.  If you have reservations of the slightest kind, your intuition will generally not lead you astray.

Ask them tough questions: Have any of your consulting projects failed miserably?  What did you learn from the process, and how did it change your future work?

Find out what causes they’re passionate about.  A synchronicity with your nonprofit’s mission is not always essential, but it can certainly help.

Be sure to get references and talk with previous clients to get a feel for what they think of the consultant’s work.

A key question to them is, “Would you hire this consultant again?”

If someone hesitates there might be cause for concern.  A successful consultant gets repeat business for good reasons.

Lastly, once you’ve found that “right” consultant, protect your nonprofit and the consultant by using a letter of understanding or a contract.

While a consultant is an independent contractor, you want to ensure that you receive the services you asked for and that expectations between both parties are 100 percent clear.

Trisha Lester is vice president at the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits.

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