Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By Heather Yandow
You might be starting to suspect it’s time for your organization to get some outside help. Maybe your strategic plan has expired. Or the board is feeling a little bit stuck. Maybe it’s time to refresh your fundraising strategy.
Before you pick up the phone – or send off that email – make sure you are prepared to have a fruitful conversation with a potential consultant with these five questions:
1. What’s the challenge you want to tackle?
When you are looking for a consultant, don’t start with a proposed set of activities or a vague desire for ‘board development’ or a ‘strategic plan’. Be clear about the problem you are experiencing rather than naming a solution you think will work.
Think about why your organization needs a strategic planning process, board retreat, or fundraising plan. What is the challenge at the core of these activities? What would be different about your organization if you had a successful project? A good consultant can help you get a better understanding of your problem – and together you can identify the activities that might help address the challenge.
2. Does everyone agree about the challenge? And the need for outside help?
To tackle your challenge, you’ll likely need help from others such as your board, staff, funders, or other partners. Make sure these people are aligned on the need for work on a specific topic – and the need to hire an external consultant.
If you want help with board development, is the board chair bought in? Does the head of the board governance committee agree with your assessment of the board? Having these important conversations before you begin the consultant search will help align your organization – and may help clarify the challenge and what you want to get out of the work.
3. When do you want to do the project?
Articulating your timeline will help you identify the right consultant for your work. There are often situations where the timing of a project determines if a consultant can do the work or not. Think about questions like: Do you need someone immediately? Do you want the project completed over the next 6 months? Do you need to have a product by the end of a grant period? If you already have key dates scheduled – like board meetings or staff retreats – make sure to share those as well.
4. How much money do you have to help address this challenge?
Your first thought is probably to go to your budget and recall how much you put in for organizational development – or how much you have left over from last year’s strong fundraising performance. While those may be good starting places, think about the value to your organization of addressing the challenge. If that number is more than you have available, consider funding sources, such as major donors or foundation partners, who may be able to provide support for this kind of work.
Being transparent about your budget is critical because there is often not a set price or standard design for addressing your challenge. For example, strategic planning can run anywhere from $2,000 to $50,000 depending on the amount of background research, interviews, focus groups, staff retreats, board meetings, etc.
When you are not clear about your budget, you will likely receive proposals that run the gamut of pricing. This often complicates the decision-making process because you aren’t able to compare similar proposals. As a long-time consultant, the lack of a budget, or even a budget range, is a red flag that the organization has not really considered the value of addressing
5. How much organizational time and energy are allocated to help address
For most projects, the consultant will not be operating in a vacuum. To be successful, any project will need engagement from staff, board, and/or other partners. Think about how much time and bandwidth your organization has to devote to this project. Is this the number one priority for the whole board and staff? Is this a high priority, but only for a small number of staff? How many meetings, retreats, or events are reasonable to expect from those that need to be involved?
Answered these questions? Fantastic! Now you can move on to finding the perfect person for your next project. Check out online directories like www.nonprofit.ist or reach out to your colleagues to find the right person to help with your challenge.
Heather Yandow is a long-time consultant, and the founder of Nonprofit.ist – an online directory of trusted nonprofit experts. She’s seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to finding a consultant.