Lessons Learned: Hiring Consultants

Lessons Learned: Hiring Consultants

To paraphrase Mark Twain, in the nonprofit world these days you can't throw a rock in any direction without hitting a consultant. And given the number of executives who are on the verge of retiring, the field will likely become larger.

Many outgoing executive directors, of retirement age and younger, see consulting as a logical next step in their careers. Add to their numbers the executives working in the for-profit sector who want to use their skills to help nonprofits. Yet, the growing supply of consultants may not be adequate to fill the demands of nonprofits, chronically understaffed and facing myriad challenges, that recognize the need for the fresh perspective and high-level skills that the best consultants can provide.

For more than a decade, the Meyer Foundation has provided funds to help its grantees — primarily small to midsize organizations in the Washington, D.C., region — hire consultants. Since 1994, Meyer has awarded nearly four hundred management-assistance grants totaling more than $4 million. These grants have helped organizations work with consultants to build their boards, plan and evaluate, find new funding sources, improve their communications, and address other management and leadership challenges.

While most of these grants have been successful, some have missed the mark. Sometimes the nonprofit fails to use the consultant well, doesn't make the project a priority, or doesn't have the time or money to follow through on the consultant's plans or recommendations. Sometimes the consultant is the problem.

To better understand what often goes wrong and to help grantees avoid the pitfalls of hiring the wrong consultant, Meyer staff reviewed evaluations completed by grantees from nearly two hundred of the foundation's most recent management-assistance grants, with special attention paid to those grants that were least successful. These self-evaluations, which included reviews and comments about the consultants used, provide insight into the most common problems that arise between consultants and their nonprofit clients — and what both parties can do to avoid them.

The most frequent criticisms about consultants fall into three categories:

  • The consultant didn't understand us. In 10 percent of the evaluations reviewed, the organization felt that the consultant failed to understand and adapt to the organization in some way, including consultants who exhibited cultural insensitivity or who lacked knowledge specific of the nonprofit's field of work. Some organizations felt that their consultant made unreasonable requests of staff or volunteers because they were unfamiliar with working in a small, grassroots organization.
  • The consultant was too busy. Many organizations complained that their consultants missed key deadlines, failed to return phone calls, were difficult to schedule, or didn't deliver things they promised. Clients generally attributed these problems to commitments to other clients rather than a lack of professionalism.
  • The consultant was too directive or not directive enough. While comments about consultants who were too rigid or too process-oriented were more common than complaints about those who were too unstructured, both appeared frequently. This highlights the importance of up-front conversations about shared expectations and process design, as well as the need to find a consultant whose personality and style are a good match for the organization.

Overall, Meyer grantees' experience with consultants suggests that nonprofits need to spend more time up front to make sure the consultant they're thinking of hiring is the best fit for the job. Many harried nonprofit executives are reluctant to take the time to interview multiple consultants and talk to client references for each one. Key questions to ask include:

  • Have you worked with an organization like ours before?
  • Have you done a project like this before?
  • How many other clients and projects will you be handling while you're working with us?
  • How much board and staff time will it take to support your work?
  • Do you view yourself as a neutral facilitator, a guide, or a participant in the project?

Because consulting is an unregulated profession with relatively few standards of practice, certifications, or other professional credentials, organizations should be especially careful about interviewing consultants, establishing expectations, and putting agreements — including timelines — in writing.

Consultants who work with nonprofits can also glean lessons from our study. The consultant who specializes in strategic planning, board development, proposal writing, program evaluation, and communications planning for all types of nonprofits seems unlikely to be equally effective at everything. Yet a surprising number of consultants, especially those just starting out, list an impressively broad range of skills and services in their marketing materials. Consultants should carefully consider whether a potential project lies within their core area of expertise and is a good match for their skills — and whether they have time to tackle the project.

Admittedly, this review of consultant evaluations is far from scientific. It also presents a one-sided picture, since most consultants have a story or two about "the client from hell." However, the feedback does suggest that nonprofit organizations and the growing number of consultants who serve them can work harder to make sure the collaboration is effective.

The individuals and organizations that provide consulting services to nonprofit organizations are a huge asset to the nonprofit sector and a behind-the-scenes contributor to many management and leadership success stories. That, ultimately, is why foundations like Meyer support management assistance, why organizations hire consultants, and why most consultants are drawn to the work. The right consultant on the right project at the right time can be transformative, leaving an organization far better positioned to fulfill its mission and meet community needs.