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Hiring a Consultant? How to Be a Savvy Consumer

Hiring a Consultant? How to Be a Savvy ConsumerDo you need help?

Silly question ... who doesn’t?

As the gig economy expands, many nonprofits and businesses are turning to consultants and contractors to help with a variety of tasks, and to supplement staff capacity.

For example, I’m recruited as a consultant to train board and staff members, lead community workshops, facilitate planning processes, develop fundraising plans, and support all kinds of organizational change.

I also hire consultants. To better run my own business, I use contractors to help with website management, marketing, and graphic design.

If you’re looking for a consultant, consider the following tips and advisories.

Define what you want the consultant to do

This sounds obvious, right? Not so much.

For example, “I need help with my board” could encompass a variety of things:

  • They don’t understand their role and tend to micromanage staff
  • We need new leadership
  • They commit to tasks but don’t follow through
  • We have a few board members who dominate everything
  • They won’t participate in fundraising

To be fair, an effective consultant will ask you a lot of questions to help clarify the scope of work. Based on this conversation, the consultant may offer a different analysis than yours, and might suggest a different mix of services than you originally envisioned.

If this happens, pay attention. You don’t have to agree, but listen carefully.

The clearer you are about what you want—the problems you hope to solve, the outcomes you hope to achieve—the better for everyone.

Create a budget line for consulting support

During the intake conversation described above, I’ll ask the question, “How much do you want to spend?” or “How much have you budgeted for this?”

If the client has only $2,500 available for $10,000 worth of work, everyone needs to know that as early as possible.

If you foresee the need for outside help, budget accordingly.

Let’s say you want a fundraising plan, including a series of board trainings to implement the plan, completed by next fall. Start talking with consultants now. “How much would this cost? How long does the process take? How far in advance do we need to reserve your time?”

Use the intelligence you gather to build your budget and organize your calendar.

Know who you want? Hire that firm—and skip the “request for proposals”

When looking for consulting help, many organizations distribute RFPs or Requests for Proposals. Companies like mine then prepare bids and interview.

At its best, this is a transparent, educational, and relatively efficient process. Consultants understand that RFPs are competitive—many who submit proposals don’t get chosen. That’s the nature of the work.

In other situations—when the leadership has already made a decision—it’s an empty exercise that wastes a lot of time for all concerned.

If you already know who you want, start with that person. See if the scope of work, money, and timing are a good fit. Save the RFPs for another project.

Consultants can create more work for you, not less

In an earlier blog post—excerpted below—I quoted my friend and colleague Sharon Behar. “The consultant should never work harder than the client,” she says.

Consultants are change makers. If the consultant does all the heavy lifting, then the client won’t embrace change.

Here’s an example. When I’m hired to assist with a strategic plan—which typically includes community interviews and surveys, a written assessment, and facilitating a board-staff retreat—I always make the client write the plan.

Why? Whoever writes the plan owns the plan.

If the consultant writes it, the strategic plan tends to sit on a shelf, lonely and ignored. When the client has to wrestle all their great ideas into a document—including timelines, deliverables, and a budget—then they’re more invested in following through and actually doing the stuff outlined in the plan.

Yes, consultants can take work off your plate—that’s why I use one to manage all the email I send to you. However, the deeper the project, the more homework you, the client, should expect.

It’s all about relationships

When choosing a consultant, do all the obvious stuff diligently.

Look at the company’s website. Check references. Request a written bid or scope of work. Ask a lot of questions.

In the end, it comes down to this: Are you excited to work with this consultant? Do you expect to be challenged in productive ways? Do you feel a sense of trust?

Resumes are not relationships. Choose a consultant (or consulting firm) you really want to have a relationship with.

Hiring a Consultant? How to Be a Savvy ConsumerThe preceding is a cross-post by Andy Robinson from the Train Your Board blog. For 34 years, Andy has worked with a variety of nonprofits as a fundraiser, facilitator, trainer, and community organizer. As fundraising consultant, he's provided support and training to thousands of nonprofit staff and volunteer leaders in 47 U.S. states and across Canada. Andy specializes in the needs of organizations working for human rights, social justice, artistic expression, environmental conservation, and community development. To learn more, visit

Topics: Nonprofit management Consultants