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Hiring a Consultant? How to Be an Even More Savvy Consumer

Hiring a Consultant? How to Be an Even More Savvy ConsumerIn October, I published a post about hiring consultants.

This piece was passed around, re-posted, and featured on other blogs, including GuideStar. If you read it and shared it—thank you!

Because there’s lots more to say (and learn) about this subject, here are five more tips you can use to build productive relationships with consultants.

1. If you can’t understand what consultants are saying, don’t hire them

My profession, like many others, is filled with jargon. Much of it is incomprehensible, even to me—and I’ve been working in the field for 20 years.

Indeed, pretty much any reason you might hire a consultant—strategic planning, online marketing, facilitation, human resources, etc.—comes with its own lingo. Some areas, such as accounting and planned giving, are so thick with specialized jargon that a lay person can easily get lost.

A useful consultant helps you cut through the thicket, using clear, simple language.

As you’re interviewing, pay attention to what consultants say and how much you understand. Someone who talks past you or over your head—even if they sound really, really smart—won’t be a good fit.

2. Clarify communications

Andi Kemp, a consultant at Upward Development, LLC, offers a few advisories.

If you’re the client, describe your communication preferences—email, texts, phone calls, etc. If you’re the consultant, try to honor those preferences. Because not everyone communicates the same way ...

Identify multiple contacts within your organization who will engage with the consultant. As Andi wrote, “When a primary and secondary contact person is identified ... then it’s not all on one person to communicate with me and be accountable. The process is more transparent for staff and board members.”

3. Define where the consultant’s work ends, and the client’s work begins

Hiring a Consultant? How to Be an Even More Savvy ConsumerI lead a lot of workshops—for example, teaching board members how to raise money. These are typically one-off contracts: I work with the client to design the training, deliver it, and go home. No follow-up is included.

Then it’s up to the participants to implement what they’ve learned. Sometimes they don’t.

As a trainer, I can facilitate an effective class or board retreat without the client creating meaningful change within their organization. In other words, high-quality consulting doesn’t always generate high-quality client results.

If this sound like blaming the customer, so be it. But here’s the larger point.

From the start, try to define where the consultant’s work ends, and the client’s work begins. Be rigorous, detailed, and clear.

Rule number one: the consultant should never work harder than the client.

4. Negotiate the nagging

With longer contracts that include multiple steps, who reminds whom of which deliverables?

As noted above, consultants often create more work for you—not less. Expect homework and checklists. In fact, if you don’t have the bandwidth to actually engage with a consultant, you probably shouldn’t hire one in the first place.

How do you prefer to be held accountable for your portion of the work?

In my experience, most clients appreciate reminders, check-ins, deadlines, etc. The supremely self-motivated ones will create their own, but many are grateful for an external person to keep them on task.

Full disclosure: I am not a nagger by nature, so this is my least favorite part of the job. But I’ve learned that it’s an essential part of strengthening the relationship and completing our shared work.

5. Expect hard truths

Good consultants are truth-tellers. They say what needs to be said, even if (especially if) it makes the client uncomfortable.

Once upon a time, I assumed that this posture—the fearless truth-teller—would cost me work, but the opposite keeps happening.

I’ve found that organizations often hire consultants to bring an outside perspective. They can see things and name things that no one internally has perspective to see or the courage to name.

If you’re the consultant, be thorough, compassionate, and strategic. Choose your moments with care, then tell the truth as best you can discern it.

If you’re the client, listen carefully. This is what you’re paying for, so pay attention.

Hiring a Consultant? How to Be an Even More 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: workshop Consultants