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Consultants Behaving Badly? How to Ensure a Successful Client-Consultant Engagement

Consultants Behaving Badly by Liz WootenLet me begin by saying I am honored to be known as a consultant serving nonprofits.

I’ve had the great pleasure to work with and learn from some phenomenal colleagues who have made an incredible impact in the nonprofit sector. Prior to becoming a consultant myself, I worked with many consultants and even helped co-found a group that promotes ethical consulting. But, as in every industry, there are always a few “bad eggs” — or at least examples where my peers (or I) have gone awry in our service to others. 

To be sure, “behaving badly” is a strong word choice. Many of the issues I’ll address below occur because of a lack of understanding or communication, not malice. Whatever the motivation, though, I hope these questions help prevent you as a consultant from committing them, or empower you as a nonprofit to avoid them.

1.   One Size Does Not Fit All

As consultants, we have an incredible opportunity to create, modify, or advance our own resources to better serve our clients. For example, I have a board self-assessment, strategic plan, and action plan format that I use as a baseline for many of my nonprofit clients. Intellectual property and capacity-building resources are the lifeblood of most consultants, but using the same tool for everyone without thoughtfully considering modifications or customization can lessen the impact of your work. The consulting process is educational for both sides. Use your engagement as an opportunity to educate each other, and make sure the tools work for you both.

Nonprofit Tips: When working with a consultant, be sure to ask if a tool/template has been used with other clients. Ask for a list of references if this is a new tool or relationship for you. Thoughtfully review the tool as a board or leadership team and ask for clarification/modification if you think a question or section doesn’t “fit” your agency. But remember, if you ask for modifications of resources, you may be asked to pay an increased fee for the changes. 

Consultant Tips: What tools or resources do you use frequently that you can standardize and brand? What systems can you put in place to review these each time you use them with a client, to make sure they get the most from the tool and you don’t keep reinventing the wheel?

2.   It’s a Confusing Marketplace

One of the hardest things to educate yourself on is what to charge for or expect to pay for consulting services. Most consultants who serve nonprofits have a good understanding of their pricing (whether hourly, project-based, or retainer-based), but not all consultants openly share this information — nor do they have to. For consultants, the difficult balance becomes how you establish pricing that doesn’t undersell your competition or price you out of the project and ensures you get adequately paid for the work. For nonprofits, the difficulty can come from understanding how to compare consultant proposals (or RFPs), understanding the investment you’re making to meet your mission work, and communicating that with your board members for informed decision-making.

Nonprofit Tips: When you are thinking of engaging with a consultant, have a budget in mind of what you’d like to spend. Most consultants prefer to work within a budget, and many can scale their services (not provide all of them for a lesser price) to help you at least initially address your capacity concern. If you are able to entertain multiple pricing options, ask for those, and as a courtesy be sure to let your consultant know if you’re accepting proposals from other consultants for the same project. Talk to other nonprofit board members or executives who’ve had successful experience with consultants — ask them what worked, what didn’t, and what they might do differently. 

Consultant Tips: When was the last time you examined your pricing/fee structure for your services? Review the past six months of client billing to see if you were on target with your quotes and pricing, and if you need to revise your pricing. Try to do this at least once a year, if not biannually, quarterly, or monthly. 

3.   Mindful Manners and Intentional Relationships

Whether you consult as a sole proprietor or as part of a larger company, one thing maintains constant: Your reputation is everything. This includes remembering that your relationship with clients, funders and colleagues (all of whom can offer valuable referrals and feedback) is paramount to the continuation of your work together. When you’re working as a consultant or looking to hire one, utilizing your network to inform the process is a perfect opportunity to grow that relationship.

Nonprofit Tips: Whether you’re meeting with a consultant for the first time or have worked with them before, use every meeting as an opportunity to build the relationship. Many consultants prefer to build long-term relationships with their clients, and having someone who is familiar with your agency can save you headaches and dollars down the line. Consultants are also often well-connected to the nonprofit community and resources that may be helpful to your mission work.

Consultant Tips: When signing on for an engagement or project that might be outside of your comfort zone, DO reach out to colleagues with experience in that work for insight, but DON’T ask them for their materials or research to just be handed over so you can use it yourself. You may also want to consider subcontracting with them, so your clients’ needs are adequately met and the relationship maintained. When you research a new project, DO your own homework, but DON’T reinvent the wheel. Reach out to trusted associates who can direct you, or take it to the Internet to see what others have published that you may be able to modify or adapt to suit your client’s needs. 

4.   Know Your Limits

I started consulting as a self-proclaimed Jill-of-All-Trades. My initial list of services was an A-Z of potential capacity-building services, because most of my service as a nonprofit staff member involved me wearing 10 or 15 different hats at a time. I learned over time that I couldn’t be all things to all people…nor should I. I also learned some valuable lessons in time management, especially when it came to staggering out the work, and that sometimes the most important thing I could do for a client was connect them with someone who was more of an expert in a service than I was.

Nonprofit Tips: When signing on for a consultant engagement, be sure to have an estimated timeline in mind. Ask your consultant how the timeline fits in with their current workload. If they can’t accommodate you, do you want to use another consultant or schedule with this one to make sure you have the best cultural fit and relationship? If you are asking for a proposal to share at your next board meeting, let them know when you’d like that proposal by and, if you choose them, if they can present the project at a future meeting. 

Consultant Tips: When was the last time you reviewed your list of services provided? What have you actually provided over the past six to 12 months? Which of your services do you truly love or excel at? Once you’ve identified what you’re either known for or most interested in doing, you can market appropriately and get referrals and business that are a good fit for you AND your clients. 

Whatever the type of engagement or style of client-consultant bond, the experience has the potential to be impactful and rewarding for your piece of the nonprofit sector. The important thing is to keep the relationship communicative, professional, and mutually beneficial. It’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that ethical, professional consulting becomes the expectation, not the exception.

This article originally appeared in Gulf Coast Community Foundation, March, 2017.

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