The Client-Consultant Collaboration

nonprofit consulting Feb 23, 2021

Diving into Organizational Culture

It’s easy to assume that consultants have seen it all. While that may be true to an extent, the dynamics behind each executive, board, and management team can take time for even the most experienced consultants to uncover. The client can help ease the transition. When staff unpacks some of the baggage its organization carries, and does so tactfully, it advances the consulting process. The good news is that typically you won’t need to hire a consultant that has to travel a long distance just because that person has experience in a particular organization type. A consultant who has worked with one Boys & Girls Club, for instance, does not necessarily have an advantage in working with another. What matters is that the successful candidate is willing to immerse him or herself in the hiring organization’s culture. When staff provides candid, objective insights about the organizational dynamics relevant to the engagement, efficiency prevails on both sides.

Many consultants build time into their early client work to get a sense of the organizational landscape, whether formally or informally. This discovery period enables staff to bring to light any opportunities or challenges that stand to affect the engagement. Most consultants request the standard fare: budgets, solicitation materials, board lists, strategic and development plans, and so forth. But, it is often what lurks behind those documents that can solidify—or unravel—a project. Some consultants bring their own information-gathering procedures to the table, ranging from one-on-one questionnaires, mass surveys of board members, or focus groups. It can be easy to dismiss these steps as formalities that are tangential to the project at hand. Yet, if a consultant is truly invested in evolving the organization’s culture, whether the goal is to increase board giving or get more staff involved in fundraising, culture is paramount to success. The time spent helping to navigate political minefields alone can be invaluable.

Check In Regularly

Some consultants will schedule regular check-ins during the course of the engagement. These sessions serve to gauge how things are going, both substantively and relationship-wise. Clients can and should feel free to call such meetings as well, especially if they are not something a consultant suggests proactively. Agendas can include discussions of timelines and whether tasks are moving in the desired direction. When such exchanges take place during good periods in the relationship, they will not feel so awkward if things take a more worrisome turn. While such meetings can become the foundation for a successful engagement, clients should feel free to ask questions or make suggestions on an as-needed basis.

Prioritize Ethics

If a consultant works with an organization long enough, something is bound to go wrong, or at least conflict with staff expectations on some level. If a consultant is open enough to admit to a forthcoming problem with a deadline or a blip in expected results, the above steps have hopefully laid the foundation for a forgiving relationship. That does not mean that clients should let their consultants off the hook, but some measure of understanding is a must. A pattern of undesirable results is reason to reconsider an engagement, but a one-time situation deserves a candid conversation.

It’s worth noting that consultants cannot be expected to know everything. Fundraising is one of those areas that bleeds into nearly every organizational crevice, from accounting to data management to governance. If a consultant is confident enough to answer, “I don’t know,” to a question, consider that a bold statement of honesty, not a sign of weakness. Expect such a response to be followed by an offer to research the answer or suggest that another expert tackle the issue. While everyone craves a consultant who will do anything to solve the problem, if it falls too far afield from a consultant’s area of expertise, it takes courage to admit so and open the situation up to other help.

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