The Client-Consultant Collaboration

nonprofit consulting Feb 23, 2021

Are you a consultant or thinking of hiring one?

Consultants are becoming an increasing part of the fundraising landscape.  They can lend expertise, supplement staff efforts, or serve as an objective third party during big decisions. It can seem so tempting to bring on an outsider, take a deep breath, and await the benefits. And yet, much of the onus lies in the client’s lap. While consultants can and should provide solid leadership along the way, clients sometimes expect the consultant to have a silver bullet that will solve all their problems while the staff focuses on tactics and leaves strategy to the consultant.  Even the best engagements can be made better when fundraising staff remains an active partner in the process.

Even when organizations hire consultants repeatedly, most have little or no formal procedures for engaging, orienting, or working with external help. Some consultants excel more at fundraising than they do guiding the process. And, even if their strategies work well for one client, they might not suit another. From the interview to the final deliverable, staff can make the consultant’s work pay off in spades if it approaches the engagement willing to plan an equal role. Like any other financial investment, the time staff needs to think through the way it works with its consultants in order to increase both the efficiency and the effectiveness of the engagement.

Fundraisers learn—often from consultants—to listen to our donors, tend to their interests, and authentically engage them. Look for that same treatment from a consultant: those that listen the best often act with the client’s best interests in mind. As early as the interview phase, staff can judge a consultant’s ability by what is asked as much or more than what is said. Prospective clients are wise to give an edge to interviewees who ask plenty of good questions.

During the interview phase and early in the engagement, it can be easy to spend plenty of time discussing the substance of the consultancy and let rapport with the consultant take a back seat. Yet, most who have engaged consultants can attest to the fact that this softer side of the contractor is just as likely to feed success as the substance. Pay attention to personality, work style and flexibility: Is this someone likely to mesh with the variety of your internal stakeholders, from management to line staff to board members? If there are personality rifts or factions internally, does this person have what it takes to manage the engagement? Does the consultant’s work style allow for sustained staff input in the process? And what about your stakeholders? Although sometimes the consultant does not have much interaction with those outside the staff, it will be important that the consultant can relate well with donors, parents, alumni, clients, board members, and others.

Work style can be just as important as content knowledge. And even if staff gets along with its contracted help, personality is not everything. A consultant who hails from the academic world and approaches fundraising by citing the latest research in a serious tone might not be the best fit for a grassroots nonprofit, despite that person’s stellar resume or credentials.  And, the most recommended consultant in town, a bold campaign specialist with an informal approach, may not suit a risk-averse, detail-oriented board.

To learn more about consulting, take my course, Nonprofit Consulting: Get Started, Get Clients, Grow, and Evolve. Sign up here

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