Five Tips to Hire the Right Nonprofit Consultant
Contractor hiring is on the rise. More specifically, fractional staffing is growing to meet the needs of many organizations. This can be a great model to confront common nonprofit challenges. However, shopping for consulting services can be a daunting task.
Hiring a consultant to help build your organization's capacity can be overwhelming. You want to make sure you are getting the most out of your investment and that the professional can provide real value for your organization. But there’s more to it than just finding someone qualified—you need to consider their resources, experience, reputation and organizational fit before making any decisions about whether or not they are suitable for the long-term plans of your business.
Today, we’ll demystify this task and discuss how proper research and preparation will save you time and money as you navigate this challenging yet meaningful process. For our purposes, we will use fundraising consultants as an example, but these steps apply to any contractor or consultant hiring that you may need–graphic design, accounting, marketing support, and beyond.
Before you dig into the practical steps of engaging a consultant it can be helpful to reflect with your team.
What would success look like at the end of our time with the consultant?
What can happen with their help, guidance, expertise, and support?
What is at risk if we don’t engage in finding external support?
1. Start with B.A.N.T.
You may be familiar with this acronym which stands for budget, authority, needs, and time.
Take the time to figure out your organization’s budget–of time and money– for consulting services and the projects you need to tackle. I know you may be saying to yourself, “We don’t have a budget for consulting.” If that is the case, you can get started by exploring the general costs of services, use online calculators to determine what goes into consulting fees, or educate your staff and board on resources to help pay for your specific need.
Decide, in advance, who has the authority to hire the consultant. The process of identifying the decision-maker(s) should be done at the beginning of any engagement with an external expert so there is no confusion when it comes time to signing contracts or agreeing to terms. While the final decision may go to a board member, committee, or your Executive Director, it’s important to include the frontline staff that will be responsible for implementing the advice of the consultant.
Once budget and authority have been determined, identify what need you are looking for the consultant to fill. This includes determining what specific services they offer, what skill sets will be needed, and what methodology and timeline would best suit your objectives. Clearly articulating these needs allows you to narrow down potential consultants and choose one best suited for your requirements.
Finally, assess how much time you can realistically commit to the consultant’s services. Time constraints should be considered both from an availability standpoint as well as any contractual obligations that may exist between both parties before initiating any engagement with a consultant. Much like a college course, for each hour spent face to face with the consultant, volunteers or staff should expect to spend three to five hours preparing for in person sessions. When it comes to budgeting your time, note that it will take most consultants between four and six weeks from the time of a finalized agreement to complete discovery and begin producing any deliverables. This may come as a surprise, but a thorough discovery and understanding of your organization and needs will be paramount to your project’s success. We have to slow down to speed up!
2. Ask around.
One of the best ways to start your search is to ask respected peers in your network for recommendations. Seek out information from colleagues you respect and trust, or research nonprofit consultants through directories. Many professional associations have qualified consulting pools. Indiana Youth Institute, Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, Indiana Philanthropy Alliance, your local community foundations, and the corresponding organizations in your area are all great places to start.
3. Meet with multiple consultants.
It’s important to meet your top candidates in person or speak with them over the phone. During this stage of the hiring process, observe how well a consultant fits with your organization’s mission and culture. Explore your working and communication styles. A good fit in these areas will be key to your success.
4. Request proposals.
Request proposals from the nonprofit consultant(s) that you’re interested in hiring. You should also ask for references from former clients about their experience
5. Agree on a scope of work and sign contracts.
After you’ve chosen a consultant, have a conversation to determine any changes to the initial proposal. Once you’ve agreed upon a more specific scope of work, sign a contract to make your partnership official.
A final note regarding frequently asked questions
How are consultants paid? Can I pay them based on a percentage of what we raise?
The answer: Consultants can't guarantee earnings or be compensated on percentage or by bonus. That form of payment is actually an Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) ethics violation. If you are new to shopping consulting services there can be a learning curve here.
Consulting services are billed similar to a lawyer, marketing consultant, or an accountant. Clients must pay for services rendered or the deliverables regardless of the outcome. Lawyers lose cases, marketing campaigns fail to generate expected exposure, etc. When hiring a consultant, an organization is paying for the consultant’s time and any agreed upon deliverables. Consultants are unable to control external funders’ decisions and therefore can only guarantee high-quality work.
Consider grant writing as an example. A consultant may write a grant that scores 96 out of 100, but won’t be funded because it was below the cut-off score and only a limited number of proposals were funded in the nation. This doesn’t mean the consultant produced a poor proposal–it likely means the funder was looking at geographic distribution or other factors that were out of the consultant’s control.
Still, as an organization you want to make sure you are receiving high-quality deliverables from the consultant you hire. Some compromises to consider when defining the scope of work and finalizing a contract could include:
Identifying a set number of opportunities or prospects for a specific amount of funding
Applying to a minimum amount of funding
Deliverables that you will keep and can re-purpurpose
Uniquely added value like marketing exposure or special promotions for your campaign
Hiring the right nonprofit consultant doesn’t have to be a daunting task. With preparation and knowledge of the process, you can find the right consultant to meet the needs of your organization with confidence.
What tip was most helpful? What did we leave out?
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Best of luck as you move forward!