How to work effectively with an outside consultant

How to work effectively with an outside consultant

As your nonprofit adapts to new realities created by the COVID-19 pandemic, strategic guidance from expert consultants can provide invaluable insights for refining your strategy planning, revamping your brand, or rethinking your fundraising strategy. There are a few considerations to keep in mind, however, to ensure that any relationship with an outside consultant produces outcomes that meet your needs.

Here are some tips for working with a consultant or consulting firm:

Don't be stingy with information. Hiring a consultant can provide expertise you may not have in-house, but that doesn't mean you can take a hands-off approach to the project. No one knows your organization as well as you do. To ensure that a consultant fully understands your organization, you'll want to share as much information with him or her as is reasonable. While a good consultant will elicit ideas from team members and pull information together in new ways, he or she will want to review lots of organizational documents and talk to lots of people, from frontline staff to board members. Make sure the relevant documents are ready to go, and be sure to ask key stakeholders to set aside time for a sit-down.

Have a clear process in place. Whether developing a strategic plan or a brand revamp, it's important to know what you're aiming for and how you'll get there. A good consultant will be able to provide a plan for engaging your team that includes stakeholders. That plan should include the key activities, milestones, and outcomes for each step in the process. It should be clear, too, who will be involved in each phase, the decisions that need to be made, and what the deliverables are. Your job is to provide appropriate information, context, and ideas to inform the plan; provide feedback on the work presented; and make the decisions needed to keep the project moving forward.

Understand how decisions will be made. Decisiveness is essential to keeping projects moving forward. Put a plan in place that ensures decisions are made in a timely manner. That means deciding in advance who will give feedback and through what mechanism, who makes the final decision, and how that decision will be made (including considerations with respect to the board's engagement). You'll also need to determine whether key decisions can be made if not all stakeholders are able to present at a critical meeting and what a quorum might look like in such a situation.

Presenting to the board. Even if midstream decisions have been delegated to a committee or staff, keeping the board involved as the project moves forward increases buy-in and will help pave the way for final approval. At Red Rooster Group, our clients have found it helpful to have us make a presentation to the board at key points in the project. Getting information from an outside expert can help busy board members focus on the problem or issue at hand.

There's a flipside to this. For some organizations, the better choice is to have members of the project committee, not the consultant, make presentations to the board, the idea being it will help build trust between board members and staff. Having a board member who has bought into the concept present to the board can also be an effective way to demonstrate stakeholder support for a project. You know your organizational culture and board better than anyone, and a good consultant will defer to your recommendations when it comes to building trust and securing buy-in.

Build your project team. For small nonprofits, a project team may be one or two people. For larger organizations, team members should be drawn from different organizational levels and functions (e.g., executive-level staff, board members, frontline staff members). Members of the team should understand and support the overall goals of the project and be willing to express their ideas and listen to those of others. Meetings and material reviews will take up time, so make sure every team member is given the time needed to do the work.

Designate a point person. At the beginning of the project, decide who will be your organization's liaison to the consultant. The point person may be asked to contact people who are to be interviewed, provide background information and documents, arrange meetings, and make sure that information is shared with key stakeholders.

Establish a schedule. A consultant will need to know in advance about events that may affect the availability of team members. Organizational events, board meetings, vacations, maternity leave, and so on can all affect project workflow and timely feedback and approvals. Working out a schedule in advance will go a long way to eliminating delays and reduce stress for both your team and the consultant.

Have a plan for communicating progress. To facilitate a smooth process, determine who will be included on the project and how you'll communicate with your group — email, phone calls, a project management system, Zoom, Skype, etc. — and how you'll exchange documents and comments on the documents (whether PDFs, Google docs, or Word documents). It's also a good idea to schedule a weekly standing call for quick status updates. This can help reduce the kinds of meeting scheduling problems that often delay the completion of a project.

Avoid stumbling blocks that raise costs. Delaying feedback or reversing decisions can stall or even sink a project. And rethinking or revising decisions that have already been made can lead to additional costs and even undermine a project's viability. This often happens when the plan calls for the executive director to make the decisions but, come time for final approval, board members jump in and start to second guess or reverse decisions made earlier in the process. To avoid those kinds of costly delays, provide the board or a committee with regular updates and lots of opportunities to provide feedback. Any serious concerns should be discussed with the consultant and team so a satisfactory resolution can be reached to avoid costly backtracking later.

The consultant is your partner. Defining how that partnership will work can make it — and your project —more successful.

Howard Adam Levy is the president of Red Rooster Group, a brand strategy firm that works with nonprofits, governments, and foundations.

(Photo credit: Red Rooster Group)

The sustainable nonprofit

June 12, 2020