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When (and how!) to seek a nonprofit consultant

How do you know when you need a consultant? In short: When you need an external perspective, expertise, or knowledge to plan, implement, or figure out something vital to your organization’s success.

Consultants are often used to help organizations solve problems, determine a future strategy, or sort through a complicated set of issues. The challenge that often arises is in identifying the need for a consultant, and then finding the right consultant for the job. For that reason, here’s a rundown of some nonprofit moments when a consultant comes in most handy, and the "hows" of securing one.

When a consultant makes sense

A few common scenarios where a nonprofit can benefit from a consultant: 

  • Your organization is stuck and not moving forward, and could benefit from objective third-party facilitators who can help with services such as an organizational assessment, board development, or strategic planning.
  • Your CEO has a planned or unplanned departure, and you need help with the subsequent search, transition, and onboarding efforts.
  • You need skilled support or additional capacity on a short-term or project-based initiative, such as crafting dashboards, monitoring and evaluating programs, conducting market research, designing a program, or interim staffing.
  • You’re contemplating a transformational change, such as a pivot or evolution in your mission or programs that requires business planning, strategic planning, or innovation.
  • Your organization is experiencing internal conflict between entities, such as the board and management, and an outsider could help clarify roles and responsibilities.

It’s worth noting that, in any case, a consultant can provide the outside perspective your leaders and staff may need to provide new insights, new ways of moving forward, and best practices that overcome the organziation's blind spots.  

Getting ready to engage

Consultants work as partners, and as such they require your input and assistance to come up with solid solutions for your organization’s specific challenges. 

A few ways to get ready for this partnership:

  • Capture your thoughts in a clear and concise way. Whether you know exactly what you need (like a strategic plan) or you’re going to need diagnostic help to figure it out (such as a program falling short of impact goals), articulating your needs is the first step.
  • Talk to other agencies. Word-of-mouth recommendations can give you clear insights into the style and effectiveness of a consultant or consulting team.
  • Create a budget. A budget provides useful parameters for your organization and gives consultants a good indication of the scope entailed, allowing them to best tailor services to your means.
  • Write a Request for Proposals (RFP) if you want to solicit multiple responses. This document outlines all the critical components of the project in question.
  • Seek written proposals from consultants with a clear scope of work, timeline, and fee schedule.
  • Screen and interview different consultants. If you use an RFP, select the 2-4 best responses and set up calls with them. Prioritize your criteria for a consultant: This could be process expertise, issue expertise, experience with the communities or population your agency serves, or cultural fit. Ask about their approach to the work and their relevant experiences with this type of project.
  • Solidify a payment schedule and sign a contract once you’ve selected a consulting team.

Finally: Make an investment to create success! Hiring a consultant takes time as well as money, but the investment can often be completely transformational, an absolute lifesaver, or both.

Tommy Pearce is Executive Director at Neighborhood Nexus and was a consultant with GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group.

Learn more about GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group here, or by contacting them at [email protected] or 678-916-3082.

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