How to Work with Nonprofit Consultants

by | May 4, 2021 | Strategic Planning

Guest Author: Emily Davis

You’ve made the choice to hire a consultant for some of your nonprofit’s needs. Congratulations!

Consultants can provide great services for organizations, and some of the benefits they provide are:

  • Topic and field-specific expertise
  • Objective perspectives on a project or field
  • Ability to challenge the status quo and open up new opportunities
  • Exposing your organization to ideas you might not know existed
  • Saving your staff, board, and volunteers time through their knowledge
  • A low-cost, short-term service that would otherwise be more expensive with a full-time staff person

To make your experience with a consultant more positive, here are six recommendations you need to consider to set your consultant, and ultimately your organization, up for success.

Clear Scope of Work

I spend a lot of time with prospective clients simply trying to understand what it is they need from a consultant. Think about two things: what is the knowledge area, and how will that information best be delivered. For example, here are our areas of expertise and some examples of how that information might be delivered:

Areas of expertise:

  • Board governance
  • Charitable advising
  • Corporate social responsibility
  • Philanthropy
  • Fundraising
  • Nonprofit creation

Service delivery methods:

  • Training: board roles and responsibilities, how to raise money
  • Coaching: board chair coaching, nonprofit start-up tips
  • Facilitation: peer learning groups, decision-making
  • Planning: strategic planning, fundraising plans
  • Assessment: governance check-ups, CEO performance assessments, Board Self-assessments, etc.
  • Public speaking: keynotes, panel discussions

A clear scope of work helps us to better determine the intersection of what expertise will be used and how that information will be delivered. Sometimes creating an RFP (request for proposal) will help an organization to better organize what they are looking for in these areas.

Ample Timeline

As a consultant, one of my biggest frustrations is when my team and I are not given much runway for a project. Remember, we need time to plan and prepare to deliver great services. In fact, even the proposal and contracting process can take several weeks in many cases.

For my practice, we typically need no less than 6 weeks of prep time (from when the contract is signed) to prepare for a training, while a strategy can take even longer. Rushing and not giving a consultant plenty of time to prepare doesn’t set anyone up for success.

A good consultant will also have lots of demand for their services which means the further out they can book your services, the more time there is to be thoughtful about preparing and doing the legwork in advance.

Reasonable Budget

Please make sure to have a reasonable budget for services. A great consultant has spent years honing their knowledge and craft. You’re not paying only for those few hours of training; you’re paying for all those years of developing expertise as well as the more immediate preparation and follow-up time for a training. The old adage applies: you get what you pay for.

Remember also that as consultants, we have to pay for our own professional development, insurance, and well, ourselves. Most consultants get into this work because we want to make an impact and be successful. This is nothing to apologize for.

If your organization has a very small budget, there are two things to consider:

  • Hiring a consultant who is willing to accept the fee is probably not going to be the best around with decades of experience, so keep your expectations low. Don’t blame that consultant if the services aren’t perfect; they are probably learning on the job.
  • Look to your board to financially contribute towards or raise money for a fundraising effort. Investment in your organization’s knowledge and capacity is a wise move that can actually save money and time in the long run.

To be totally honest, organizations that are willing to pay more reasonable (and even higher) rates are going to get more of consultants’ attention and enthusiasm because they see their knowledge and hard work being valued. Be that client. Be the client every consultant wants to work with.

Avoid Magical Thinking

I really wish I had that magic wand I could use to come in and make your organization better or whip through a strategic plan that was completely implemented. It’s not going to happen, sadly.

Consultants aren’t magicians. They can show you the path but ultimately, it is up to you and your colleagues to determine how to use the information and whether or not to take the path.

If something doesn’t work after working with a consultant, consider whether or not the consultant is really responsible or if there are other factors at play, like a lack of accountability as part of the organizational culture.

Be Responsive and Communicate

My dad taught me a great lesson: “If you don’t have people problems, you don’t have any problems.”

One of the reasons we have what might seem like longer timelines for some of our projects is because of client delays. I can crank out some serious work in a short period of time, but I can’t do anything without the information required to prepare.

For example, I was working with a facilitation client who asked if we could pretty please make an exception to our timeline and facilitate a meeting in two weeks. Nope, and here’s why…

As part of the agreed-upon scope of work, we needed the contact information for committee members and then needed to schedule input calls with those individuals. This includes some prep work like an e-introduction to these folks, setting up the scheduling tool, and getting them to respond.

Pretty easy, right? Think again.

It took two weeks and many, many emails from us begging for the client to fill out the spreadsheet with this information. When we finally did get the information, they changed it again over the next two days, so we had to re-work the original plan.

People problems.

This is not uncommon in any way. It takes time, and we want you to have the time you need and the time we need to be prepared. Communicating with us what is going on in your organization and being responsive to our emails is what creates confidence in the partnership and process. If you want deliverables quickly, I need communication and responses quickly.

Trust the Consultant to do their Job

This is so important and probably the hardest obstacle to overcome, especially if it is your first time working with a nonprofit consultant.

Micromanagement is one of the most frustrating things around for consultants… well, really anyone.

For me, I understand that a client wants to know exactly what’s going on and when to have that increased sense of control. I would love to deliver it on a platter, but unfortunately, there is a level of blind trust and risk that is required. It’s a big ask of clients to trust me in a process that is totally foreign to them.

I’ve been a consultant for a long time and have invested in coaches and learning that have helped me to develop my process and work to better serve my clients. In many cases, I can either spend the time convincing you I am exceptional at my job or actually doing that job. I know it’s a tall order but give it a whirl.

Having said that, not every consultant is great or a good fit. This is why the proposal process is so important to take time in gathering the information you need. Ask questions at that time to build your confidence in the consultant. Once the project starts, let the consultant lead you; it can be a wonderful experience.

In the end, the best clients are the ones who are:

  • Clear about their scope of work
  • Give me plenty of time to do my work
  • Have a wonderful budget
  • Avoid micromanagement
  • Listen to and trust my advice and expertise
  • Let me do my job

Consultants are like any other humans (yep, we’re human, in case you didn’t know!) and will respond well to positive communications and confidence in us. We deal with so many difficult situations – it’s the whole reason we have a job – and love going the extra mile for clients who show us respect. Be that ideal client and enjoy the adventure together!

A Career in Development – 10 Things to Know

Facilitating Consensus Building Conversations

Get Your Free Strategic Planning QuickStart Kit


Save time. Avoid common pitfalls. Start growing - TODAY! 


It's on it's way! Are you ready to get started? We hope so because the download link for the checklist is going to hit your inbox any second now.