Guest Post by Andrew Arrieta / Co-founder of Enact Impact
Nonprofit teams are some of the most passionate, committed people in the workforce, but often they are overwhelmed.
This challenge is widely known both within and beyond the nonprofit sector: nonprofits are often strapped for time, resources, and expertise. There are many innovative ways to approach these challenges, and one of them is strategically using nonprofit consultants to help push forward important initiatives and enable your staff to focus on what they do best.
However, many nonprofits often are intimidated by the thought of working with a consultant. We’ve heard it all before. “Finding a consultant takes too much time.” “I don’t have a budget for a consultant.” “I don’t have the staff resources to work closely with a consultant.”
On the other hand, some nonprofits have lucked out with consultants — they’ve been able to find an insightful professional at the right price point who deeply understood their organization’s needs and played a critical role in helping them get to the next level.
Consultants can be helpful in critical business areas like creating a capital fundraising campaign, a new social media engagement plan, or a corporate partnership strategy.
How can your nonprofit get better at leveraging consultants? Enact Impact, the online community for impact professionals, has helped hundreds of nonprofits and consultants make meaningful connections to accelerate impact.
We do this because we believe all nonprofits deserve access to the most brilliant minds in social impact — and that begins with you feeling comfortable interacting and working with consultants to drive the goals that are the most important to you.
Here’s your ultimate guide to bringing on the right consultant to suit your vision, your needs, and your budget.
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Is Hiring A Consultant Right For You?
Before you take the plunge, take a step back and think about whether a nonprofit consultant is right for you. There are many good reasons for you to hire a consultant and they normally fall into three categories:
1) You lack the expertise or experience to achieve a new goal or rescue a derailed effort
2) You need to explore new ideas for a specific business function, or
3) You need help focusing a broad organizational vision.
You shouldn’t hire a nonprofit consultant with the chief objective of affirming a decision that has already been made. A consultant’s ideal role is not to support a decision maker’s existing plan for internal buy-in, but rather to serve as an objective and experienced professional that can help your nonprofit achieve a goal or implement a new process.
If you are looking for feedback on an idea, feel free to reach out to a consultant for some free advice and feedback. For a quick way to access various consultants for free advice, you can use Enact Impact’s Ask Forum to quickly engage with a community of the most passionate and talented consultants experienced in social change.
You can choose to post your question confidentially and get a second opinion on any of your challenges, often on the same day.
Engage Your Team
A consultant should complement your nonprofit’s team, so involving your team in the decision process is crucial. First, bring your team into a discussion on what the particular problem is that a consultant could assist on. You do not need to agree on a solution (that’s what a consultant is for!), but it is important to understand the challenge at hand clearly. Then, use the team’s feedback to write up why the challenge exists and what solutions have been tried in the past. This helps the consultant hit the ground running for a few reasons:
1) You’ll avoid spending time and money addressing the wrong problem
2) You’ll provide the consultant with valuable starting points to have more productive, solutions-focused meetings with each of your team members, and
3) your team will feel bought in on the process and more supportive of the consultant’s efforts.
Clearly Communicate Your Challenge
This important step is what really maximizes your interaction with a consultant. The clearer your team is on the problem at hand and the existing resources available to fix it, the better off you’ll be in getting a valuable and efficient plan from the consultant. Below are some questions you should ask yourself to better understand your challenges:
- What is the problem and how does it affect each area of your organization?
- Which priorities / goals will advance as a result of solving this problem?
- What solutions have been tried in the past? Why did those solutions fail?
- Is any technical expertise required to confront this challenge?
- How quickly does the project need to be completed?
- Are there any security, liability, or confidentiality concerns?
We recommend putting together a document that outlines the problem in these ways to frame up your initial conversations with the consultant.
Be Realistic About Costs
The nonprofit sector is unique in that many individuals of various backgrounds often volunteer their services for free. It’s an admirable, important service that millions of people take part in annually. Once you’ve better understood your challenge, you may be able to find a volunteer to resolve it. If your budget is a concern, a finding a skilled volunteer is always a great option!
However, if you truly want to accelerate your impact, build capacity, and better position your nonprofit for the long-term, then hiring the right consultant will be a stronger choice. A consultant has the know-how and nonprofit experience to understand a challenge and move your nonprofit forward quickly. Letting a problem go unfixed or in the hands of an inexperienced volunteer can make it more expensive over time.
Here’s a slightly sarcastic, but totally true tool for understanding what is most important to your team for solving your problem. Sometimes, putting your needs in plain language (Fast, Good, Cheap) can help you better discern your budget and timeline:
If having a cheap and fast solution is what you want, then the outcome may not be very good or long-lasting.
If a cheap and good solutions are important to you, then the deliverable may be slow. If you have time for your solution to take shape, this is an ideal pathway for you.
If a fast and good solutions are what you’re looking for, then expect to pay a higher price. Sometimes, this is the right choice for organizations who want to pivot or accelerate rapidly.
Nonprofit consultants do not have to be expensive and can often work within your means if you’re honest about your budget. That said, there are also ways you can cut costs.
If you were looking to hire a consultant for a large project, could restructure your approach to allow more work to be done by in-house staff? Is there another organization that you have a friendly relationship with that shares the same challenge? Maybe you can split the costs of hiring a consultant.
Alternatively, do you partner with an organization that is very good at the challenge you’re facing? Perhaps you could swap skills and train each other on how to improve. Finally, you may have a funder or significant donor in your network that is specifically interested in overcoming this challenge.
They may be open to providing financial support to solve it with a professional. Many foundations have operation management assistance programs to help nonprofits pay for consultants when they have a particular need. Look into your funding relationships to determine if something like this is available to you.
Keep in mind that when you start engaging with consultants, you will receive estimates from them for your project. Consultants typically charge either a rate for the entire project, or they bill by the hour. They are often open to working under either payment structure, depending on the nonprofit’s preference. A consultant’s rates will reflect their level of expertise and experience.
Note: Be aware of individuals that want to work based on fundraising commission — this is unethical. Dependable consultants won’t work for commission.
Like any partnership, there is always room for discussion and collaboration. Don’t let the sticker price detract you from getting the help you need!
Find The Best Consultant
You’re now fully equipped to started engaging with consultants. Your team is on board, you have a clear understanding of your challenge, and you have a rough budget and timeline in mind.
The typical approach to finding a nonprofit consultant is by developing a request for proposal (RFP). An RFP is a multi-page document that describes your project, outlines what services you’re hoping the consultant can provide.
In response, consultants then outline the process they would do to fix the problem and submit a cost estimate or description of pricing policies. An RFP is typically shared with your local networks or nonprofit association.
You can learn more about the elements of an RFP here. Keep in mind that there are some downsides to this approach: the process can be lengthy, and the visibility is often limited to your pre-existing network.
If you’re interested in making this process faster and expanding your reach to professionals beyond your normal circle, then we invite you to check out Enact Impact, the online community of impact professionals. We’ve made it easy for nonprofits to browse and select the ideal consultant on your terms.
Consultants can “favorite” your opportunity, and you can choose whether or not to contact them directly by sending a message or requesting a phone meeting straight from their calendar availability.
Our community of consultants have an average experience level of 9 years and are vetted and trained through the Enact Impact Academy, equipped with the specific skills to handle your nonprofit’s challenges.
Select Your Ideal Consultant
Okay, you think you’ve found the perfect candidate. On the surface, their experience and expertise are perfectly aligned with your needs. But before you make a decision, we recommend that you interview all shortlisted candidates.
Here are some questions you should ask that will help you make a decision:
- How would you approach the project?
- What is your experience with nonprofits like mine? (regarding size, issue area, location)
- What is your experience with projects like this?
- What do you need from my nonprofit to make this a successful working relationship?
- What is your current workload?
- What was your least successful consulting experience and why?
- Can you successfully work within my budget?
- Do you have any references we can contact?
After you speak with candidates, you should also ask yourself these questions:
- How well does the consultant analyze the problem?
- What possible solutions does the candidate present and are they realistic?
- Are they envisioning working with you long-term?
- How personally interested did they seem in the project?
- Did the consultant ask relevant and thoughtful questions?
- Were you given direct answers to questions or were they avoided?
- Would the consultant pay attention to the emotional or interpersonal aspects of your challenge?
When it comes to making a final selection, it can be tempting to choose the cheapest available option. However, this option can end up costing you more money in the long-run. Make sure you aim to select the consultant that provides the most value to your nonprofit and refer to our price section for some creative ways to offset the expense.
Ready to tap into a community of consultants to accelerate your nonprofit’s goals?
Enact Impact is like an extension of your team: a searchable, sortable, curated community of top talent in social impact, ready to support you on-demand. Our vetted members have an average of 9 years experience helping nonprofits thrive through strategic advice on fundraising, marketing, board & volunteer management, advocacy, impact assessment, and more. It’s completely free to join and to access free, instant, confidential advice on-demand from impact experts.
We’re committed to finding the most talented, most experienced, and most passionate people working for social impact, so you don’t have to. Join a collective force for change today.