Hiring a Consultant

Beware the consultant with all the answers. Beware the consultant who agrees with everything you say. Look for someone who helps you explore your assumptions, what you are seeking, and why.

For instance, if you want to raise more money, what will that mean? If you need a strategic plan, what will that plan result in? You may come to the initial conversation having carefully drafted a “Request for Proposal,” eager to post it online, or blast it out to ten consultants. But hold on. Would you use this approach to find a marriage counselor? How about a car mechanic? A realtor? An RFP invites a consultant to sell you.

Of course, you have a strong sense about what you need. You have filters for your search. You know a lot. If you blow this choice, there isn’t another pot of money for a do over. So, yes. There’s a lot riding on it. Precisely because of that, it helps to come to the process with big ears, and an open mind about what your investment in a consultant might mean for your organization.

A consultant is a business investment that yields short and long-term benefits — especially when you aim for those benefits intentionally. For example, any of the following:

  • A sharper story of impact to attract donors and funders;
  • A program strategy that’s easy to track and convey;
  • A strategic lens to analyze how to respond to opportunities;
  • Lower turnover; or
  • More engaged board members.

These upstream benefits solve downstream symptoms.

To do this deeper work, your relationship with your consultant must be more than transactional. You must be allies. This kind of alliance has three basic elements:

  • Connection
  • Mutuality
  • Agreement on the purpose and approach of the work

If there is not a strong connection, stop. If the CEO or Executive Director feels a strong connection with the consultant and the board does not, stop. A relationship with a consultant is fundamentally about trust, which takes time to build. If you don’t start with at least a sense of connection your chances of getting to trust are pretty low.

Connection is easy to spot. Do you feel at ease? Do your ideas flow? Can you be candid? Do you like one another? Does this person listen? No need to overthink. This is a quick yes or no.

Mutuality is not so quick. Mutuality and buy in are linked. If you see your consultant as the savior with all the answers, if she is going to do all the work while you sit back, or if you are interested in tools and tricks, but don’t want to bother your board, or change your approach, you are setting yourself up for disappointment, and setting your consultant up for failure. Save yourself the money and buy a book.

As you work out your agreement, even if you don’t know all you are getting into, as hokey as it may sound, understand you are embarking on a journey together. Along the way, mutuality means supporting one another and working through challenges as a team.

Finally, agreeing on purpose and approach is an essential part of your contracting discussion. This means agreeing on outcomes, milestones, processes. Build this into your written agreement. Surprises are inevitable. By agreeing on your approach from the outset, you can work together to adjust the plan as needed along the way.

So, you’ve hired a consultant! Because your choice is built on a foundation of shared understanding, mutuality, and connection, you created the conditions for success. Even better, you gained a long-term coach and ally. Maybe even a friend.


Andrea John-Smith helps organizations succeed with a purpose and a plan. Her mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we want and deserve. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

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Copyright June 2017

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