Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Consultants Must Coordinate Efforts

I have recently been writing about the need for departments within a nonprofit organization to work together as a single team, and for organizations to work with other community entities in true partnership. I’ve been hearing a lot of “Amen,” which leads me to believe that people see the advantages of such holistic approaches and are willing to work toward them. But, there is another area in which this philosophy should be encouraged, yet few organizations even consider it. That is in the use of consultants.

When an organization’s leadership turns to consultants it is typically because that leadership has determined that it requires help with a discrete task such as facilitating a fund raising campaign or a board retreat. The leadership does its due diligence and brings in a person or firm that the group feels has the expertise to move it forward in this arena. The only problem with this is that fund raising, for instance – successful fund raising – cannot occur in a vacuum. It relies on the existence of an infrastructure with policies and procedures, on a board that understands how it can contribute to the fund development process, on the integration of a PR/marketing plan, on research, and so on. The same concept holds true regardless of the identified task. Trying to take one element alone and move the organization forward by committing time and money to just that one element is almost always less than optimal.

Many consultants understand this and try to help the organization see the light. Fine. The only problem with this is if they try to pass themselves off as a Jack-of-all-trades. Such Jacks are often the master of none. Today, as never before, consultants cannot rely on offering up bromides. They really have to understand the trends and nuances of the area(s) in which they consult in order to be of real use to their clients.

This probably means the organization must work with a number of specialists in order to move forward. But, actual damage can occur when the leadership identifies multiple needs and hires an array of different consultants to help the organization achieve its various goals. Why? Too often, while each of the consultants hired may be the best in their individual fields, each is taking direction and offering solutions in a vacuum. The result is that the organization can be pulled in different, if not opposing, directions.

Nonprofits would do well to take lessons from the field of medicine. In the last 15 years it has become the gold standard to go to a Mayo or Cleveland Clinic where the doctors, nurses, therapists, pharmacists, etc. act as a coordinated team, discussing as a team each patient’s needs, treatment plans and physical and mental reactions to the plan. Our sector must start demanding that the specialists they hire work together, creating intervention and accountability plans that are integrated.

Today’s technology, with its ability to promote and enhance communication between far-flung parties, certainly makes this feasible. But, it makes the job of hiring consultants that much more difficult because the organization’s leadership has to ensure that the consultants understand that coming into the organization, doing one’s thing and leaving is no longer sufficient or acceptable. The leadership has to ensure that everyone it hires is committed to the team approach. It has to determine that the chemistry is not only right between the leadership team and the consultants, but among the various consultants as well.

Unless the organization can hire a consulting firm that has the appropriate talent and is built around these principles, the task is daunting. But, it is not impossible. And, the potential for positive impact is huge.


  1. Great discussion starter Terrie.

    We have a great network and team in Australia and USA that comes together to deal with key nonprofit projects. As in business, it is based on personal trust and skills. We work as a facilitating mechanism for a growing network of individual consultants who can be subcontracted. The consultants also operate their own consultancies.

    This structure provides us with the capacity to bring to any specific task a range of relevant expertise that would not be possible from any single consultant without burdening the organisation with an overhead and support cost that would need to be passed on to the client.

    Consultants are only engaged in the network after they have demonstrated substantial work achievement in the nonprofit sector and they are well known to the lead consultant. The consultants then work in a collaborative way familiar to the nonprofit sector.

    Very easy to do, with people you like and trust, which takes away the need to be seen as the answer person, and enables you to truly facilitate and advise on a much larger scale. And it's fun!!!
    -Steve Bowman

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  6. Karen,
    This is a great post. I'm working with a client right how who has broken out all marketing/pr from our development plan, and placed it with a second consultant. Communication just isn't there, and it concerns me, because the message and the Mission and the development plan all have to sync. Thanks for your thoughts.