Beware the Off-The-Shelf Consultant


Excited man holding business cardWhen meeting with potential new clients, I am occasionally struck by their “what can you do for me?” or “how much do you charge for an evaluation?” approach to hiring consultants. There is a fundamental flaw in this line of questioning that can doom a foundation-consultant relationship from the start. The approach is backwards, because those foundations are essentially scanning for an expertise that they may be able to use, or assuming a one-size fits all approach, rather than thinking about what they really need.

If you have a program or initiative or planning project that feels incomplete or not quite what it should be, it’s tempting to look around for off-the shelf answers. And there are many pre-packaged consulting methodologies that may or may not be the right fit. Keep in mind that solutions or methods that worked perfectly for one foundation rarely fit as perfectly at another. Because every philanthropic enterprise has different personalities, policies, cultures and priorities – the talents and skills required to address challenges or supplement grantmaking efforts will be different as well.

But be warned that many consultants lead with their methodology. They provide “diversity training” and therefore pitch training as the solution to your needs. The smarter approach is to find consultants who spend more time asking you questions about your actual needs than they do promoting their own methods or models. If you aren’t sure what you need, a good consultant should be able to help you explore the situation, whether through a conversation over a cup of coffee or a more substantial fact-finding engagement or needs assessment.

Here are three ways to protect yourself from off-the-shelf consultants:

  1. Trust your instincts. If a consultant keeps pushing a methodology or program that feels wrong, it probably is. Even if other foundations have used it successfully, you will have the best insights on whether their solution will work for you.
  1. Instead of asking “what can you do for me?” or “we need a strategic plan, what do you charge for that?” say “this is what I think I need and why.” Share your needs as you perceive them. If you are unsure about what you really need, say so. A good consultant will ask the right questions to help you determine your objectives and then give you their honest opinion about whether or not their skills, expertise and focus are the right fit.
  1. Be part of determining the solution. Your relationship with a potential consultant is just that: a relationship. You need to be engaged in determining your needs and the best approach to addressing them. In fact, good consultants welcome your input and ideas in crafting their proposed approach. They may have objectivity and key skills, but you know your organization best. This ultimately makes for more clarity about the expectations of your consulting agreement.

When you approach consulting engagements from a philosophy of “what I need” instead of “what can you do?” you can save hours of time and thousands of dollars, and your philanthropy is much more likely to enjoy greater impact, both from your consultant engagement and in the work you do.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is a nationally recognized philanthropy consultant. She loves asking grantmakers questions to understand their needs, such as “What are your top 3 objectives for the year?”, “If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing at your organization what would it be?”, and “If you could only accomplish one thing this year at your foundation, but it was to be your legacy, what would you do?” If you’d like to have a conversation about your needs and how to dramatically improve your grantmaking, send her an email at or call her at 800-598-2102 x1. Learn more at

© 2015 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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