5 Tips for a Successful Foundation-Consultant Relationship


Simply choosing to hire a consultant isn’t enough to guarantee a successful engagement. You need to clearly communicate your goals at the outset, and take the time to provide feedback on whether those goals were met upon project completion. Here are few guidelines to help you succeed with consultants:

1. Understand All Your Goals

Before you choose a consultant, take the time to fully understand the problems you want to resolve. Be clear about what you expect the consultant to accomplish and identify all the key stakeholders. It’s also essential to identify any barriers that could influence the project, and to be very clear about your timeframe and budget.

2. Identify the Right Consultant

Once your goals are clearly outlined, you’re ready to find a consultant with the right skills and experience. For instance, you may need someone who speaks fluent Spanish, knows how to conduct qualitative data analysis, and has the interpersonal skills to get along well with your staff. Would you prefer to work with a sole proprietor or a large consulting firm with more capacity? Will you need to develop an RFP to establish a field of candidates or can you source your consultant using referrals from colleagues or professional networks? Once you have your “short list” be sure to check references and conduct due diligence before finalizing an agreement.

3. Establish a Clear Relationship

When you initiate a project with a new consultant, you are laying the foundation for a relationship that could prove to be highly beneficial for you and your organization for many years to come. Take the time to explain your needs clearly and answer any questions the consultant may have. Be sure to agree upon the scope of work: Include specific deliverables, a clear timeline and a set budget. Agree on how you will work together: Do you want to stay informed via email or phone? How often? Do you want to schedule face-to-face meetings at key project milestones? Finally, provide your consultant with all the necessary introductions along with background information and, if needed, infrastructure support.

4. Manage for Success

Even with the best consultant on your team, you won’t be able to delegate everything, so be sure to build in enough time to manage your project. You may want to check in with your consultant on a regular basis to air any concerns, troubleshoot potential problems, review draft surveys and reports, or discuss preliminary findings. Be sure to pay the consultant on time, and remember that if you add deliverables to the contract, the fee and timeline may also need to be extended.

5. Conclude and Debrief the Engagement

It seems obvious, but it is important to officially conclude your engagement when it is complete — or when you’re ready to move on to the next phase. Set a time to meet with your consultant to provide feedback on the deliverable and tell them how you intend to put their findings to work in your organization. Have an honest and productive conversation about the consulting relationship and discuss ways you might work more effectively together in the future. We all learn from experience, and this is where you both have the greatest opportunity to voice what you learned.

Additional Resources

National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers This new organization for philanthropy consultants offers a free, searchable, online consultant directory.

“Working with a Consultant or Technical Assistance Provider: A Resource List” This listing from the Foundation Center provides consultant directories and tips on hiring and working with consultants.

Professional Development Needs of Consultants Serving the Nonprofit Sector See these findings from a survey of 322 consultants conducted by LaPiana Associates, Inc. and Fieldstone Alliance.

American Evaluation Association has a searchable online directory of evaluators.

Succeeding with Consultants: Self-Assessment for the Changing Nonprofit By Barbara Kibbe and Fred Setterberg, The Foundation Center, 1992.

Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly  © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2009

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