Working with Consultants

How to Effectively Hire a Consultant - 5 Tips for a Win-Win Relationship
Nonprofit and foundation leaders are held accountable to their stakeholders to make sure they are using their budgets to garner the best results. A strong relationship with quality consultants can help limited budgets go a long way, so it is imperative that you find a consultant who can become valuable member of your team. Simply choosing to hire a consultant isn’t enough to guarantee a successful engagement. You need to clearly communicate your goals and work together to ensure they are met. Here are few guidelines to help you succeed when working with consultants.
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Why RFPs Waste Time - Choose a Better Approach to Finding a Great Consultant
Chances are, you’ve been in this position: The foundation for which you work needs to find consulting expertise to help with a particular project, program, initiative, etc. Everyone agrees that the first step is to develop an RFP so you can get qualified consultants to respond. It’s a thorough, fair, and transparent process. Right?
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Don't Need a Consultant? 5 Good Reasons You Might Be Wrong
Foundation and nonprofit staff are spread thin enough. There is a lot to do with a limited number of people and a limited number of hours in the day. And there are times when expecting hardworking staff to strategize and carry through an entirely new project, on top of handling their ongoing responsibilities, is asking too much.
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20 Ways a Consultant Can Make Your Life Easier - A Little Outside Help Goes a Long Way

You and your staff can probably, collectively, leap tall buildings in a single bound. But you might not be able—or willing—to tackle every single need that presents itself to your organization. It might be time to hire a consultant. You only have so much time, and sometimes you need a new perspective and a helping hand from someone with an unbiased view and different expertise. If you are wondering just how much help consultants can be, here are 20 ways they can make your life easier.

  1. Perform needs assessments – The more ingrained we get in our work, the harder it is to see the big picture of our organization’s real needs. We may think we need a new grantmaking strategy or an update of our vision, but do we really? A strategic consultant can provide you with an overview of your organization and your work and help you determine where you have real gaps and where you need to make strategic change.
  2. Conduct environmental scans – It would be great to know who else is doing similar work to yours, so you can best complement one another rather than unwittingly compete. And we would all like to know what major new developments are afoot in our field. But you simply don’t have time to do the research necessary. A research consultant may be the best resource for you to learn more about who is doing what work, what’s working, and what changes are on the horizon.
  3. Research grantmaking strategies – If you are in the habit of making grants the same way you have for years, it might just be time to take a look at some new grantmaking strategies. Do you need to rethink your mission? The types of grants you make? The grant size? Or the region in which you make grants? All these questions can be overwhelming. Hiring a consultant to help you research and rethink the best ways to use your funds can help you see financial and organizational benefits now and in the future.
  4. Advise on program development – A consultant with a particular area of expertise—education, grassroots advocacy, mental health, etc.—may provide you with the support you need as you create and grow your foundation’s programs. You are the expert on your foundation, your community, your strategy. Let a consultant be the expert on the program details. This will help you build a better program, and having an expert’s knowledge and support will help you raise your foundation’s status as a go-to resource for that topic.
  5. Review proposals – When you put out a request for proposals, you get proposals back. Do you really have the time to read and carefully consider each one? Strategic grantmaking requires more than just a scan of proposals. Hiring one or two consultants to read proposals and provide you with the strongest candidates can save you time and ensure you are making the best decisions for your grantmaking dollars.
  6. Conduct site visits – Conducting site visits helps build relationships and ensure that your grantmaking dollars are going to the grantees who will put them to the best use. Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts and lack of time often get in the way of a good site visit. Hiring someone to organize and conduct site visits ensures that potential and current grantees are given the time and attention they deserve, and, in return, you receive an unbiased report of the site visit results. This is a win-win for everyone involved.
  7. Coordinate the entire review process – For larger grantmaking programs, managing the flow of hundreds of applications and narrowing them down to finalists can be overwhelming. A consultant can help you orchestrate a system for review, including gathering and coordinating individual reviewers, answering applicant questions, and coordinating site visits among finalists. That means you can concentrate on overall supervision and review only the most promising applications.
  8. Help with organizational development – Board development, staff development, administrative needs, technical support. Where do you begin when it comes to organizational development for your foundation? An expert can help you build your board strategically, provide staff training where necessary, and offer technical support and administrative cost-cutting techniques. By bringing in an efficiency expert, or several experts with different skills, you will see stronger short-term and long-term changes within your organization.
  9. Explore ideas for new foundations – Are you considering creating a new foundation? Do you have an idea for integrated health care, academic changes, or social justice programs for which you see funding gaps? Before you contact an attorney to get started on creating your new foundation, bring someone on board to see what the real needs are, where someone else might be doing similar work, and what changes need to be made to current funding and programs. An investment on the front end will save you time and legal fees down the road.
  10. Assist with ongoing management – Do you need help with day-to-day tasks that have become overwhelming because of unforeseen circumstances or because you have hit the “busy season”? Bringing someone in temporarily to help review proposals or respond to applicant questions, or to help you get reorganized is a great use of financial resources. Your investment in project support ensures a seamless and professionally run organization.
  11. Facilitate board and staff retreats – A half-day, full-day, or multiday retreat is challenging at best. Covering fund-raising, grantmaking strategy, general operational business, and more requires an outsider. A retreat facilitator will create an agenda that ensures that you are covering the right topics, keep participants on track and out of “rabbit holes,” listen for common themes and concerns, and, in the end, help you create and implement a strategy for the future. A great facilitator is one person you always want to consider for your team.
  12. Negotiate multigenerational dynamics for family philanthropies – When you run a family philanthropy, there is no way around family dynamics getting into the mix. Unlike other businesses and philanthropies, at the end of the day, you don’t get to walk away from the relationship challenges of a family endeavor. Keep the personal conflicts out of your business and homes by hiring a consultant to help negotiate the communication efforts and philanthropic challenges when your family’s generations and personalities conflict.
  13. Guide succession planning – Both family philanthropies and other foundations face inevitable changes in leadership. The key is to be well prepared before transition occurs and to plan for it carefully, sensitively, and professionally. Hiring a consultant who specializes in succession planning will help you avoid interpersonal conflict and give everyone a clear, common vision of how your foundation’s leadership will evolve.
  14. Help with leadership development and coaching – When you are responsible for making big decisions, you are perceived as a leader in your organization, in your community, and in your field. Make sure that your words and actions match your leadership role. A good leadership coach will help you outline your goals and ensure that you are able to communicate clearly and effectively, garner support from other leaders, and galvanize others to build community and make change.
  15. Conduct executive searches – When you are ready to hire an executive staff member, the legwork involved in getting to the right executives and screening individuals is challenging. Aside from the time involved, you may be looking at a pool of executives with whom you already have relationships and who need to ensure discretion is a priority in discussions. Working with an executive search firm to handle initial discussions may be a great option for executive-level hiring.
  16. Perform evaluations – When you are close to your grantmaking work and care passionately about it, it can be difficult to be objective. Yet scientific and objective evaluations may be key to sustaining investment in your program over the long term. An outside evaluation consultant can provide a clear, unbiased picture of your program’s effectiveness and help you recognize successes, anticipate upcoming challenges, and make plans for improvement that will enhance sustainability. On the flip side, a good evaluation can also show that other investments may be more fruitful for your foundation.
  17. Develop marketing communications – Communication and marketing strategy require communication and marketing experts. Often we think we can create a communications plan for an initiative, handle media relations, develop a budget, and create a compelling visual campaign. What we end up with is a weak effort made weaker by our lack of time and expertise, and finances that are squandered. A good communications consultant is going to save you time and, ultimately, provide you with a financial savings.
  18. Strengthen your brand – Whether you know it or not, your foundation has a brand and an image. An expert branding consultant will help you decide what the brand will be and how it will be projected, rather than allowing uncoordinated internal actions or outside forces to shape your image. Once you have developed a clear brand and brand strategy, you’ll find it enhances every aspect of your programmatic and communications work.
  19. Provide legal or financial advice – Some situations simply require a consultant, no questions asked. When you need financial advice or legal expertise, you need a finance professional or an attorney. With all of the loopholes and unknowns in these areas, you never want to risk taking a chance or making a mistake that can be financially draining or devastating to your organization’s reputation. Hire an attorney or financial advisor/CPA with expertise in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.
  20. Explore new funding – Does your foundation need new resources for funding options? Have you tapped your usual businesses, community partners, and donors? Where can you find new financial resources? There are people who are devoted to finding you new revenue streams. They already have ideas that you haven’t considered, and they can research more. Let them partner with you to learn your needs and share what is out there with you. They may even be able to make introductions for you, to make the first meeting a little easier.

Consultants can assist your foundation or nonprofit in just about any aspect of your work. Bringing one on board may be the best decision you make today. Think about where you might need some new views or a person who can devote more time to a project. And then do some research about consultants who have what you need. Explore the list of vetted consultants at the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers ( and ask other foundations or trusted partners about whom they used. By developing a list of potential consultants now, you will save yourself valuable time when you need one in the future.

©2014 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution. Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is president of Putnam Consulting Group, Inc., a national philanthropy consulting firm. She is also the author of the Philanthropy411blog. She can be reached at 800-598-2102800-598-2102 or Her website is

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Don't Do It - 10 Mistakes to Avoid When Hiring Philanthropy Consultants

By Kris Putnam-Walkerly

When you need to hire a consultant, the pressure is on. Time and money are at stake, and so is success. My work with foundations and nonprofits over the past two decades has given me the chance to observe firsthand the errors that people commonly make when trying to hire a consultant. The next time you need a consultant’s help, I hope you will save your valuable time and resources by avoiding these hiring mistakes.

  1. Developing the entire scope of work by yourself

When you hire a consultant, you should not simply hire someone to implement your ideas and plans. A seasoned consultant should bring a toolbox of ideas and a wealth of experience to help you fully unpack your needs and identify a range of approaches and possible solutions. A consultant should help you develop answers to questions you had not yet even considered. Writing down your thoughts about your needs, the solutions you are seeking, the anticipated deliverables and results, and potential approaches will be helpful for you and for the consultant, but that should be the starting point of conversation, not the ending point. Make the most of your consultant’s valuable experience and ask for opinions and guidance on the scope of work that is needed.

  1. Obtaining bids from dozens of consultants

I was once asked by a community foundation to submit a proposal to conduct an evaluation. I asked how many other consultants the evaluation director was requesting bids from. “Fifty,” he said. “Fifty?” I replied, stunned. “Five-zero?” “Yes,” he proudly answered. “I prescreened fifty evaluators and I sent them all the RFP.” This was to conduct a $40,000 evaluation.

I politely declined, since my three-year-old could do the math and realize the chances of success were low. (I would rather focus resources on clients who seek us out because of reputation or past success working with their organization). Months later I checked in with the foundation’s evaluation director. He was exhausted and overwhelmed, and he’d had to postpone other projects he was working on. It turned out he had indeed received an overwhelming volume of proposals that he had to sort through and vet. Then he’d had to determine finalists and interview them, all before he could make a decision and actually hire someone.

This process probably took him six months from start to finish. The evaluation itself could have been conducted in that time frame. Consider the time and expense of all that staff time: annual six-figure salary of well-paid evaluation director (plus benefits) plus annual salary of decently paid program associate (plus benefits), divided by 2,080 working hours per year (to determine hourly rate). Now multiply that hourly rate times the hours spent identifying and prequalifying 50 evaluators, preparing and disseminating the RFP, responding to dozens of inquiries, reading 40 proposals, vetting and prioritizing them, conducting due diligence, interviewing, declining 39 of them, and finally hiring one. They probably spent half of the $40,000 project fee just on hiring the evaluator. Meanwhile other important evaluation projects got sidelined. That is not a position any philanthropy professional should put themselves in. Research your options, ask for recommendations, and be choosy up front — before you send out any RFPs.

  1. Requiring multiple bids for every project

Even worse, some foundations create policies requiring that every single time staff hire consultants, they must obtain multiple bids—at least three of them. This is a common mistake. True, three proposals is not as bad as the 40 mentioned above, but this policy just instills time-wasting across the board. If you or your staff know of a terrific and qualified consultant, one who has worked with you before and given high-quality results, why not hire that consultant again? You will save everyone time and money—surely a better measure of good financial stewardship than reinvesting in an unnecessary, costly, and time-consuming RFP process. You will also avoid micromanaging your staff, who are talented enough to hire good consultants. You can invest less staff time and get a better result by drawing on your own successful experiences working with particular consultants, or by seeking referrals. Then invite two or three of those consultants in for meaningful conversations. Be open about the fact that you’re talking to other consultants, and about how you will ultimately make the hiring decision. You will build your network and find the right consultant for your current need—all with a process that is faster and less expensive than blindly requiring an RFP process every time.

  1. Failing to source potential consultants

In my experience, the best philanthropy professionals continuously keep track of potential consultants. Do this on an ongoing basis, when you don’t actually need to hire anyone. Otherwise, when you do need to hire an outside consultant because you have a sizable and urgent problem, you might rush to hire someone who isn’t the right fit.

You can find consultants for your virtual stable in a variety of ways. You might meet consultants at conferences or workshops; you can talk with colleagues who are working with consultants and ask whether they are happy with the performance; you might know colleagues at other organizations who have recently left their jobs to begin consulting; you can turn to the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers’ online directory of consultants. Keep track of these consultants (categorize them in your contact software, keep business cards in an envelope in your desk, create a simple spreadsheet — whatever works for you). Note how you met or learned about each consultant and why you thought they might be helpful (since you won’t remember a year later, when you need them). If you have the opportunity, schedule time to talk with each by phone or over coffee to learn more about their work and what they have accomplished for other philanthropic organizations. That way, when you need someone, you have a group of consultants to turn to that you know, like, and trust.

  1. Forgetting to ask colleagues for suggestions and advice

All around you, your colleagues are hiring consultants. Their experiences with consultants vary from fabulous to mediocre to flat-out painful. You want to make sure that you talk to colleagues and learn from their experiences. Who have they worked with? Who do they recommend? Which consultants didn’t work out, and why? If they could hire the consultant all over again, who would they hire this time (and what else would they do differently)?

These colleagues may come from your own organization, they may be people you know through funder networks and affinity groups, they may be funders involved in your local regional association of grantmakers. Try to talk to people who have had similar projects and needs. If you need an evaluator, check in with people who hired evaluators. If you need someone to facilitate a series of stakeholder meetings and summarize recommendations, then suggestions of fabulous evaluators won’t be as helpful. Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t need to. Ask for suggestions and recommendations.

  1. Blindly following your colleagues’ suggestions

This probably sounds like I’m contradicting myself, but just because a colleague strongly recommends a consultant doesn’t mean that consultant is the right fit for you. Your considerations and needs may differ widely from your colleague’s. The size and scale of the project, project time line, expertise required, and familiarity with certain communities or organizations are all variables, so what worked for your colleague may not work for you.

For example, an independent consultant might not be able to scale up to a national project requiring hundreds of interviews and focus groups in multiple cities; a large firm might be perfect but committed for several months, and you need to start right away; or you might need someone who is not only a great facilitator but is already known and trusted by your key stakeholders. Ask for recommendations, but consider the unique needs that your colleague’s consultant was meeting as you try to evaluate whether that is the right consultant for you.

Also, bear in mind that there is one difference between your needs and your colleague’s needs that trumps all others: trust. At the end of the day, you need to trust your consultant, and trust is something that only you can know and feel. This brings me to the next mistake to avoid.

  1. Ignoring your instincts

If I could advise funders to do one thing when hiring a consultant, it would be to trust your instincts. Do your due diligence, yes, and do everything you can to avoid the mistakes we’re discussing here, but ultimately you must trust your consultant. Trust means getting in touch with your instincts during the hiring process. The consultant might look great on paper — all the right experience, impeccable client list, glowing references — but if that voice inside of you is saying, “Get me outta here,” then you need to go. Move on. Take the time to find someone who knocks your socks off, whom you can’t wait to start working with, whom you feel you can trust to guard your deepest concerns about your work and your organization, knowing that this information will not get shared elsewhere. This can be the hard part, because you probably needed to hire the consultant last week and launch the project yesterday. But I am asking you to trust me: You will save yourself tremendous amounts of time, money, and frustration if you spend a little more time now finding the right consultant for you.

  1. Assuming any consultant can do everything

When I started my consulting practice in 1999, I was surprised by how many people asked me to help them with projects in areas I knew nothing about, had no experience in, and was not promoting among my services. For example, I’ve been asked countless times to help with fund development, often by people who know me quite well and claim to have reviewed my website and marketing materials. Fund development is important work, but we don’t do it and you’ll never see it mentioned on my website. I’ve concluded that this happens because I have the word consultant associated with my name, and somehow we have all collectively concluded that if someone has the confidence to put out their shingle and declare themselves a consultant, then they should be good at . . . well, everything.

In reality, you want a consultant who has tackled your problem successfully for many similar organizations. You don’t want to be on their learning curve. A focus group is a qualitative research method requiring trained facilitators; it’s not simply a matter of getting a bunch of people in a room, asking questions, and taking notes. If you need to conduct focus groups, hire someone who is a fabulous focus group facilitator. (Better yet, hire someone who’s familiar with a range of research methodologies and pushes back a bit to help you determine whether focus groups are the best way to get the information you need.)

Of course, there are transferable skills, and the consultant doesn’t necessarily need to have deep content knowledge to help you design your new funding initiative — but avoid consultants who bill themselves as a jack of all trades. They might try to do a lot, but they can’t excel at all of it.

  1. Failing to check the consultant’s references and work product

You’ve identified consultants, talked with them about the project, reviewed their websites, and found one you’re excited about. You hit it off, and he or she really understands what you are trying to accomplish and brings tremendous experience both as a grantmaker and consultant. Terrific.

Now you need to do three things:

  1. Request information or deliverables from similar projects — copies of reports, videos of presentations, strategic plans, evaluation findings summarized for boards. Request whatever is similar to what you need, and review it all. Carefully.
  2. Request several references from relevant clients. (“Relevant” might mean other community foundations this consultant has worked with, because yours is a community foundation. Or it might mean other clients for whom the consultant has facilitated “theory of change” planning projects, because that’s what you need.) Now, identify a few clients that the consultant worked for but did not list as references and call them, too. You can figure this out by looking at the consultant’s project or client list, or by talking to people you know at other foundations where he or she has consulted. Listen carefully to what they have to say and take notes. Be sure to inquire about any concerns and ask whether they would hire this consultant again.
  3. Trust your instincts regarding any red flags that emerge. Follow those instincts by obtaining more information. Do this by talking to more references, reading more writing samples, and talking to the consultant himself or herself about your concerns.

I often hire other consultants as subcontractors, and I always check multiple references and review samples of their work. Once I hired a consultant but ignored the red flags — and paid the price. Two references were glowing, but one hesitated to recommend her. This reference reassured me that the consultant was dealing with a family emergency at the time she worked for him, so that was probably the cause of the poor deliverable. When I read one of her writing samples, I had a hard time following it. But I concluded that it was an academic paper (not the style we generally use) on a topic I knew nothing about, so the problem was probably me, not her. Months later she sent me her draft report for our project. It was poorly written and horribly organized. I spent one week of my two-week vacation reorganizing and completely rewriting her report — exactly what I could have anticipated if I had paid attention to the red flags. Needless to say, that is not an experience I will ever repeat, and I hope to save you from just such a mistake.

  1. Taking more time to hire the consultant than you allow for the project

I once received an RFP from a foundation looking for a consultant to do the following: Conduct a comprehensive review of youth development services in the community, facilitate a series of conversations with local stakeholders to prioritize needs, and develop a written set of recommendations to guide the foundation’s grantmaking. The consultant was given two months to accomplish these goals from start to finish, which was completely unrealistic. The foundation gave itself more time — three months — to find the consultant!

If you think you need three months to hire a consultant, consider that the consultant might need more time to do the job. When it comes to a productive working relationship with a consultant, expectations are critical. No consultant can succeed when pressured to do a job with unrealistic expectations (insufficient time or resources to meet the goals). My best advice, as I’m sure you would guess, is to learn from others. Ask coworkers as well as colleagues at other organizations about how much time they’ve allotted for similar goals and initiatives. Then ask your prospective consultant how much time is necessary to complete the work. I’m not suggesting that you don’t set deadlines or that you allow the consultant to set them. I am simply suggesting that you set realistic deadlines, and those are best developed with some quality input.

The best time to find a consultant is when you aren’t in desperate need of one. Many of these mistakes can be avoided by setting up some good practices and procedures right now. Do your research and stay in touch with colleagues and consultants. Talk to coworkers and colleagues about their projects and experiences. Above all, ask questions. Build a virtual stable of consultants to pull from, and don’t neglect to check in and update that list. These simple steps will help you to avoid critical mistakes when you can least afford them.

As a consultant, I love to uncover what works, but I know that it’s just as valuable to understand what does not work. Let’s help one another learn what to do and what not to do. If you’ve made a mistake in the past when hiring a consultant and you don’t see that mistake addressed here, I would like to hear about it. Please email me your story at

© 2014 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution. Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is president of Putnam Consulting Group, Inc., a national philanthropy consulting firm. She is also the author of the Philanthropy411 blog. She can be reached at 800-598-2102 or Her website is

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What To Do When You’ve Inherited a Consultant

You’ve landed your new job. Your vision is big, and so is your to do list. You’ve got to deliver, and quick. Luckily for you, they’ve already hired a consultant to help you.

Right? Maybe not.

A good consultant is a trusted advisor with the experience and expertise to help you accomplish your goals. In many cases, they can help you unpack your real needs, understand your true objectives, and work with you to determine and the best solutions. The person your predecessor hired might or might not fit the bill. Let me tell you a story about this scenario going well, and then share examples of what can go wrong, how to identify red flags, and what to do about them.

A few years ago, the Cleveland Foundation hired me to help their new program director design and launch what would become their largest grantmaking initiative in 93 years. Much to my chagrin, the program director had had no input into my selection, but was simply told, “Meet your new consultant!” The program director didn’t feel like she had a choice in the matter, being so new to the organization, so I made it clear that I wanted to work together with her, in a way that supported her best. We took it one step at a time, developing a relationship. We talked about our lives. I gave her the inside scoop on my favorite restaurants. She gave me parenting tips for the three children I was about to gain through marriage.

The outcome? We developed a fabulous working relationship and I helped her obtain board approval for the initiative. Later that year I invited her and her husband to my wedding. They had a blast. Six years later I noticed she still had my family Christmas photo card up in her office — in July. She has since hired my firm 9 times for additional projects.

We were lucky. We clicked, personally and professionally. We were able to develop a genuine relationship based on trust. My firm over delivered, and so did she.

Sadly, it doesn’t always go so well.

Sometimes, an inherited consultant can be territorial, offended or wary that a new individual contact within a client foundation may come in with a different agenda. Some are simply reluctant to change. Others may genuinely miss the loss of a great relationship with a predecessor. But whatever the reason, both consultant and client need to make it work. Here are some of the road blocks that can keep that from happening:

  • No relationship. As I explained above, successful engagements are rooted in strong relationships. These take time to build, and they require a comfortable give-and-take of both personal and professional information.
  • No trust. Lack of trust is a deal-breaker. Both consultant and client need to feel that the other is working honestly with them and will defend their mutual decisions if needed.
  • Consultant doesn’t bring the expertise you need. While your predecessor may have leaned heavily on a consultant for content knowledge but not for communications savvy, for example, your needs may be quite the opposite.
  • Consultant doesn’t deliver. Your predecessor and the consultant may have fallen into a comfortable routine in which expectations were gradually lowered. As a result, the product your consultant delivers may seem sub-par.
  • Your vision is different from your predecessor. The consultant you inherit may be highly capable, but pursuing an agenda that was established before your arrival (or even one you’ve been expressly hired to change).
  • Consultant is great, but not for you or this project. Sometimes it just doesn’t “click” and it’s no one’s fault.

What To Do

Just because you inherit a consultant doesn’t mean you have to rush into a decision about whether or not to continue the relationship. Give it time, and take the following steps.

  • First, assume the consultant is fabulous and see if you can make the relationship work. You might have hit the jackpot. Take that attitude and explore the relationship. Don’t assume this won’t work out, but be cautious.
  • Review their proposal and contract, so that you understand the terms, deliverables, timeline, and the termination clause. 
  • Ask the consultant to bring you up to speed – how were they hired, what have they done so far – and to tell you more about their consulting experience, results they have delivered for other clients, etc.
  • Spend time with the consultant in different settings – work, go out to a restaurant for lunch or dinner, listen to them speak, see how they interact at a philanthropy event, etc. 
  • Try to build your own unique relationship from the ground up, rather than trying to stuff yourself or the consultant into the roles established by your predecessor.
  • Be crystal clear about your expectations. What kinds of skills do you want the consultant to bring to the relationship? Which of their skills do you need them to step up or dial back? What’s your work style? How often would you like them to check in and how?
  • Ask the consultant to do something immediate and specific for you with a clear deadline — such as producing a summary of work to date, conducting online research and writing a summary, or facilitating a meeting — to test their capacity to deliver and the quality of their work. 
  • Learn about the relationship of this consultant to your colleagues. Is she the best friend of your board chair? Had she worked with your predecessor for a decade? Put your potential new relationship into the larger context to better understand how it might move forward.
  • Do your own due diligence. Call the consultant’s past clients and review past work products. Find out if other members of your foundation staff have worked with the consultant and what their experience was. See if the consultant is a member of any certifying organization or professional groups, such as the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers.

Red Flags

While I’m all for entering a new relationship with an inherited consultant optimistically, there are a few indicators that this may not be the relationship for you. For example:

  • You’ve been on the job for a while, but the consultant has never contacted you. They knew they were under contract but didn’t reach out. Why? Were they hoping to get paid for doing nothing? 
  • You don’t enjoy talking to or spending time with the consultant. Things just don’t “click,” or there’s no real relationship developing. Again, this may not be anyone’s fault, just a matter of fact.
  • You are avoiding the consultant. Be honest with yourself about why you are reluctant to engage. Is there something wrong with the personal or the professional aspects of the consultant? Is it something you can or want to address?
  • You don’t feel comfortable having this consultant represent you or your foundation to peers. This may just be a feeling in your gut, but perhaps the consultant is too salesy, too cold, or too casual to feel like the right fit.
  • The consultant isn’t delivering. Perhaps he or she is missing deadlines, offering poor quality, or doesn’t understand what you need.
  • The consultant has a very strong personal relationship with someone else in the organization, and you suspect that is why they were hired (not because of the quality of their work). See the point above. If the consultant isn’t delivering or the relationship isn’t your own, it may be time to say goodbye.
  • You’ve checked around and other funders have had mixed or negative experiences. Chances are the consultant is either a strong fit for some clients and not for others, or just isn’t all that good. If the former, which kind of client are you? If the latter, well…
  • You have that funny feeling. Even if the consultant is “good on paper,” you need to trust your instincts. If your gut says “no way,” then you should probably say “no thanks.”

When and How to Let Go

Just because a consultant has been hired – and potentially paid for in advance – doesn’t mean you need to keep working with them. You are far better off ending the consultant relationship early, even at a financial loss, then continuing on and hoping for the best.

To continue working with a consultant you don’t like or isn’t delivering will only cause extensive stress. It can also potentially cause you a lot of time and money, especially if you have to clean up after the consultant or hire someone else to fix what they’ve done wrong. Allowing the wrong consultant to stay on can also cause damage to your project if they aren’t delivering for your partners or are representing you poorly in meetings.

Of course, keeping the wrong consultant is also unfair to the consultant. Even if he or she is a great consultant, they may not be the right fit for you or for your project. Perhaps they were hired for something else that you no longer need. Keeping them on can set everyone up for failure.

Here’s the best way to say goodbye:

  • Be honest with the consultant. Let them know your concerns and give them some opportunity to prove themselves and start your relationship anew.
  • If you need to terminate the relationship, explain why and be clear about how you’d like to tie up any loose ends.
  • If the consultant is terrific, but just not right for this particular project, see if there are alternative assignments within your foundation. Perhaps you can revise the contract so that they can assist you or your colleagues with some other needs (research, planning, facilitation, writing).
  • Offer to help the consultant by providing leads or referrals to other projects where he is the right fit.
  • Compensate the consultant fairly. Remember that she entered the agreement in good faith and was counting on the income. She might have turned down other projects to block out time for yours.

Making the Most of Your Inheritance

It is entirely likely that your inherited consulting relationships work out fine. Just remember that the transition to a new client can be just as unsettling for the consultant as it is for you. But if you’re both honest with one another, sincere in wanting to build a productive relationship, and clear about expectations, you’re likely to build trust faster and more completely, and create a working partnership that will serve you both well for years to come.


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