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[ASK AN EXPERT] When Should You Hire A Development Consultant?

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity. Today’s question comes from a nonprofit employee who wants advice on whether they should hire a development consultant:  

Dear Charity Clairity,

I’m a one-person development shop, wondering if I should hire a consultant to help with some of the work that’s not getting done. I need to make the case for this to my boss. Can you help?

— Wearing Too Many Hats

Dear Wearing Too Many Hats,

To receive your money’s worth from a consultant, you need to know what success will really look like. Sometimes it makes sense; sometimes, you’d be better off with a different solution. In that event, you want to make the case to your boss for the best answer to your problem.

When not to hire a consultant

  1. To do regularly performed work. I have a hunch this may be your situation. If you’re hiring a consultant because you can’t get approval for a regular hire, you’re wasting the opportunity to become self sufficient. You know the old adage: “Give me a fish and I eat for a day; teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime.” If you do get a new full or even part-time hire approved, and want to use a consultant/coach to help train them, that’s a good use of outside expertise.
  2. To reinforce a decision you’ve already made. If you know you need additional staff, and are just using a consultant as “back up,” you may be avoiding the real problem – i.e., the fact that you’re insecure about voicing your decision or fear that you don’t have enough clout with your boss or board to do so. This is understandable, but people who hire consultants for this reason are rarely satisfied. Why? Because you don’t learn anything you don’t already know. Instead, consider placing confidence in yourself and making the real case you need to put forward.
  3. To impress your boss, board, or other staff. You may know someone terrific and think your star will rise if you’re able to recruit them to help you out. This might work out, but the impact will be short lived unless you’ve got the resources to follow up on the consultant’s suggestions.

When to hire a consultant

1. The problem to be addressed is highly technical. You can’t be an expert at everything. Especially if it involves legal, financial, or digital savvy. Here are some of the problems where it may make sense to hire someone who is expert at delivering both state-of-the-art and cost-effective solutions.

  • Develop or switch to a new donor database, CRM, email provider, or website.
  • Develop user-friendly donation landing pages and gift processing.
  • Develop a direct mail donor acquisition program.
  • Develop an email and/or phone number acquisition program.
  • Develop a monthly giving program.
  • Develop a planned giving program.
  • Develop gift acceptance policies and procedures.
  • Optimize content and messaging for mobile and search.
  • Develop a donor engagement survey.
  • Develop a social media engagement strategy.

2. The problem is a one-time or infrequent one. This is related to the situation where you’ve got something highly technical to address, and it’s just not worth knowing how to solve this yourself.

3. To teach existing staff or board how to do something so they can carry on themselves. For example, you might hire a direct mail consultant to teach you all the things you must consider and the best ways to approach and implement them. Once you’ve learned the ropes, you can take this program in house.

4. You need an objective outsider. Even when you have some ideas of what might be best, if you’re really unsure you may benefit from someone with no vested interest in the outcome. This is particularly useful for retreat facilitation and department reorganization. It can also help you set priorities and develop realistic plans and timelines.

What to ask of your consultant

  1. They submit a written proposal. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but you do want to assure you have agreement on the scope of work, who will perform what (i.e., staff vs. consultant), and target completion dates. You also want a fixed fee schedule (either hourly or by the project) so there are no surprises. Make sure you know who is responsible for travel, postage, printing, and other costs.
  2. They want to work with you, not for you. Make sure they’ll involve you in as much of the work as you can reasonably handle. This will empower you, and also assure you don’t wind up with a “canned” solution.
  3. They are a good teacher. For me, this is paramount. The best outcome is when you learn to help yourself. And when you can then transmit that knowledge to others.

Sometimes the best reason to hire outside help is when you need limited-time, hired hands. But, this is no long-term solution. It’s much better to hire a teacher who can empower you and others to put your best feet forward – and feel confident moving forward on your own.

Hope this helps,

— Charity Clairity (Please use a pseudonym if you prefer to be anonymous when you submit your own question, like “Wearing Too Many Hats” did.)

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