This is part one of a three-part series.
When I talk with nonprofit and foundation leaders, many ask me how to ensure they get the right consultant for their projects. They know that a great match can set their organization up for success, and they want to make sure they find the specialist who really matches their unique needs.
Here’s my advice for finding the right consultant for your nonprofit.
Your nonprofit feels ready or has a clear need to bring in a skilled consultant, but how do you find the right one?
Good preparation up front helps to ensure good results. You’ll want to define your needs and what you need from a consultant. You’ll create tools to help narrow the field to the best match for you. Then you’ll make sure you have alignment and agreement with your key stakeholders before beginning your search.
Note: For this article, we’ll assume a project budget of $15,000-$50,000. If your budget is less than that, then you can loosen up on some of these recommendations.
Define your project and the project goals
When you define your project well, you increase the likelihood of project success. This will help you discern what you really need in a consultant, how you will evaluate their suitability up front, and how you will hold them and yourself accountable throughout the project. This will also make your project more attractive to experienced consultants because they tend to prefer clients who have clear expectations.
Pro tip: For larger, more complicated projects, consider hiring a consultant to help you co-design the project. By partnering with a skilled practitioner who understands your needs and is familiar with the field, the proposal you ultimately create has a greater chance of success. They will help you ensure that you have collected and analyzed the right data, accurately diagnosed the challenge or opportunity, aligned the proposal strongly with your nonprofit’s mission and strategic plan, and set it up to attract the right consultants for the job.
Take some time to think through and write out all of the details.
These will likely include:
- Goals – The S.M.A.R.T. methodology provides a good place to start to cover your bases.
- Specific – What do we want to accomplish? Why is this goal important?
- Measurable – How much? How will we objectively know we have accomplished the goal?
- Achievable – Why is this realistic (and not fantasy)? How will we reach this goal? Have we accounted for financial and other constraints?
- Relevant – How is this goal consistent with our mission, values, and strategic plan?
- Time-bound – By what date do we need to achieve the goal?
- Activities – What tasks and actions do we anticipate doing?
- Budget – How much, approximately, do we expect to spend?
- What stage is the financing in (Secured? Partially raised? None raised?)?
- Timeline – How long will the project take?
- Organizational roles – Who has advisory power? Who has decision-making power? Who does the consultant report to?
- Consultant role – Are we looking for someone to advise, analyze, diagnose, propose solutions, implement solutions, or something else?
Use this information internally and share it freely during your search.
Criteria for your consultant
Now you need to figure out what kind of person (or people) will help you meet those goals. What do you need your consultant to bring to the table? Potential criteria include but are not limited to:
- Skills, credentials, and professional experience
- Years of relevant experience in the field
- Years of consulting experience
- Emotional intelligence (communication, self-awareness, interpersonal skills)
- Personal lived experience – Do they come from, or do they have meaningful experience with, the population you serve?
- Do they articulate an understanding of and/or demonstrate affinity for your mission and vision?
- Must they live nearby or can regional, national, or international candidates apply? Why?
- How much of the work must happen on site versus remotely?
- Ability to get along with others
- Forthrightness: Will this person tell you hard truths with clarity or will they sugar-coat the message?
After naming your criteria, prioritize them. Unless you have a magical budget, expect to hire a human being instead of a unicorn. That means knowing what criteria you require versus the criteria you prefer to have. You want to do this now, before you meet any candidates, so you can acknowledge, manage, and minimize bias in the hiring process.
Pro tip: If relevant to your project, consider including criteria like:
- Email responses – timely and thoughtful or late and generic?
- Attention to detail in their proposal and materials (probably relevant for someone whose duties would include copy editing).
- Their website – If this looks sloppy or old-fashioned, you might not want to hire them to redesign your website.
Only add criteria which are clearly measurable, with the measurement determined in advance (e.g., “no more than 5 typos in the proposal”).
You’ll also want to create an evaluation matrix—sort of a scorecard—so you can compare your candidates with more objectivity. Creating this now, before you have actual candidates, can minimize bias in your selection process and help to ensure you hire the best match.
We strongly recommend this technique because unconscious bias can frequently lead us to give preference to people who might not necessarily be the best match, such as:
- The person we really want to drink coffee with
- The person who attended the same school we did
- The person we already know socially
You’ll find some sample matrices here. You can quickly and easily update them to fit your project.
Pro tip: Consider a blind resume process, where someone otherwise unassociated with the selection process removes information from each candidate’s resume that could create bias: names, addresses, schools attended, and the like. Each resume gets a unique number instead. Names would get added back in for the interview process.
You’ll also want to develop your interview questions now, together with the criteria and evaluation matrix. These three need to work together so that your questions actually allow you to determine whether or not the candidate meets your criteria.
For example, if you want a forthright consultant, you might want to offer them this prompt: “Tell us about a time you had to tell a hard truth to a client. What was the outcome?”
Conversely, if you have “totally awesome” as one of your criteria, how will you measure that and how will you craft an appropriate interview question? If you can’t, maybe you need to rethink the criteria.
Getting buy-in from stakeholders
Who will participate in this project? And who has influence over its success? Do they agree that it’s time to do this project and with the description, details, and consultant criteria?
Although you don’t always need 100% buy-in, you probably need a certain level of it to achieve project success.
- Participants – When participants generally agree with the above, know that you value their input, and that their voices carry weight in the preparation and planning stage of a project which primarily impacts them, you can expect richer participation. Engaging them can bring to light critical information and ideas that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Studies show that centering those who are most impacted by the work is the key to any successful initiative, program, or project.
- Key decision makers – What do the people with decision-making power over this project think? The board? The executive director? Key staffers? Funders? You don’t want to spend dozens of hours searching for and selecting a consultant, only to find out that a key decision maker will deny critical support at the end (money, participation, approval, etc.).
To RFP or not RFP?
Should you create a full RFP (request for proposals), a process that typically can involve dozens of hours from the nonprofit and many more from each consultant who wants you to consider them?
For very large projects (above $50,000), you may want more detail and formality. You might even have a funder who requires it.
Know, however, that doing a full RFP represents a significant barrier to entry. Many of the most qualified, most experienced consultants refuse to participate because:
- Responding to an RFP requires a significant time investment.
- RFPs can attract dozens of proposals, meaning a low chance of payoff for that time investment.
- Not going through a discovery process with you makes it difficult, if not impossible, to really understand your nonprofit and how best to address its unique challenges or opportunities.
- RFPs frequently get distributed randomly to hundreds of people. Receiving a random invitation that hundreds of people can signal that you value quantity over quality.
- The projects from RFPs too often get awarded to the lowest bidder rather than the most qualified or best fit for the project—so why would a highly qualified, highly experienced consultant participate?
Rather than a full RFP, consider instead using a targeted approach. Identify four to six consultants who look like a strong match (more about this in the next article). Reach out to them personally to share the project details. Ask them if they would like to be one of no more than a handful of hand-picked candidates to be considered. This welcoming approach will likely bring more strong matches to the table.
Stay tuned for part two, where I’ll discuss the search and selection process, and part three, which will concern justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion considerations.
Need a place to start to find the right nonprofit consultant for your organization? Check out our nonprofit consultant directory!