Finding the Best Consultant for Your Nonprofit: The Search and Selection
This is part two of a three-part series. You can read part one here. Stay tuned for part three!
Now that you’ve prepared for your search, it’s time to dive into the search and selection process.
The search: Cast a big net
By casting a big net in your search, you dramatically increase your chances of finding the best possible match. To get a deep and diverse talent pool, we recommend beginning by building a list of credible lead sources. Then, proceed to share the project outline and description through multiple channels:
Nonprofit consultant directories – Using a nonprofit consultant directory is the best thing you can do to get a big pool of qualified candidates. Around the United States, you can find a few dozen of these. Most have intentional geographic limitations, but a few like Philanthroforce, Nonprofit.ist, and CGT Connects list specialists from around the United States and beyond. Full disclosure: I co-founded Philanthroforce.
Informal professional groups – Groups exist in some larger cities and virtually on Facebook and LinkedIn. Some organize by specialty area (like this list of racial equity capacity builders) but may not limit their membership to just consultants. Others organize by region (or just as consultants) without regard to specialty area.
Formal professional groups – These exist for many specialties such as the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Grant Professionals Association, which have local chapters and a national office.
Personal networks – These networks include yours, your staff’s, your board’s, and your stakeholders’—including social media.
Pro tip: Reflect on your existing network. Did any limitations come to light during this part of the process? While you can’t change that for this search, what can you do before your next search to make it deeper and more diverse?
Narrowing the field
With a little luck, casting the net wide will get you a bigger pool of candidates than you can reasonably interview. If you really want the best possible match, then this is good news.
Consider your time and capacity as you set clear goals for the candidate search, selection, and interview process. Block enough time on your calendar to complete this process in weeks (not months). That way you can avoid a situation where your top candidates, who were excited and ready to go in July when they applied, are fully booked with other opportunities in November when you get back to them.
Get ready to use the evaluation matrix you created. The matrix is the tool you will use for candidate screening, evaluation, and interview outcomes. Make sure you’ve clearly defined these things in advance:
Number of candidates you will screen
Timeframe for screening
Deadline for finalizing and notifying the candidates based on matrix results
Person who is going to enter the candidate data into the matrix
Once the matrix has been filled in, you should have 3-5 clear front runners, and you can schedule an interview with them.
Pro tip: Decide in advance what you will do if you have too many or too few qualified candidates for the interview stage. If too few, will you go back to the drawing board? Reclassify one or more “required” criteria as preferred? If too many, will you use cumulative score to narrow the field or do you have one or two preferred criteria? By deciding this in advance, you reduce the influence of unconscious bias.
Both you and the consultant will use the interview to figure out whether a strong match exists.
Remember to stick to the questions you developed in advance. That will help minimize bias and help you compare apples to apples. Avoid asking questions that have to do with your personal preferences; instead, ask questions that support competence and capacity for the work. Someone with an HR background can help you get this right and avoid questions that could potentially set you up for legal problems.
Share the interview script with all interviewers. The questions can be asked in rotation.
Aim to have two to four stakeholders consistently involved in the interview. So that you can compare apples to apples, each stakeholder should commit to participate in every 45-minute interview.
Schedule the interview days and times in advance. That way, all interviewers are aware and committed to the schedule as the final candidates are identified and plugged in, making for a smoother interview process for all.
During the interview, speak frankly about your organization’s weaknesses and challenges. Why? Because not disclosing these things increases the odds of a poor and/or poor project design and outcomes. If you have a three-alarm fire happening at your nonprofit, you want someone with the right skills and who can willingly take it on with eyes wide open, right? Remember that the consultant will figure out the truth eventually, but it will seriously undermine trust with you and your organization if you hid it and they found out the hard way.
Frequently, by the time you’ve finished the interviews and completed the corresponding matrix, your choice will become clear. But if not, have a plan ready in advance for:
What you will consider a tie (The same score? One-point difference?)
What you will do in case of a tie (Have another round of interviews? Use the reference checks as a tiebreaker?)
Pro tip: Bias has the most opportunity to appear during the interview. Things like physical appearance, accent, or details of a candidate’s personal history can cause us to reach unfair conclusions about them. That makes the preparation you do in advance to create an interview script, the evaluation matrix, and qualifying criteria that much more valuable. This is what makes sticking with these tools so important if you want to hire the best match for the job.
Your finalist: final steps before signing a contract
Before you sign a contract, be sure to check two or three references. As with the interview process, you’ll want to use a standardized script and matrix to reduce bias. When possible, seek out references from organizations that are similar to yours and for whom the consultant has done similar projects in the past.
In a handful of cases, you may also want to conduct a criminal background check. For example, you may want to do this if the person will have access to HIPAA-protected data or your financial records. Remember with such checks that the existence of a criminal record should not automatically disqualify any candidate. Instead, carefully consider the nature of the crime and how recently it occurred. A twenty-year-old DWI conviction should not create concern for a potential bookkeeping candidate; a two-month-old DWI conviction should inform a decision to hire someone who would drive a vehicle on behalf of your organization.
When writing and negotiating the contract, your project will likely evolve as each party learns new things. Consider this an opportunity for fine tuning that will strengthen the project over the long-run because this ensures that you and the consultant have reached a shared understanding of the scope of work, timeline, budget, and deliverables.
We also recommend a proposal or contract review meeting as a standard part of the contract process. This will help to ensure that key contributors to the work are on board and well-informed. This kind of meeting, also called a kick-off meeting by some, can help both parties gain clarity and likely bring potential misunderstandings and omissions to the surface early (when it’s easier to address them).
Thank you notes
Remember to send a brief “thank you for your interest” email to all candidates who applied once the final selection has been made. This is an important step, particularly for organizations in the social service sector. This courtesy helps boost your reputation with those candidates, makes them more likely to speak positively about you in the community, and increases the chances that they will apply for future opportunities.
Someone could write volumes about everything that could go right or wrong during the engagement. In the meantime, please keep these basic points in mind to encourage a positive experience for everyone:
Create a warm, welcoming presence.
Communicate respectfully, but also frankly, honestly, and openly. It might be helpful to include a communication schedule on the front end of the process (weekly check-in, coaching, or debrief sessions, etc.).
Listen respectfully and thoughtfully. And if it turns out not all key stakeholders are ready to do this, how will your organization handle that?
Stay flexible and open to the project changing. Over the course of the engagement, things will likely happen, or information may come to light, that require a reevaluation of goals and methods.
Thank you for caring about having a successful engagement with your next consultant and for everything you will do to put your best foot forward. Your extra efforts increase the likelihood of you and your nonprofit reaping all the benefits that a skilled consultant can provide.
If you found these articles and resources helpful, please pass them along to your colleagues or other nonprofit leaders and professionals in your network and beyond.
Stay tuned for part three of this series, which will concern justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion considerations.
Sean has served nonprofits for more than twenty years. Most recently, as Mission Capital’s Chief Financial & Operations Officer, he made improvements that reduced waste, generated new revenue, boosted staff productivity and morale, grew financial transparency, and shrank risk. Over his career, he's also helped boards and management to navigate complex situations and consistently left the organizations stronger and ready for their next stage of growth.