Keeping the Client: Meeting the Needs of the Client or the Consultant
One of the most difficult dilemmas faced by consultants is when to complete assisting a client. When there is a good relationship between the consultant and the principals of the organization it is important for the consultant to be clear about the purpose of the issues being addressed and the relationship with the people in the agency. Many organizations find comfort in having an outside consultant who is available to the CEO, senior staff and depending on the issues, other staff members and volunteer leaders.
It is less an issue of being dependent on the consultant, and more about being clear about the purpose of the consultancy services having been fulfilled. It is a question of whether it is appropriate to renew the working agreement with the consultant or to end the relationship at this time. When board members and professional staff are comfortable with a consultant and are working with someone who is congenial and has good communication skills then there is a certain inertia that propels the connection and often leads to the continued engagement of the consultant. Of course issues are discussed, but the focus that first brought the consultant into the organization may be lost.
The questions are, how do you prevent this situation; what responsibility does the consultant have; and what is the role of the organization’s staff and volunteer leadership? Actually it begins with the initial request that brought the consultant into the organization. As in any problem-solving process, the “presenting problem” that was the reason for reaching out to the consultant in the first place, may not be the real issue that is the focus of the consultant’s work.
Once the consultant completes an assessment process and recommends a course of action to the CEO and/or the Board of Directors, then a process is implemented to address the challenges. There may be issues reflecting the need for a more sophisticated approach to staff development, supervision, or administrative issues. Or the concerns may be focused on the structure and function of the Board of Directors in establishing and implementing policies or securing financial sustainability for the organization. In any of these scenarios the CEO and the Chairperson of the Board will agree to an approached suggested by the consultant. Once the proposed course of action is approved the consultant will begin to engage with the appropriate parties in the organization.
In addition to the purpose of the engagement being clearly stated there should be a suggested time frame for the consultant’s intervention and identified benchmarks to follow the progress of the process. Of course there are no guarantees as to the effectiveness of the consultant’s interventions, however, it is imperative that the principals involved have the opportunity to share their impressions and experiences with the consultant. Based on this feedback the consultant knows whether the appropriate process is being implemented or whether changes need to be made in the process with the staff and/or volunteer leadership.
Once the initial engagement is completed within the time frame, the process is evaluated and a determination is made concerning the impact of the consultant’s work on the organization as well as on individual staff and volunteer leaders. This is an opportunity for both those participating from the agency as well as the consultant to have an understanding of what was accomplished during the initial process. They can then focus on what issues still need to be discussed, explored, and dealt with so the organization can continue providing services to the community in the most effective and efficient way.
As is common to all “provider – recipient” relationships, there is a natural tendency to continuing working together when things are working well. I know that I cherish the positive and productive connections I have with the organizations where there is a “natural fit” connecting what I have to offer and the comfortable way I work with the staff and volunteer leadership. Of course when this happens, I would like to continue working with these clients for as long as possible and there is a pull toward continually looking for challenges and issues so the relationship can be continued.
Although continuing the relationship with the organization might meet my needs as a consultant it is not necessarily in the best interest of the client. It is imperative to keep a clear prospective on the purpose of the consulting relationship. It is to assist the organization and its leadership. The consultant must be absolutely clear about this throughout the engagement with the organization and its principal players on the staff and the board of directors.
There is no question that this is a “sticky issue” for consultants and for organizations and both need to be aware of it. When there is open communication between the CEO and the consultant from the beginning of their relationship then the issue can be addressed in an direct way. They both need to understand the importance of continued clarity as to the purpose of the consultant’s service and the agreed time frame for the engagement of the service. This approach provides for a meaningful and productive relationship to achieve the purposes of the consultant’s intervention to enhance the organization’s functioning.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.