In the March 15th issue of a local newspaper, Koleinu, there was an article (“Nonprofit Conference Launched for Israeli Amutot by Stuart Issacson) about the recent FONSI (Future of Nonprofit Summit – Israel) Conference in Tel Aviv. The article discussed the major focus of the conference and how it was making an important contribution to the development and sustainability of non-profit organizations in Israel. Overall it was a very positive and complimentary article in recognizing the value of these kinds of events for those involved in the third sector.
However, there was one statement that caught my eye and I thought demonstrated a lack of understanding, “Without having to hire outside consultants or spending large sums of money on identifying ways to keep up with the pace of the modern world, the FONSI conference was certainly a boon to many mid-to-small size nonprofits, in addition to the large organizations.” In writing this the author demonstrates that in spite of his “having worked for a decade in the non-profit world…” he does not fully understand the difference between attending a one day conference and utilizing the expertise of a professional consultant.
Yes, I am a consultant, and one could argue that my writing about consultants is self-serving, however, at the same time I have a broader view of the professional roles in the third sector. My purpose is neither to defend my role as a consultant nor to lessen the importance of conferences. The contribution an outside expertise makes to the effective and efficient running of an organization can only be determined by the person providing the service and the recipients of the service. It is not possible to generalize and state that when the staff of a non-profit organization attends a conference it obviates the need for a consultant to work with the agency.
When the staff of a non-profit organization attends a conference they learn about trends, ideas, and approaches that are general in nature. At the same time the presentations, discussions and seminars can have implications for the organizations they represent. Creative and thoughtful people make the effort to interpolate what they have heard and learned at a conference and glean specific implications for their own organizations. At the same time there are others who will leave the conference with an understanding that perhaps they need outside expertise to deal with issues, challenges, and/or problems they have been thinking about throughout the conference or seminar.
Often a conference is the catalyst for the executive of an organization to realize that what he or she has been struggling with warrants a professional response from someone outside the organization. It does not mean that the existing staff lacks the ability to either diagnose the issue or to deal with the consequences of not responding to the need. The role of the outside consultant is to create a non-threatening atmosphere that supports a process whereby the staff members can deal with the issues they are confronting and simultaneously strengthen their ability to work together.
The terms of the working agreement between the non-profit and the organization need to be clarified prior to the formal engagement of the consultant. The initial discussions between the executive of the organization and the consultant should focus on the focus of the consultation, the staff members who will receive the services of the consultant, and the cost of the service. There should be no surprises either for the client organization or for the consultant.
Prior to beginning to work with the organization, its staff and when appropriate the volunteer leadership there should be a discussion of the length of time the consultant will be engaged. It is not uncommon for there to be an initial six month agreement between the non-profit and the consultant and to conduct a review after these first months. When there is a clarity about the purpose and the role of the consultant then there is not a long drawn out engagement but one that is focused and aims at reaching the agreed upon goals in a timely manner.
It can be very cost effective to work with someone when there is an understanding between the agency and the consultant of what is to be accomplished within the timeframe. When this approach is utilized it is not only more fruitful for the client organization but is also cost effective. The focus of the work is agreed upon by both parties so there is no misunderstanding about what the consultant is doing and the way he or she is using the agreed amount of time.
When the executive and the staff have someone with whom they can share ideas and ask questions then they are able to clarify their understanding of the challenges as well as the solutions. This approach offers guidance that learning about general approaches and principles of practice at a conference do not necessarily provide in an in depth way. Thus, the choice is not either hiring a consultant or attending a conference and saving money. The question is when to engage a consultant to enable the organization to conserve financial resources by working effective and efficiently to meet specific challenges in creative way.
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.