A Fifth Pillar for Hiring and Using Consultants

No. 5: The staff person must recognize the need for the consultant and want her involvement.
by Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D.

How to hire and to use a consultant have been the topics of many of Stephen Donshik’s postings on eJewish Philanthropy. In one he comments that “often the professional staff has had to convince the volunteer leadership that the use of outside resources will insure the financial sustainability of the organization.” This scenario happens, he explains, because “volunteer leadership is skeptical about using their limited resources” for such a purpose.[1]

My question is – what happens when it is the other way around – when the volunteer leadership wants a consultant and the staff is skeptical. I would contend that this is a formula most likely to fail. So while Donshik poses “four pillars” for successfully engaging a consultant for long term financial resource development, I would add a fifth – the initiative must come from the staff person, usually one in an executive position, who recognizes that he needs some help from an outside professional.

Why do I take this stance? I have worked in both positions – the staff person upon whom a consultant was imposed – and as a consultant who was pretty much imposed upon a staff person. When a volunteer insists that there is a need for a consultant, the former is often questioning the ability of the latter to carry out a professional function. The employee frequently does not agree that he needs help and in effect could even be threatened because the volunteer has suggested a lack of knowledge by recommending a consultant. If the employee recognizes the need for a consultant and is willing to learn from him or her, then the four pillars that Donshik states are necessary for the “success of engaging a fundraising consultant” are correct. Moreover, if the volunteers are imposing a consultant on a staff person, often there is something else that is not operating correctly within an organization.

For example, several years ago I was called by the President of an organization and asked to coach the Director of Development. The CEO and President wanted to fire her and thought that if I could help her, maybe they would not have to follow that course of action. This staff person was not only willing to be coached but also really pleased about the opportunity. The problem was that the President had really already decided that the Director of Development would be let go; there was nothing that I could do to help her. As I looked at the problem, it was not the Director of Development as defined by the volunteer leadership and CEO. She was highly recommended and had great potential. The issue was the organization – the President was the founder and couldn’t let go of the development function no matter who was hired to lead it.

When a consultant was imposed on me, I was employed as the senior vice president for development of a state-wide organization. One of my assignments was to create an endowment program. The organization had been in existence for 50 years or more and had a huge number of supporters at all levels of giving.

I had very little engagement with the Board of this organization one of whose members insisted that we conduct a “feasibility study” for the endowment initiative. Given that endowment development is not a short-lived campaign but ongoing and I had spent almost 20 years prior establishing endowment programs including two for Jewish federations, I was knowledgeable about the area and what was necessary to implement a successful effort. Moreover, the fee for the feasibility study was in excess of $25,000 at the time. I explained to the CEO that I thought that the study would be a waste of money, but the precipitating volunteer agreed to pay for half and found another board member to contribute the remaining amount. The originating board member had served on numerous boards and before any of them went out on a capital campaign, a feasibility study was conducted. This person felt that the same model should be followed in this case notwithstanding the lack of similarity in the efforts and my own knowledge base. Moreover, he chose the consultant based on his experience with these other organizations. I went along with the effort since there was no arguing against it and I thought that I might learn something from the exercise. The intraorganizational problems were much larger than this particular incident and I resigned shortly thereafter – although I learned a lot about feasibility studies.

However, in a recent incident that I would describe as a failed consultation, staff was asked by volunteer leaders to hire a consultant to help develop an endowment program. As a matter of fact, these volunteers agreed to chair an endowment committee only if a consultant was brought in – preferably me.

When I heard of the arrangement, I insisted that the lay leaders meet with staff to ensure that they were open to my engagement. That happened; the lay people assured me that the staff was amenable; and the Director of Development and I spent a long time on the telephone discussing the project, expectations, roles and deliverables before a contract was drafted. (The meeting was by telephone because of the geographic distance.) I explained to the staff person that I would work for her and that there would be three products of the consultation all of which were identified in the contract along with the course of action for producing them. Only the staff person would communicate with the lay people although as the process developed, we agreed that e-mails would be shared with everyone. I wanted this staff person to “shine” and this to be her project, not mine. I was very aware of the “10 Traits of a Great Consultant” described by Bernard Ross and Sudeshna Mukherjee in an article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy one of which is to “Remember who’s the star. “ They advise that “successful consultants need humility and must remember that the customer is always the star of the story.”

Returning to Donshik’s four pillars for the successful engagement of a fundraising consultant that began this article, the first is “agreed expectations on the role of the consultant.”

I thought that the Director of Development and I had been clear in this regard. I had stated that I saw myself as employed by the organization and its representative, this staff person; I would report only to her and she would be the communicator to the lay people when we had something to share with them. The problem was that she didn’t tell me when she was speaking with them about our work and I was a little taken aback that she wasn’t forthright about these discussions. While I understood that she had no obligation to tell me about the conversations, I was always surprised to hear about them as an aside.

Donshik’s second pillar is “clearly defined roles for the consultant and the non-profit’s leadership.” This was always “fuzzy” in the case where I was pretty much imposed on the staff. As chairpeople of the endowment committee, the volunteers rightfully needed to be involved in the process of developing a plan for launching the program. They needed to respond to our drafts. However, as noted above, lots of telephone calls occurred when I was not included.

Donshik’s third pillar, “open and ongoing communication between the consultant and the organization’s leadership” is a tricky one. What does he mean by leadership – lay or staff or both? In my case with this assignment, it wasn’t clear. The Executive Director participated in all conference calls and read and suggested changes to the draft documents; the Director of Development reported to her. The volunteers frequently did not agree with the decisions made by these two people. Notwithstanding that all of us would agree to next steps in the process, the latter often did not happen as decided. The staff people followed their own pathways given what may have been pressures on them. The latter were not discussed openly. The communication was oblique at best.

Donshik’s last pillar – “a true partnership between consultant and the organization” – really never happened. No matter what I suggested, the staff person for the most part paid no attention. I would make recommendations both verbally and in writing for various drafts, but I never saw them in subsequent iterations. In the end, she accepted a few of my ideas, but not many. I was not proud of the final product. She wanted control of the project and she kept it. There was no partnership.

While I had all the skills to help the staff person implement an outstanding program with sound policies and a creative and unique brochure, that knowledge was clearly not welcome. As a matter of fact, the staff person had indicated to me that she had had another experience with a consultant who tried to undermine her position, and I promised that would not be my approach.

I paid attention to the advice in The Chronicle of Philanthropy article – “Be a team player” and “gain client trust”. I tried to be a “critical friend” of the client in letting her lead the entire effort and dictate the moves. In so doing I undermined the quality of my own work. I learned that she was probably wrong – the first consultant was not trying to embarrass her but recognized – like I finally learned – that she was not open to using outside help. (That consultant was also imposed upon her since he had been hired before she was brought “on board”.)

And I learned the lesson that there needs to be a fifth pillar to the success of a consulting contract. There must be a desire on the part of the staff for a consultant and the willingness and openness to learn from him or her. The best case scenario is when the impetus comes from the staff person who will be the primary person to work with the consultant. As a matter of fact, in looking over my current assignments, I notice that each was precipitated by the employee whom I currently advise, and while I have met and interacted with the volunteer leadership, all of the initiatives originated with these executive staff members.

Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D., is the author of “Donor Cultivation and the Donor Lifecycle Map: A New Framework for Fundraising”, which will be available from John Wiley & Sons next month. Her website is www.deborahpolivy.com.

[1] Stephen G. Donshik, “The Secret of the Success of Working with a Fundraising Consultant,” eJewish Philanthropy, October 27, 2010. Donshik’s related articles can be retrieved by going to the eJewish Philanthropy website and entering Stephen G. Donshik – consultants.