Engaging Outside Expertise: Do We Really Need A Consultant?

ConsultantServicesIt is very fashionable today to engage an organizational consultant to assist with different issues and challenges faced by non-profit organizations. How does an organization know when a consultant is needed and how is a consultant selected?

A non-profit agency can function very effectively and efficiently and decide to use a consultant to deal with one of a number of issues including strategic planning; campaign planning; the marketing program; staff training; board development; evaluating programs; and generally reviewing the function of the organization among others. How and when does the leadership of the organization make the decision to engage an outside consultant? It is not necessarily a straightforward question and sometimes answering this question is harder than engaging the consultant.

There are times when the need for a consultant is quite clear. There is a decision to engage someone because it appears to be part of the natural evolution occurring in the organization. For example, there has been a decision after a number of years to evaluate a specific program. There is a desire to have someone from outside the agency who is not necessarily either in favor or not in favor of the program provide a study of what the program has accomplished and who has received services. There is a feeling that a more objective and neutral voice will assist the board and professional staff in making a decision whether to continue the service to the community.

In the natural course of an organization’s life it is important to take a step back and to take a look at the overall mission and the direction of the agency. It might be appropriate to have a parallel process taking place involving the board of directors in their realm of work and providing an opportunity for the staff to engage in a similar process in the framework of their work. In both these instances, it is appropriate to have someone structure the purposeful use of time and facilitate the discussions among the members of the board and staff.

As has been discussed in previous postings, a strategic planning process can be very helpful to an organization in looking toward the future and how it envisions its development in the community. It can be very useful to involve someone who is outside the organization to initiate a self-study process that would lead to not only clarifying the agency’s mission but also to building a well thought out process for enhancing the services in the next 3 or 5 years. Often an organizational consultant can provide a non-partisan approach that is welcomed by people who have worked closely for a long time and have been committed to their own perspectives. The important aspect of the process is to enable the board and staff members to think about issues in a different way and perhaps from a different perspective. When someone from outside the organization plays this role, it can free people to think in different and even in more creative directions that will ultimately benefit the agency and the people receiving services.

Of course there has to be agreement as to the need for a consultant. In most cases the executive of the non-profit will suggest someone be engaged to assist with one or more issues and depending on the purpose of the consultation the chair of the board may be brought into the discussion and participate in the decision to engage an outside person. For example, if the focus of the consultant’s work is staff development then the appropriate member of the board would be informed of the activities of the consultant. However, when a consultant’s role is focusing on an issue involving the board then the chair of the board and the relevant volunteer leaders need to be involved in the discussion from the beginning.

In order for the consultant to be effective whether involved in a planning process, a board development process, or an evaluation process there has to be agreement among the key stakeholders in the organization. Much of the important work to insure an effective use of the consultant’s time and the board’s participation is in the preparatory discussion that leads to the engagement of outside expertise. If there is not consensus concerning the focus of the consultation and/or the person selected, this can result in dissension from within the volunteer leadership group and the consultation process will not be effective.

When the mix is correct – the issue, the consultant and those participating in the process whether professional staff or volunteer leadership – then a consultant can assist the non-profit organization in meeting the identified challenges. In fact, an effective consultant often addresses important issues that may not have been raised when the process began with the organization. Engaging a consultant can allow the agency to not only deal with issues in the present but also prepare for how it will meet the needs of the community in the future.

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.