Setting the Consultant’s Agenda

Setting the Consultant’s Agenda; The Focus of the Work

One of my regular readers has raised a number of delicate and complicated issues about consultants, which are particularly sensitive for me to discuss because I am a consultant to non-profit organizations and donors. When asked questions about the role and focus of the consultant’s work it forces me to respond as if I were looking into a mirror. The issues are not academic and are obviously very close to home. In approaching this topic I have been motivated to not only speak about the ideal consultant and the way that person practices, but to confront issues in my own practice as well.

Perhaps the best way for me to approach today’s posting is to share the questions I received:

“First, the lack of energy, timeliness, and integrity of management consultants – how should board leaders and executives screen, manage, and measure a consultant’s work (benchmarks for costs, timing, work product, etc.). For example, when is a consultant really performing in the best interest of the organization and delivering an appropriate work product as opposed to self interest and keeping the job and looking for future work? What are the hidden aspects of a consultant’s agenda which boards should know? I sit on two boards and find that board members are often so naive that they get swooped up in a consultant’s grand ideas without looking at the real problems they face, rendering the Executive/professional helpless to respond or act appropriately.”

I am sure some of my colleagues may be turned off by these comments and, for the record; they were made by someone who works as a consultant with organizations. Perhaps it takes a consultant to be able to raise some of the sensitive issues about the way we work with non-profit organizations. Without a doubt, these are salient questions and it behooves both consultants and those responsible for engaging them to be clear about the reasons for the engagement and the focus of the work to be done.

The first step when thinking about engaging a consultant is to be as clear as possible about the organization’s need. When there is clarity then the questions asked have to do with the consultant’s role in either meeting the agency’s needs or in assisting the agency in finding a way to meet the needs through the use of existing resources or by securing additional resources. At other times part of the consultant’s role may be in assisting the organization in identifying the real need. Often the presenting problem is not the real problem at all and part of the focus of the consultant’s work is engaging the relevant people to help clarify issues and challenges and decide exactly what they want to achieve.

When there is clarity about the organization’s goals then a plan can be developed to achieve those goals. For example, I was recently asked to meet with the director and chairperson of a community foundation in Israel. Although the presenting challenge was their desire to redevelop their board of directors and possibly to establish an advisory board, the focus changed as we engaged in discussion. It became apparent that the real concern was the strengthening of their community campaign and the focus changed to their desire to involve community residents in fundraising efforts and not to rely solely on donations from people outside their geographical area. By the end of the meeting they were looking at a pilot project involving community residents in identifying the needs of the organization and taking responsibility for raising part of the funds they needed.

As the center point of the discussion changed, I redirected myself and instead of working with them on a longer planning process to redevelop the board, we discussed a more targeted process to assist the foundation’s director in working with community residents. The consultation process would only be for a specific number of hours to mentor her in this new approach. I remained centered on a specific task as to how the director would be able to broaden her knowledge and skills to engage community residents. If the pilot worked she would then be able to replicate the process in other communities.

I was very mindful of using the time available to provide a service to the foundation that they could use and that would provide them with a specific direction based on what they really needed to achieve. Although there was interest in redeveloping the board, it was clear that this was a more complicated political issue and they needed to speak with the mayor and the present board members before they could even initiate a planning process. We left this open and agreed to pursue it if and when the mayor is prepared to engage the chair of the board in a meaningful discussion about a strategic planning process for the foundation.

My services were focused on delivering consultation services that met their present needs and were targeted on assisting them in moving forward in their fundraising processes. I purposely stayed away from encouraging them to implement a broader process that they were not ready for at the present time. My interest was not on promoting myself but on leaving them with a clear direction and understanding of how they could accomplish their immediate goals. As consultants, sometimes we provide more by offering less with a specific focus in mind. When the organization is ready, we will begin to tackle the other issues.

In the coming weeks I will address the other matter the reader raised about the role of consultants in non-profit organizations.

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.