The Client’s Ethics in the Consultation Process

A number of postings have been devoted to the ethics that guide consultants in the negotiations and work with their clients. However, there is another side to the ethical issues in the consulting relationship. I received an inquiry from a reader about the ethics guiding potential clients during the exploratory discussions and negotiations with consultants.

The relationship between the consultant and the client usually begins with a request from the potential client to meet with the consultant. The first discussion is similar to the first date between a man and woman. The process usually takes place on two levels. One level is each one getting to know the other. Many times the client contacted the consultant as a result of receiving a recommendation from a colleague. The second level is the discussion of the challenges facing the agency.

The first meeting is a getting acquainted session where the parties become familiar with each other. The client learns about the consultant’s background and experience, and the consultant learns about the nonprofit organization. Once the nonprofit’s presenting challenge is discussed there is a focus on how the consultant can assist the client in dealing with the issue(s).

In nonprofit organizations the issues span a wide spectrum dealing with multiple issues including: mentoring the CEO, staff development, board development, leadership training, strategic planning, campaign planning, and evaluation of programs, among a whole host of other possible topics and subjects. There is a fine line between exploring the issues the client would like to discuss and the consultant’s beginning to deal with those issues in the course of these preliminary discussions. The client uses this first engagement to decide whether this consultant is the correct one for the organization.

During the first encounter the client will look for indicators such as, the way the person speaks, the conceptual framework the person uses to approach the subjects discussed, the consultant’s view of professional and voluntary leadership and leadership development, the definition of the decision-making process in nonprofit organizations, and other issues. The people representing the nonprofit may even approach the specific subject that is the basis of the request for assistance and sound out the consultants thinking on the issues and how they would be approached within the context of the consulting relationship.

Simultaneously, the consultant will be evaluating whether these people are ready to be engaged in the consulting relationship. It is important for the consultant to assess whether the knowledge and skills that are being brought to the relationship are syntonic with the issues being presented. If yes, then the consultant would be interested in pursuing the relationship, and if not, then the client would be referred to someone else.

The consultant also evaluates whether there is chemistry between all the parties at the meeting. The evaluation of the potential working relationship is something that has to be considered by both the client and the consultant. Once there is agreement that they would like to work together then the process moves to the next level. There are times when the client decides on the spot that there is an interest (or there is not an interest) in continuing with the consultant. At other times the consultant receives a request to submit a proposal outlining the services to be provided and the process of initiating the consulting relationship.

The proposal phase of negotiating the relationship is a sensitive one and is something that both sides have to be cognizant of as they move forward. Well developed and well written proposals can take many hours to complete. These documents reflect not only the thinking of the consultant but also the way in which the issue is be approached in order to assist the agency in dealing with their challenges.

The consultant wants to demonstrate his knowledge and expertise and at the same time the document should be comprehensive and complete. There is a risk to the consultant. The client could use the document to implement the process themselves or identify a less expensive consultant who will implement the proposed process.

This is one of the salient ethical issues facing the client and the consultant. There must be a commitment to a good faith engagement in the process of selecting the right consultant. The information shared by one consultant is not “up for grabs” when a consultant is not selected. There are no formal agreements as to the ownership of the intellectual property when considering the engagement of a consultant. An implicit understanding has to be in place between the client and the consultant that if the consultant is not engaged then the client should not just implement the consultant’s approach.

Yes, consultants face many ethical issues in the way they engage clients, and clients also have to maintain ethical standards in their relationships with consultants. Adhering to these ethical principles will enhance the agency and will set a standard for the professional and volunteer leadership of the organization. It is another opportunity for all of us in the nonprofit sector to not only examine what we do but also analyze the way we do it.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.