Tips for Hiring a Consultant

Recently, I came upon a community organization that was using a standard RFP (request for proposals) process to engage a consultant to assist with strategic planning. I started thinking about the process of engaging consultants and best practices for both the organization and the candidates. It is interesting to think about how an organization selects someone who will work with those most committed to the organization and the most appropriate steps to take to select the right firm or person.

Organizations often bring in a consultant after facing a dilemma or conflict and having exhausted all of the human resources available to their leadership, including past presidents and other former leaders, then turn to an outside expert who can help the board and/or staff think through possible solutions. The question then becomes how the organization decides on the criteria and the process for selecting the right person.

In general, a nonprofit organization will want to look for someone who has the necessary knowledge, skills, experience and personality. Often the deciding factor is the “chemistry” that exists between the consultant and the organization’s leadership. But there are some guidelines for how an organization should go about identifying and selecting their consultant.

Unless they have an existing connection to a reputable professional, to ensure transparency, a competitive bidding process should be implemented to identify the most suitable candidates. The implementation of a search process can also alleviate some of the tensions that often materialize when members of the board disagree on which candidate to select.

The process of selecting a consultant is not like requesting competitive prices from a supplier of materials or equipment. For example, a community center looking to purchase the least expensive paper goods or cleaning supplies might draft a list of the items it needs and send it out as an RFP to a number of businesses who supply those materials. In considering a vendor, the community center might take into account the speed and cost of delivery. After analyzing all of the bids received, a decision will then be made based on which company offers the best prices and service and whether it has a solid reputation.

When engaging a consultant, however, the process is very different. You want to meet with the consultant before you receive a formal bid for the services that would be supplied. Other qualities need to be considered are: Is this the type of person the leadership would feel comfortable talking to and sharing their thoughts and feelings?

Does the person seem to have a grasp of the issues confronting the organization? How does the person’s style seem to fit with the culture of the organization? As I mentioned earlier, often the deciding factor of who is selected comes down to the chemistry between the leadership and the consultant. Sometimes the intangible connection overrides even the final price tag or the formal answers submitted during the RFP process.

If a candidate is clearly not a good fit, there is no need to receive from them a formal written document. Often, however, the only way to know if a candidate should respond in writing and submit a formal proposal is to arrange for an initial, in-person meeting. The meeting might focus on the initial reasons the nonprofit has decided to seek out the assistance of a consultant. The participants from the organization might include the chair of the board, member(s) of the steering committee, a former leader, and if appropriate, the executive of the organization. This meeting provides an opportunity for each party to have a clear understanding of the other’s expectations.

Following the meeting, both the candidate and the agency’s leadership can decide if they want to proceed with a formal proposal. If there is a sense that it would not be a “good match” then they can thank the candidate for his or her interest and the leadership will not be wasting their or the candidate’s time. If the consultant has assessed that this would not be an appropriate opportunity then he or she will not submit a written proposal.

The next step would be for those consultants who seem to most appropriate for the job to submit a formal RFP. The agency knows on the onset that a selection will be made from these appropriate candidates, which means any time and effort spent reading and discussing the proposals will be well spent. If it is clear to both sides, however, that the chemistry is not there then there is no need to spend time completing an RFP.

I would go one step further and say that I would be somewhat surprised by a consultant who would submit a formal proposal without having more than a cursory knowledge of the organization, its leadership and the presenting challenges. It is essential to know who the potential clients are and what their interests are beyond a formal written statement. When a formal proposal is developed it takes into consideration the intangible aspects of the working relationship with potential clients.

There is no guarantee that the relationship between the organization’s leadership and the consultant will always work, however, having an initial meeting prior to a formal proposal process can save both sides a great deal of time and effort. When the selection is made by the organization and the consultant accepts the assignment there is a better chance of them being on “the same page” so they are able to work together successfully.

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.