When Engaging A Consultant Who Is The Client?

During the last several years I have been engaged by philanthropists, foundations and funders to provide services to the organization’s that receive funding from a variety of sources of support. The fact that the source of support for the organization is engaging an outside consultant to strengthen the organization’s capacity or to provide services to the board of directors or the staff of the agency raises a number of questions. Who is the consultant’s client? Is it the philanthropist or the organization?

What are the implications for the funder, the board, the staff and the consultant when this situation does present itself? Each has a particular interest in the resulting outcomes. How should this be handled by the funder and by the organization? The issue is complicated because the consultant is providing services to people who have not necessarily selected or hired him or her.

When an entity providing funding recognizes the organization’s need for an external consultant then there should be a process initiated with the board chair and the staff of the organization to reach agreement on the role of the consultant. This means the funder’s interest in strengthen the organization has to be shared with the key players in the non-profit. A situation where the funder decides something unilaterally and then initiates it is not productive for the organization.

Operating independently based on the funder’s commitment to the organization can actually alienate the decision makers in the non-profit. Instead of welcoming the assistance and seeing the provision of additional resources for development of the organization as a positive, it could be viewed as an intrusion. Depending on how it is handled this could be perceived as the funder overstepping the bounds of an appropriate relationship with a recipient organizations.

It is the role of either the funder or the consultant to engage the board chair and the director in a discussion of the funder’s interest and in the reasons the consultant is being hired. Of course it would be best if the board chair and the director have an opportunity to meet the consultant and to discuss the purpose of engaging the consultant and the role he or she would be playing in the non-profit. It would also be a good idea to discuss the range of services that are to be provided and the time frame for the consultant’s engagement.

When a funder has approached me and said that organization “X” needs assistance, my first response is to try and understand the funder’s perception of the need. Following an initial discussion I am often asked, “Well what do you suggest?” or “What would you recommend in this situation?” I let the person or persons who requested the initial conversation know the next step is meeting with someone from the non-profit. Once I have an understanding of the funder’s concern it is important to know how the people in the non-profit see the funder’s questions or concerns and what they identify as their own concerns.

The next step is for me to conduct my own assessment of the challenges facing the organization and to understand the funder’s concerns in light of my analysis. I asked the funder to talk with the director and/or the board chairperson and to let them know he is requesting my assistance and he would like them to meet with me. This process may take between 1 and 3 meetings with the non-profit organization’s leadership.

This process provides the agency’s leadership with an opportunity to experience how I work as a consultant and the way I engage them in the assessment process. There are two processes occurring simultaneously. On one level I am assessing the organization and their leadership and on a second level they are exposed to the way I engagement them and how I would work with them if the funder accepts my assessment.

Once the assessment is completed it is shared with the funder. The assessment includes the recommendations for next steps. Depending on the issues and the role of the staff and board there might be more of a focus on staff development or board development. In some cases the suggested intervention might focus on both board and staff components of the agency’s leadership. It is essential to develop a work plan; measurable goals; and criteria for success that are agreed to by both the funder and the organization’s leadership.

After the funder has agreed with the recommendations for moving forward then I meet with the appropriate leadership of the organization and review the recommendations, as well as, a suggested plan for working with the agency staff and board members. Without their agreement there is no real possibility of being effective. If the leadership is resistant then attempting to implement a work plan to assist them will not be successful. Having said this, by the time I have reached this point in the process with the agency’s leadership I find them open and welcoming of the assistance I am able to provide to them.

Of course the major question, still remains, “Who is the client, the funder or the organization?” Throughout my experience I have found that I am accountable to both the funder and the organization’s leadership. My employment contract is with the funder and my work plan contract is with the funder and the organization’s leadership. Both the funder and the leadership are clear about what services I am providing and the funder is underwriting the provision of the services and the leadership agrees to work with me in strengthening the organization. Without the agreement of both parties (funder and leadership group) it is not possible to be successful in providing consultation services.

The most important aspect of consulting with non-profits when the services are provided by the funder to the organization is transparency. The consultant must be clear with the funder what services are being provided and the organization’s leadership has to want the proposed services. Of course changes can be made along the way and these have to be communicated to each of the parties.

When the process is managed correctly the consulting relationship can be beneficial to both the funder and the organization. The consultation services are then valued by the organization and the funder has a sense of satisfaction in strengthen the non-profit’s capacity to function better.

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.