by Jan Breiner Frazier, owner, Planning Plus

At some point, nonprofit organizations will find the need to use a consultant, whether it’s to assist with strategic planning, fundraising, board orientation, executive search, marketing or event planning.

If you do, a good question to ask is “Does your consultant always know best?”

While we would like to think so, the answer is “not always.” True, there are many consultants out there with a lot of experience. However, success is often based on connecting with a consultant who is right for you.

There is a different consultant for every type of organizational need, assisting companies that don’t have the expertise, personnel, funds or quite simply the time to really uncover and solve problems on their own.

Our team at PlanningPlus has successfully delivered outcomes in strategic planning, board development, and organizational culture and design for more than 30 years. We have responded to numerous RFPs, interviews, and requests for information, most of which ask for a sampling of past projects, processes, and proposed approaches to a perceived problem the potential client has identified.

While we have both won and lost bids, our most successful outcomes have been achieved when we have worked with clients that are open and committed to developing a true partnership and who share our organizational cultures and values.

When interviewing with a possible consulting partner, regardless of who that might be, make sure to consider the following in your discussion:

  1. Pain point and root cause. When a leader is thinking about bringing in a consultant, they usually are faced with circumstances that require problem-solving. When determining if the consultant is a match, consider whether the consultant has asked enough questions to identify the real pain points of the organization. Often, clients conduct a self-diagnosis to pre-determine the solution to their problem — without getting to the root cause. A seasoned consultant will be able to identify the REAL root cause of your challenge and present options to achieve your identified definition of success.
  2. Past projects. Too often, in RFPs, respondents are asked to provide an overview of successful consultant projects, based on their own definition of success. Be sure to “talk to” the consultant’s clients to ask what worked and what did not, if they would bring that consultant back, and what they would have liked to change. Most of you probably do that anyway but try to get the client on the phone as opposed to email. Very much like tracking down references for employees, you really want to “hear” how they respond to your questions.
  3. Processes. We have seen several consultants who use “templates” — one-size-fits-all — to incorporate into their work. Was this work developed by the consultant or pulled off the Internet? What have been the challenges in adapting off-the-shelf products? What is proprietary to them? The answers to these questions can determine if the consultant will be able to customize an effective solution for your organization.
  4. People. Understanding the consultant’s level of engagement with clients also is important to explore. Has the consultant ever been a hands-on practitioner? And can they demonstrate success? We know that formal education doesn’t fully prepare one for the weird and unusual situations with many clients. Those who have weathered the actual day-to-day challenges you face in your company generally have a fairly large toolkit developed from such experiences.

While this only covers the very top line areas to consider in selecting a consulting partner, this is a good start to begin refining your process in 2022. With the unique challenges we have all faced over the last few years, here’s to starting off the New Year with new energy.

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