When I talk with nonprofit and foundation leaders, many ask me how to ensure they get the right consultant for their projects. They know that a great match can set their organization up for success, and they want to make sure they find the specialist who really matches their unique needs.
This article was originally published in bloomerang. Click here to read it.
Your nonprofit feels ready or has a clear need to bring in a skilled consultant, but how do you find the right one?
Good preparation up front helps to ensure good results. You’ll want to define your needs and what you need from a consultant. You’ll create tools to help narrow the field to the best match for you. Then you’ll make sure you have alignment and agreement with your key stakeholders before beginning your search.
Note: For this article, we’ll assume a project budget of $15,000-$50,000. If your budget is less than that, then you can loosen up on some of these recommendations.
When you define your project well, you increase the likelihood of project success. This will help you discern what you really need in a consultant, how you will evaluate their suitability up front, and how you will hold them and yourself accountable throughout the project. This will also make your project more attractive to experienced consultants because they tend to prefer clients who have clear expectations.
Pro tip: For larger, more complicated projects, consider hiring a consultant to help you co-design the project. By partnering with a skilled practitioner who understands your needs and is familiar with the field, the proposal you ultimately create has a greater chance of success. They will help you ensure that you have collected and analyzed the right data, accurately diagnosed the challenge or opportunity, aligned the proposal strongly with your nonprofit’s mission and strategic plan, and set it up to attract the right consultants for the job.
Take some time to think through and write out all of the details.
These will likely include:
Use this information internally and share it freely during your search.
Now you need to figure out what kind of person (or people) will help you meet those goals. What do you need your consultant to bring to the table? Potential criteria include but are not limited to:
After naming your criteria, prioritize them. Unless you have a magical budget, expect to hire a human being instead of a unicorn. That means knowing what criteria you require versus the criteria you prefer to have. You want to do this now, before you meet any candidates, so you can acknowledge, manage, and minimize bias in the hiring process.
Pro tip: If relevant to your project, consider including criteria like:
Only add criteria which are clearly measurable, with the measurement determined in advance (e.g., “no more than 5 typos in the proposal”).
You’ll also want to create an evaluation matrix—sort of a scorecard—so you can compare your candidates with more objectivity. Creating this now, before you have actual candidates, can minimize bias in your selection process and help to ensure you hire the best match.
We strongly recommend this technique because unconscious bias can frequently lead us to give preference to people who might not necessarily be the best match, such as:
You’ll find some sample matrices here. You can quickly and easily update them to fit your project.
Pro tip: Consider a blind resume process, where someone otherwise unassociated with the selection process removes information from each candidate’s resume that could create bias: names, addresses, schools attended, and the like. Each resume gets a unique number instead. Names would get added back in for the interview process.
You’ll also want to develop your interview questions now, together with the criteria and evaluation matrix. These three need to work together so that your questions actually allow you to determine whether or not the candidate meets your criteria.
For example, if you want a forthright consultant, you might want to offer them this prompt: “Tell us about a time you had to tell a hard truth to a client. What was the outcome?”
Conversely, if you have “totally awesome” as one of your criteria, how will you measure that and how will you craft an appropriate interview question? If you can’t, maybe you need to rethink the criteria.
Who will participate in this project? And who has influence over its success? Do they agree that it’s time to do this project and with the description, details, and consultant criteria?
Although you don’t always need 100% buy-in, you probably need a certain level of it to achieve project success.
Should you create a full RFP (request for proposals), a process that typically can involve dozens of hours from the nonprofit and many more from each consultant who wants you to consider them?
For very large projects (above $50,000), you may want more detail and formality. You might even have a funder who requires it.
Know, however, that doing a full RFP represents a significant barrier to entry. Many of the most qualified, most experienced consultants refuse to participate because:
Rather than a full RFP, consider instead using a targeted approach. Identify four to six consultants who look like a strong match (more about this in the next article). Reach out to them personally to share the project details. Ask them if they would like to be one of no more than a handful of hand-picked candidates to be considered. This welcoming approach will likely bring more strong matches to the table.
Coming up in article 2: The search and selection process