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How to Work with Consultants

Have you wondered why people hire consultants?

Have you wondered how to go about finding and hiring a consultant? Are you a consultant who wishes organizations had some insider's knowledge about working with you?


Here are tips for hiring and working with consultants.

Consultant Cartoon, New Yorker.png

Have you wondered why people hire consultants? Have you wondered how to go about finding and hiring a consultant? Are you a consultant who wishes organizations had some insider's knowledge about working with you?


I'm going to give it to you straight and share tips from both people who hire consultants and from consultants themselves about what they wish you knew.

I reached out to a variety of people who I know hire consultants for various reasons. I asked them to respond to five questions. Here's what they had to say:

What were the circumstances under which you hired a consultant (e.g., needed specific expertise, had a grant requirement to fulfill, seeking to make a specific change or answer a particular question, short staffed, etc.)
Michael Westover, Executive Director: The Center for Literacy regularly hires consultants. We have used consultants for resource development, marketing, curriculum development, staff professional development, executive coaching, and strategic planning.

David Ferris, Philadelphia LISC: Needed specific expertise.

Executive Director of a foundation and sometime consultant: Short-term fill in for staff on leave or away.

What is your best advice for an organization seeking to hire a consultant?
Michael Westover, Executive Director: Speak with colleagues/peers to hear their experiences working with consultants early on, after you have responses from an RFP, during the time you are working with the consultant. They can give you great advice about where you are on track in your relationship and where you may be going wrong. Don’t waste a consultants time and money or yours. Be clear about your goals before you start. Consultants find it difficult to get you where you want to be within budget, and on time, if you have no idea what you want them to help you do. Write a good RFP with clear budget requirements and goals. Don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board if you start working with a consultant and realize early on that they may not be a good fit.

David Ferris, Philadelphia LISC: Hire a consultant when you need specific expertise and you have enough bandwidth to manage the consultant to produce the deliverables you want. Be as clear as you can be with the consultant what exactly you expect them to produce in terms of deliverables. Make sure the consultant shares your organizations values and has a track record for delivering the kind of deliverables you are after. A consultant who takes initiative and “manages up” is ideal.

Executive Director of a foundation and sometime consultant: Take enough time to see if the consultant is a fit for your organization’s size and style. If it doesn’t feel like you want to work with this person, keep looking. Be very specific about the activities to be accomplished, timelines, the balance of work between consultant and staff.  Make sure you define your terms so that you are getting what you think you are getting.  Ask your peers for references, especially organizations like yours. A consultant for/from a very large organization may not be a fit for an all-volunteer or community-based organization. Finally, make sure you are clear what the fee includes;
watch for extra charges for travel, parking, fed ex when you don’t really need it all that fast.

What has been your biggest challenge working with a consultant?
Michael Westover, Executive Director: Be clear what you want to do before you start. Consultants aren’t mind readers. At $X/hour, you can overrun budget and destroy your timeline if you spend a lot of time meeting with the consultant trying to figure out what you hired them for. If staff other than yourself will be working on and/or handling the project, make sure your team understands your vision and goals for the project. Clearly identify the authority figure/decision maker for the consultant.

David Ferris, Philadelphia LISC: Hiring the wrong consultant, whether in terms of expertise or values, means more work for your staff who are managing the consultant. The worst is when you have to chase the consultant down for deliverables and/or redo their work because they don’t understand what you want or don’t have the expertise to provide what you want.

What lessons have you learned by working with a consultant?
Michael Westover, Executive Director: If you feel the relationship may not be working out, speak honestly with the consultant about what you are thinking and how you feel. Don’t be afraid to start over with a new consultant if you realize early on that they may not be a good fit for you. Again, don’t waste their time and money or yours. It is good to get an outside view of your work. Listen to your consultant when they tell you how they see your work and your project. Take their advice if it’s good. You don’t have all the answers yourself.

David Ferris, Philadelphia LISC: Managing consultants has taught me invaluable skills in management and partnership, as well as the skills required for each of those.

Executive Director of a foundation and sometime consultant: It is all about the fit! Sometimes the big name firm or consultant will bring expertise or networks in a particular area that are worth every dollar, if you can afford them.  Other times, you get a cookie-cutter consultation that does not meet your needs. At the same time, make sure the folks you are hiring know more than you do if that is what you need.

Janine Wright, Longtime Non-profit Program Director: I have learned to listen and appreciate what a good consultant can bring to the table.  The best case scenario is that the work will showcase the best of what you both have to offer.

Other insights/ideas?
Michael Westover, Executive Director: I have found that working with consultants is a great way to accomplish work that is outside of staff position descriptions. Great staff members may really want to work on a special project, but the reality is that their regular duties either are ignored or hinder progress on the special project. Also, it’s great to teach others about your mission and have them become champions for the cause.

David Ferris, Philadelphia LISC: Treat your consultants well, like part of your team, and they will want to produce the best product they can for you.

Janine Wright, Longtime Non-profit Program Director: Just a re-emphasis on doing everything possible to have a clear idea of what is wanted before bringing someone in. Sometimes internal stakeholders aren't on the same page and it wastes time, energy and money if the consultant has to figure out what several people mean or gets several sets of marching orders.  That is a frustrating situation for all involved.

Here's what consultants shared with me when I asked them this question: What do you wish people knew about hiring and working with a consultant?

















Tell the consultant the budget you're working with so that they can spend time on scoping what they can do for that price. It's better for everyone!

We know you think we are expensive, so let me break it down for you. Let's work with some round numbers here to make the point. Say your consultant charges $100 hour. (this is pretty average/typical for individuals and small size organizations).

Consultants pay their own taxes, so right of the bat, we (should!) put aside 40% ($40).

Now we're down to $60 an hour. The remaining $60 has to cover the following: 

  1. our actual time spent on the project using our expertise

  2. expenses, which can include, but is not limited to: travel/parking, office supplies (unless added to the budget separately),phone, printer ink, office rent, accounting/other admin services)

  3. health/dental/life/disability insurance. I'm not going to assign a cost to each of those things in the expense section, but you get the gist.

Your organization often charges 10-12% admin fee of the total budget. That is to account for the expenses NOT related to actual salaries. Consultants often have to include that into our hourly rates.

So while the $100 may seem like a lot to pay, consider how much the high-level staff in your organizations make per hour. With a consultant, you are paying for high-level expertise. In most cases we are fully aware of how limited your program budgets are and try really hard to work with you, while also making sure we are compensated so we can run our own business.

Consultants have a certain set of expertise. Often their services reflect exactly what they are most skilled at. Many people will stretch beyond their comfort level to gain or keep a contract, but that is not what you want as an organization. It's like doing to the dentist, having a tooth pulled and then asking for fat removal from your cheeks. Yeah, doctors perform liposuction, but your dentist might not be the best person for that job.

Consultants aren't magicians. Hiring a consultant doesn't mean that donors or grants will appear without you doing any work. Know that a consultant has certain expertise, but it's ultimately up to the organization to make changes.

Know that hiring a consultant may actually result in more or new work for the organization.

Have questions? Ready to work together? Contact us!

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