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January 20, 2022
What to Consider when Hiring a Consultant
By Gayle Thorsen

Gayle Thorsen
Gayle Thorsen
As staffs shrink at many Massachusetts nonprofits, consultants and contractors can provide invaluable expertise and fill gaps in staffing. Preparation and candor make the relationship work. Where and how do you look for the right match?

If you’re looking for a strategist or an expert in the areas of finance, planning, governance, or development, obviously you’ll want someone with nonprofit experience. Nonprofit experience is also critical for experts in the areas of communications and IT. They need to understand your resources (human and financial), your audience, and your audience’s resources, and they need to be comfortable with standards of pay that usually differ from the for-profit world.

Know Which Skills You Need

Be explicit about what kind of skills and experience you need for your project. For example, if you’re looking for a writer, what kind of writer? Someone who specializes in interviews and profiles? Someone who writes direct mail? Someone who writes opinion pieces and executive speeches? Once you know the kind of writing you’re after, you’ll be able to ask the right questions to winnow out the best person for the job.

All writing is not created equal. For instance, someone who can write a brilliant annual report may produce lousy video scripts. Likewise, what kind of designer are you after? Do you want traditional design, avant garde design, whimsical design, dramatic design? Pick designers based on how well they execute that particular kind of design, judging by their portfolios. The same principle holds true for other creative talent, like photographers and graphic artists.

Look around before interviewing consultants for a project. Ask trusted colleagues at other organizations which freelancers they use and highly recommend. Keep a current file of names. Google the names of consultants and check them out on LinkedIn ”“ especially for background and recommendations. Look at their websites or blogs and check out past work portfolios and client lists. (Be alert for other nonprofits in those lists; that’s a good sign.) Try to gauge how closely they match the skill set you’ll need and how much experience they have.

Then, pick a couple of top candidates and bring them in for a “get to know you” interview. Ask them to bring in more work samples. Focus on their knowledge level, attention to detail, follow-through, and sense of humor. You’re going to be working with this person fairly closely; hire someone you feel comfortable with and have confidence in.

Once you know what you want from a consultant, be crystal-clear in setting up those expectations for the people you interview or hire. Be specific about deliverables, timetables, and quality requirements.

Know (and Share) the Parameters

The best clients are those who have already figured out the audiences, goal, deadline, and budget for a specific project (unless the project is strategic planning, which is the process of figuring out those things). One way to force yourself to do this is to write an RFP ”“ even if you’re not going to circulate it. It’s great discipline to have to define a project clearly. Most consultants are happy to respond to RFPs, but many RFPs are too vague to respond to meaningfully.

I’ve hired dozens of consultants and my best results came from trusting them enough to share the project budget up front. Don’t make them play pin-the-tail-on-the-budget. Rather than just asking them to give an estimate out of the blue, help them understand the financial limitations nonprofits face and give them a full picture of the entire project, not just their piece. The better informed they are, the better they understand their role and the more accurate their estimate.

Be Wary of Pro Bono Offers

Some altruistic contractors and for-profit consulting firms genuinely want to contribute to the success of nonprofits. They take their pro bono work very seriously, do it well, and should be applauded. Others are less reliable and can’t deliver on their promise. They end up giving the work to the least senior members of their staff and sacrificing nonprofit deadlines to meet for-profit deadlines.

If you’re offered pro bono work, take the time to explore the offer in-depth. Call their past pro bono nonprofit clients and ask about the experience of working with this person or agency, and the quality of the product. And, if you do accept such an offer, get the specific agreement in writing. Pro bono may look like a magical gift when it comes knocking, but looks can deceive.

Give Them What They Need

Once the consultant has been hired, you need to become their reliable partner and to set aside enough time to be that partner. They nearly always require the deep subject knowledge of an internal staff member. Even very independent freelancers are going to have to bring you into the project at different junctures to give them information, make suggestions, or review and approve.

If they’ve given you a production timeline (they should), it’s important for both of you to live up to the deadlines. Delays in getting consultants what they need can make you miss your deadline. Make yourself and others on staff available to them as required. They should let you know in advance when and who is going to need to be involved.

Gayle Thorsen is a communications consultant at ImpactMAX. She can be reached through her blog,
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