Nonprofit professionals have many responsibilities, from cultivating relationships with supporters to maintaining their organization's website and researching grant opportunities. While your nonprofit has likely assembled a highly skilled team, it's normal to encounter situations where you need outside help.
Nonprofit consultants specialize in a range of services and approach consulting in a variety of ways. This mix of specialties and professional styles means that the perfect consultant for one nonprofit might be less valuable for another. While finding a consultant who fits your needs can be a lengthy process, your nonprofit will discover the perfect consulting partner with enough research.
Here are five tips to help your nonprofit connect with a consultant who can bring your organization to the next level.
- Determine what kind of consultant you need.
- Outline what you need from your consultant.
- Research consultants online and get referrals.
- Compare consulting plan proposals.
- Form a partnership.
Finding the right consultant can be a serious time investment, but remember that consulting services aren't quick fixes to short-term problems. Instead, the right consultant can be a long-term partner for your nonprofit, so it's well worth the time to find the right fit.
1. Determine what kind of consultant you need.
Nonprofits encounter a variety of challenges, and there are consulting services for each individual obstacle. Many consultants can offer advice on multiple topics, but you wouldn't ask your tech consultant for help managing donor relationships.
To get an idea of what kind of consultants are out there, here is a list of a few common consulting services and specialties.
- Tech consultants: Technology and web design consultants offer services related to your nonprofit's software and online presence. Not all tech consultants provide the same services, either. Some focus on nonprofit website maintenance and design, while others help nonprofits integrate, troubleshoot, and choose their software.
- Fundraising consultants: Whether you need help brainstorming initial fundraising ideas or running your next campaign, fundraising consultants are experts on what makes an effective fundraiser and how to plan one of your own.
- Accounting and compliance consultants: Nonprofit accounting and compliance gets increasingly complex the larger your nonprofit is and the more fundraising sources you have. Nonprofit accounting consultants advise your nonprofit on how to manage its finances, and some even provide the option for nonprofits to outsource all of their accounting and bookkeeping to their consultants.
- Internal development consultants: Not every challenge nonprofits face is external. According to Double the Donation's guide to employee engagement, up to 85% of employees are not engaged in the workplace, which means they contribute less and are at higher risk of leaving. Internal development consultants specialize in organizational management, including everything from implementing best Human Resources practices to training your leadership, all of which can improve your employees' commitment to your organization.
Before hiring a consultant, assess your nonprofit's current operations to determine why you need consulting. You may find that multiple aspects of your nonprofit stand to benefit from outside help. However, hiring multiple consultants can be costly, so in these situations, you may need to decide which parts of your nonprofit need a consultant now and what can be dealt with later.
2. Outline what you need from your consultant.
There are a few common misconceptions about nonprofit consultants. One is that consultants are able to come into nonprofits and immediately assess what needs to be done. Instead, nonprofits need to determine what they need from their consultants ahead of time for several reasons, including:
- Comparing consultants: Your nonprofit will likely reach out to multiple consultants who all offer similar services. You can determine which consultant most closely matches your nonprofit's needs y sending them a Request for Proposal (RFP), a detailed outline of challenges your nonprofit is facing, and comparing each consultant's proposed action plan.
- Setting expectations: Different consultants have different operating practices, and, like any business transaction, you’ll need to establish what you are expecting from them right off the bat. For consultants who offer multiple services like capital campaign consultants, this can also help explain what advice you need at the present moment. In this example, your capital campaign consultant can help with your feasibility study, planning your capital campaign, promoting it, or all of the above. You might decide to hire one consultant for your entire campaign or test how well you work with them first before agreeing to continue the partnership.
- Offering background information: Your consultant knows their field of expertise, but they don't know your nonprofit. Explaining your current needs and operations helps consultants hit the ground running once you agree to partner with them.
As you work with your consultant, you may discover additional dilemmas that could benefit from their advice. This is why finding a consultant with whom you can form a long-term relationship with matters—you won't need to re-explain core parts of your nonprofit and can jump straight to problem solving.
3. Research consultants online and get referrals.
With the sheer variety of consultants available, you'll want to research your options to form a comprehensive list of candidates. You can build out this list in a number of ways, though two of the most common are receiving referrals from other organizations in the nonprofit sector and your own online research.
Referrals are useful as they often provide a firsthand account of what it is like to work with a specific consultant. Of course, they are also limited to the perspective of one nonprofit who may operate differently than yours. However, you can generally assume that consultants recommended by referrals are trustworthy and worth further investigation.
Thankfully, finding information about consultants online is easier than ever. Resources recommending multiple consulting firms can help your nonprofit add candidates to your list of potential partners. These resources also provide additional insight to help narrow down your options, as you can directly compare services, price points, and business models of multiple consultants at once.
4. Compare consulting plan proposals.
As mentioned, consulting plan proposals are a key component of assessing consultants. For most consultant searches, your nonprofit will take these steps:
- Research your consultant options.
- Narrow your list of candidates to a top few consultants.
- Make initial contact with the consultants to introduce your organization.
- Send an RFP or other outline of current consulting needs.
- Receive each consultants' proposal.
Once you receive the proposed consulting plans, you can compare your top consultants against each other and determine which has the approach that most closely aligns with your nonprofit's current needs.
For example, your nonprofit might be trying to find a consultant to help with your fundraising strategy. You describe the same situation to three consultants, including current challenges, how your fundraising team operates, and your fundraising goals. Despite the specifics being the same, each of the consultants presents a different solution:
- Consultant 1 focuses on how to diversify your fundraising revenue streams by outlining a plan to explore additional corporate sponsorships and grant applications.
- Consultant 2 thinks that your nonprofit's approach to marketing could be improved and describes a new social media and email outreach strategy you can use to promote fundraisers.
- Consultant 3 describes how you can optimize your current fundraising events to drive more revenue during your virtual fundraisers.
Nonprofits rarely approach consultants as blank slates, ready to accept any solution. In this example, your nonprofit might already think that your virtual fundraisers can be improved, making consultant 3 the obvious choice, but the answer may not always be so clear cut.
Ideally, the RFP you present to consultants should be specific enough that you don't encounter this wide a range of solutions, but it is possible to receive diverse answers that will force your nonprofit to decide which direction to go.
5. Form a partnership.
The consultant you choose to hire is entering a business agreement with your nonprofit, but they also have the potential to be a long-term resource and strategic partner. You can set the groundwork for a successful partnership by providing information about your nonprofit's future goals and how you envision a consultant fitting into them.
Be sure to check out each consultant's business model before making a hiring decision. Some consultants are less communicative after presenting their initial solutions or approach nonprofits by focusing on a single issue. These consultants can be valuable for specific challenges or campaigns, but may not be what your nonprofit is looking for in a partner.
You don't need to implement all of your consultant's ideas, but listen to their proposals and the reasoning behind them to determine if their line of thinking matches your nonprofit's culture and future goals. Some consultants can offer valuable insight into your current problems without being a perfect fit, while others show potential to help move your nonprofit forward in the exact direction you need.
Nonprofit consultants offer advice and skills that can help your nonprofit overcome challenges and identify new opportunities. Finding the best fit is a multi-step process that requires research and internal assessment, but the benefits of a successful consulting partnership have the potential to impact your nonprofit for the better for years to come.