Imagine your nonprofit is working on a project like acquiring more recurring donors, incorporating a new tool into your tech stack, conducting a capital campaign feasibility study, or creating an effective nonprofit website. As you dive into the project, you realize that, although your nonprofit’s staff is highly-skilled and you have a clear vision for the end goal, you need some outside help with the execution.
That’s where a nonprofit consultant comes in. 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 suitable for another. Just as you wouldn’t want to hire a carpenter to handle a plumbing problem, your nonprofit wouldn’t, for example, want to hire an HR consultant to manage a web design project!
While finding a consultant who fits your needs and budget can be a lengthy process, it’s worth the time and effort to partner with someone you can collaborate with, learn from, and turn to in the future if necessary.
In this quick guide, we’ll help you get started by going over five tips to help you find the best fit for your organization:
- Determine what kind of consultant you want to work with.
- Outline what you need from your consultant.
- Research consultants online and get referrals.
- Compare consulting plan proposals.
- Form a partnership with your chosen consultant.
The best part about working with a nonprofit consultant is that, with their expert help in completing the project at hand, your team will have more time (and headspace!) to focus on the big picture and keep your mission moving forward.
Ready to get started? Let’s review our roundup of tips.
1. Determine what kind of consultant you want to work with.
There are consulting services for every type of challenge a nonprofit may encounter. Many consultants can offer advice on multiple topics, but you may want to work with a consultant who is highly specialized in one specific area.
To help you get an idea of what kinds of consultants are out there, here is a list of a few common consulting services:
- 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, though. Some, like the providers listed in Cornershop Creative’s roundup of nonprofit website design companies, focus on website design and maintenance, while other consultants help nonprofits choose, integrate, and troubleshoot their software.
- Fundraising consultants: Whether you need help implementing donor cultivation and stewardship activities, diversifying your funding sources, grant writing, or recruiting volunteers for your next campaign, fundraising consultants are experts on what makes an effective fundraiser and how to plan one.
- Accounting and compliance consultants: Nonprofit accounting and compliance get 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 them.
- Internal development consultants: While the internal working experience at your nonprofit may not seem to have a big effect on your ability to deliver your services and accomplish your mission, in reality, how your internal team members feel about their jobs can significantly influence your ability to serve your community. According to Astron Solutions, nonprofit HR consultants can help you with everything from strengthening your employee retention strategy to fine-tuning your approach to compensation.
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 should determine what they need from their consultants ahead of time. There are several reasons for this, 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 organization’s needs by sending them a request for proposal (RFP), a detailed outline of challenges your nonprofit is facing, and then comparing each consultant's finished proposal.
- Setting expectations: Different consultants have different operating practices, and, like any business transaction, you’ll need to establish what you expect from them right off the bat. For consultants who offer multiple services, such as web design consultants, this can also help explain what advice you need at the present moment. For example, a web design consultant can help with the initial set-up of your website, incorporating your nonprofit branding into the look of the site, optimizing the site for accessibility, and maintaining site security—or all of the above. You might decide to hire one consultant for all your needs or start by focusing on just one area. The latter approach can help you test how well you work with the consultant before agreeing to continue the partnership.
- Considering location needs: Some consultants may be able to provide their services remotely, while others may be in your local area and able to meet with you at your nonprofit’s office or facility. Additionally, your team may have a preference in how you want to work with your consultant.
- Offering background information: Your consultant knows their field of expertise but doesn'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 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 conducting online research.
Referrals are useful as they often provide a firsthand account of what it is like to work with a specific consultant. For example, you might reach out to a connection at another nonprofit to ask about their experience with a tech consultant and hear that the consultant helped them to significantly improve their nonprofit’s SEO strategy.
Of course, referrals are also limited to the perspective of one nonprofit that may operate differently than yours. However, you can generally assume that consultants recommended by referrals are trustworthy and worth looking into, especially when they come from a trusted professional connection.
Thankfully, finding information about consultants online is easier than ever. Visit the National Council for Nonprofits website to find your local nonprofit association and ask which consultants they recommend. If you are looking for a consultant with specific expertise, visit a related membership organization, such as Grant Professionals Association for grants or Association for Fundraising Professionals for fundraising. These resources can provide insight to 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 consultant's proposal.
Once you receive the proposed consulting plans, you can compare your top consultants against each other and determine which approach most closely aligns with your nonprofit's current needs.
For example, your nonprofit might be trying to find a consultant to guide 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 require your nonprofit to decide which direction to go.
5. Form a partnership.
The consultant you choose to hire is entering into a business agreement with your nonprofit, but they also have the potential to be a long-term resource and strategic partner. Set the groundwork for a successful partnership by providing information about your nonprofit's future goals and prioritizing open and frequent communication.
Be sure to check out each consultant's business model and communication style 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, and others have the potential to help move your nonprofit forward in the exact direction you need.
Nonprofit consultants can provide useful insight and tailored recommendations that help your organization accomplish its goals and improve its operations. Follow these tips to find the best consultant for your nonprofit, and remember that they have the potential to become a long-term partner in helping you serve your community. Good luck with the hiring process!
This blog is an original work of the attributed author and is shared with permission via Foundant Technologies' website for informative purposes only as part of our educational content in the philanthropic sector. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect Foundant's stance on this topic. If you have questions or comments, please reach out to our team.
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