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Eight things you can do to get the most from your consultants and freelancers

By Don Tebbe & Susan Schaefer (she/her)
October 8, 2019

Close-up of two men sitting on opposites sides of a table. One is holding a pen and writing on a pad. The other is explaining something.

Reprinted from GrantSpace.

Just about every nonprofit eventually finds itself needing some outside expertise. Strategic advice from a consultant, leadership skill building from an executive coach, board building from a trainer, a freelancer to design an infographic or help you make the most of social media, and the list could go on.

In today's complicated world, it's impossible to hire all the skill sets you need in-house. And that need for an increasing diversity of skills and experience is one reason why the consulting industry has been growing at twice the rate of inflation over the past five years.

It's estimated that nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies will spend $259 billion on consultants this year, with services provided by nearly 800,000 consulting businesses in the U.S. that employ over 1.7 million people.

If you add in freelancers, those numbers balloon. It’s estimated that nearly 57 million Americans did some sort of freelance work in 2018 and worked 1.07 billion hours per week on freelance jobs. By some estimates, 40 to 50 percent of the U.S. workforce will be involved in freelancing within just a few years.

So, even if your nonprofit doesn't use these outside experts now, it's probably only a matter of time before you're going to have the need.

But the question is, how can you get the most out of these contingent workforce and outside expert relationships? With over 40 years of experience consulting between us, we hope to shed a little light. Here are eight things you can do to get the best work from your consultants and freelancers.

  1. Be responsive. As consultants or freelancers, we have one commodity: our time. Whether we’re billing by the hour or by the project, for us, time is our most precious asset. When a client dillydallies or goes AWOL, that screws up our schedule, and part of our precious resource goes down the drain.
  2. Be candid. As consultants, one of the things that we hold sacred is confidentiality. So, don't hedge. Be honest in responding to our questions and in providing information. We can't provide you with our best advice and our best work product if you're not willing to put all your cards on the table. We’re not there to judge. We’re there to help.
  3. Be clear. Be clear about your expectations. This can range from the project outcomes to how best to work with you to the information you’re willing to provide, etc.
  4. Be realistic. Experienced consultants have skills, tools, and techniques plus experience gleaned from dozens, in some cases hundreds of projects, but we're not miracle workers. Have an aspirational but pragmatic discussion about project outcomes at the outset.
  5. Be open to exploration. In consulting, the "presenting issue"–the issue that the client says should be the focus of the project–isn’t always the real issue. Often there are underlying issues that lead to the presenting issue.
  6. Be a partner. A consulting relationship is like a good partnership. There is mutual respect, honest and consistent communications, give-and-take, rapid reconciliation of disagreements, and expressions of appreciation.
  7. Be available. Similar to being responsive, we need access to you and your people. Being unavailable cuts us off from an important source of information, input, and developmental conversations that can be critical to the project.
  8. Be proactive. We’ve personally trained, hired, supervised, and befriended literally hundreds of consultants, and not too many of those folks were lured into working with nonprofits by the "big money." They almost all chose to work with nonprofits because of their sense of mission. In fact, the majority of consultants are former nonprofit executives and staff who've chosen to remain in the nonprofit sector, albeit in a different capacity, because of their sense of mission.

Given that, there's nothing more heartbreaking for a consultant than to pour your heart and soul into a project and have your work product, your advice, or your efforts seemingly fall into a black hole because the client doesn't do anything with them. Of course, we don't expect you to hang on our every word or slavishly follow our advice. You need to make it your own. But do something with it or at least let us help you sort out how to make the most of the advice, the plan, the assessment, or other products that we've offered.

We hope you'll join us on October 31, 2019, at 2 p.m. Eastern Time for How to Choose the Best Consultant for Your Nonprofit, so we can help you find the right consultant to help you grow your nonprofit and advance your mission.

Tags: Consultants