Working Effectively with Consultants: Tips for Nonprofits



Having now sat on both sides of the nonprofit desk—hiring consultants and being hired as a consultant—I’ve learned something about creating productive relationships between nonprofits and freelancers. So, I thought I’d share a few  tips.

Know what skills you want

Be explicit about what kind of skills and experience you need for your project. 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 do that particular kind of design, judging by their portfolios. The same principle holds true for other creative talent, like photographers and graphic artists. If you’re looking for a strategist to help you plan, try to make sure they’ve worked with nonprofits before. 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 of your project

As a consultant, the clients I love most are those who have already figured out what the audiences, goal, deadline, and budget for a specific project are. (Unless the project is strategic planning, the process that helps  figure those things out for all communications.) 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. I’m happy to respond to RFP’s, but I see many RFP’s that are too vague to respond to meaningfully. As a person who’s hired dozens of consultants, 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 me 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.

Know the field of freelancers

Look around before you interview 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.

Be wary of pro bono offers

I’ve both accepted and rejected pro bono offers during my career. (Ah, the tales I could tell. ) What those experiences taught me is to be wary. Yes, some altruistic communications agencies and consultants genuinely want to contribute to the success of nonprofits. They take their pro bono work very seriously, do it well, and I applaud them. (I had the pleasure of working with one of these agencies in Minneapolis.) Others are less reliable. Often, they 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 if you can. Pro bono may look like a magical gift when it comes knocking, but looks can deceive. Just be careful…and realistic.

Give them what they need

Now that you’ve hired someone, you need to become their reliable partner. Projects may require the expertise of an external consultant, but 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.

Be honest about problems (and praise)

You do no favors to freelancers by delaying criticisms of their work. If there are problems, tell them immediately. Be specific, not only about what’s wrong, but what they’d need to do to make it right. After that, if the work still isn’t up to snuff and you’re losing confidence they can do the job, you may have to let them go and hire someone else. What you don’t want to do is make that big move when your deadline is near. You need time to start over and still meet deadlines. On the other hand, if a freelancer is exactly hitting the mark and you’re thrilled with the work—be generous with your praise.

If you have any other questions about how to work effectively with communications or creative consultants, please add a comment and I’ll try to answer it.

CC photo credit: oooh-oooh