Submitted by Shawn Durr on September 26, 2023 - 17:31

From Doubt to Trust: 4 Tips for Harnessing the Power of Consultancy for Nonprofit Excellence

At a recent M+S presentation to a group of for-profit and nonprofit leaders, we asked attendees, “When you hear the term consulting services, what comes to mind?” The group’s answers to this question showed a surprising level of antipathy towards consultants. 

Here’s what they said:   

  • “Telling others [about] problems they already know.”  

  • How's this response for cynicism, "Make money."  

  • One person simply responded, “Expensive.”  

  • Yet another attendee seemed to sum up the feeling of the group with this blunt reply, “I hate the word consulting.”  

Why all the pessimism? Ideally consultants help organizations achieve a desired goal by providing capacity or expertise they don’t already have in-house. Why then did the word consulting bring up such negativity and cynicism? Whatever the reasons, the sentiment appears to be widespread. According to Source Global Research, only 35% of executives say that the consulting firms they've worked with have added more value than they took in fees.    

In the nonprofit leadership sector, it’s not difficult to imagine why consulting services might have a mixed reputation. Nonprofits often find themselves lacking the internal capacity and expertise to achieve the mission impact they’d like. Whether it is leadership development or IT improvements or program delivery or strategic planning, organizations are under increasing pressure to do more with limited resources.  

Against these headwinds, the stakes are high for nonprofits who turn to consulting firms for help. With resources so tight, organizations are looking for a high value return on their investment.  

Before you begin your search for a consultant you should already have a deep understanding of the strategic challenges you face, and the expertise needed to respond to the problem you wish to solve. Beyond these basic first steps, here are our four tips to help you get the most value from your engagement with a consultant:  

  1. Put your mission first.  Once you’ve decided the time is right, consider finding a consultant who can connect with your organization’s vision and mission. This is your passion, and the core of who you are and how you achieve results for the people and communities you serve. Having a stake in the outcome means they care about what you do, why you do it and share the values that guide your day-to-day work.  

  2. Look for trust building skills. Engaging with a consultant is the same as entering into any collaboration and the same rules for success apply. Successful collaborations are built on trust. Effective consultants continually work to build trust by listening more than they talk, following through on commitments and communicating with honesty, empathy, and respect. In selecting a consultant, look for these critical trust building skills. 

  3. Communicate clearly about your expectations. Our faithful readers will know that we here at M+S believe in the power of effective communication. From the very beginning, make sure you and the consultant have clearly defined the scope, process, milestones, timeframes and the deliverables expected at points along the way. Be clear, be specific, and be detailed. Ambiguity around expectations inevitably causes confusion, wastes unnecessary time, and leads to poor outcomes down the road.  

  4. Embrace new ways of thinking. The best solutions are informed by a diversity of experiences and perspectives. Within a safe, collaborative space, healthy dialog and challenging discussions can lead to significant insight and change. Be ready for change, because with change comes new opportunities to grow impact. Don’t shy away from acknowledging problems and asking for help, questioning assumptions, and welcoming different points of view. After all, bringing about organizational change, which in many instances is why a consultant is hired, must begin with leadership. Organizational leaders must be willing to change if they want to effect change in their organization. The relationship between the consultant and those in the organization is grounded in mutuality. If a consultant is good, they will be impacted by the work, adopting the very principles of change they are helping to craft. 

The nonprofit field faces an increasingly complex landscape and dramatic shifts in demand for services. Despite the pitfalls, taking on a consultant with the right expertise and a collaborative approach can provide the catalyst for innovative, long-term solutions that make a real and lasting mission impact and help organizations best meet their communities’ needs.