Depending on your needs and the consultant's approach, a consultant can offer an extra pair of hands or provide expertise not available in your own organization. They can also serve as a mentor, facilitate meetings or retreats, provide training, or partner with you in other ways to solve organizational challenges.
How to Engage a Consultant
Some organizations issue a request for proposals (RFP) when they need a consultant. A RFP can provide a fair and unbiased process, allowing you to evaluate responses from several consultants. As proposals come in, a team evaluates each proposal based on a scoring system. The proposals can expose you to a range of ideas about how the project might be approached and give you the opportunity to compare the cost of each approach.
The downside of RFPs
You should know, however, that many of the best consultants do not respond to RFPs. RFPs make it easier to identify the best bid, not necessarily the best consultant or most appropriate approach to the problem. Responding to a RFP is very time-consuming for consultants. It is often hard to understand the organization’s real needs based on the RFP, and it is difficult to develop and explain the consultant’s approach without having a conversation and access to more background information about the organization.
Consultants may be wary of a RFP because they suspect that there is a preferred candidate, but a RFP has been put out, so the selection will seem fair. By submitting a proposal, a consultant risks spending a lot of time, giving away their best ideas, and then not being selected. So, many of the best consultants ignore RFPs.
Hiring a consultant without a RFP
When possible, it is best to engage a consultant based on an in-depth discussion. Rather than issuing a RFP, ask several consultants who have worked on similar problems with similar organizations for some background information on themselves and for a meeting. You will need to provide the consultant with general information about your organization and its history as well as information about the specific issue you want to address. Let them know that you are talking to other people and are interested in their approach to the project. You can specify that any information you provide is confidential.
Pick the consultant who you think is the best match for your organization, check their references, and then try to negotiate a fee that is within your budget.
It is very important that the consultant is a good fit for your organization. In the interview, the consultant will often ask questions in an effort to understand the organization and clarify the issues to be addressed. Observe the questions they ask and the conclusions they seem to draw from the conversation.
- Do they seem to "get" your organization?
- Did you learn anything from the interview?
- How will your staff and/or board respond to the consultant's style and way of communicating?
- If you need her to, will the consultant be able to tell staff and/or board members hard truths?
- Is the consultant most comfortable working with leadership, management, the front line, or all three?
- Does the consultant admit to what she doesn't know?