Community Development Field

How to Hire a Consultant

Did you ever feel like you need a consultant to help you figure out what you need your consultant to do?  Believe me, you are not alone.  As a recovering […]

Did you ever feel like you need a consultant to help you figure out what you need your consultant to do?  Believe me, you are not alone.  As a recovering executive director (and boy is that going to make a juicy blog post one of these days), I’ve employed many consultants to help with everything from designing the company logo to dreaming up structured finance solutions for distressed homeowners.

A colleague of mine who runs a major consulting firm in town told me that in his experience the majority of consulting engagements don’t succeed in their original intent.  I mean, if we knew what we wanted at the beginning, then we probably wouldn’t need the consultant in the first place, right?  Well, kind of.

There are lots of different kinds of consultants out there, but usually when you’re looking to hire someone on a short-term basis it’s for one of two reasons:


  1. You need someone who possesses technical skills that are not currently available on your staff to devise or deliver a particular solution; or

  2. You need someone whose overall experience and insight can help you gain insight yourself, allowing you to move your organization forward in a more strategic way.

Some consultants can do both, but most specialize in one or the other.  In a way, the technical skills-based consultants are a more straightforward breed:  they are there to build your website, strategize with you on connecting to media, organize your event, improve fiscal operations, yadda yadda.  They are the consultants for those situations where you know what you don’t know.

But then there are those times when you don’t know what you don’t know.  Yes, even typing that phrase caused a frisson to travel to my former executive director coccyx.  These are the folks you bring on when you have to do strategic planning, board development, fundraising or capital campaigns, staff leadership building, transition planning, and a host of other process related tasks.

In my fantasies, this consultant would be an avuncular (or auntly) figure with infinite patience and a deep willingness to divulge the secret aracana of such processes to me, setting me on a journey of self-discovery and new insight and guiding me safely to arrival in some promised land of achievement.  The reality is that at best you are bringing on someone who can think with you and help you triangulate to a better approach.

Regardless of which kind of consultant you are looking for, there are a couple of tips that can help you with your decision-making process:

  1. Do at least three interviews:  I’ve found in the past that the process of talking through my needs helps me clarify what it is I’m looking for.  In many cases, having a conversation with someone who proves effective at clarifying my thinking or defining my needs is a good sign that they understand what the job is.  It’s worth it to at least spend time on the phone with three potential consultant candidates to get your brain fired up.

  2. Consider work style and approach:  The person you hire should be someone that you feel you can rely on and get along with, in addition to having the skills you need for the job.  Think about the characteristics you appreciate in your staff, and seek a consultant who is a good fit for your organizational culture. 

  3. Structure the engagement in phases or steps with deliverables:  This is where so many engagements fail.  Break the process down into digestible stages with clear points of communication and some proposed goals.  If your consultant is missing benchmarks, they should have an understandable explanation, and a plan to correct or amend the scope of work.  If things are headed off track, or if you re-evaluate your needs and realize that the engagement won’t yield the result you want, then ask the consultant to summarize and submit their existing work product and end the engagement.  Say thank you, pay them for what they did, and move on.

  4. Be up-front about what you hope to spend:  I used to think if I told the consultant I had $5,000 then the project would automatically cost $5,000.  I learned two important things: (1) consultants will give you a better sense of what they can deliver if they have at least a ballpark estimate of the resources you can commit, and (2) building in phases with deliverables will allow you to negotiate at several points along the way.  You may discover the project can be completed more simply and with less cost than you at first thought.  Hurray!  You may also discover that the project appears far more complex, risky or demanding than you thought, and that it may not make sense to pursue further.  Knowing your budget will help you frame what’s possible.

  5. Be clear about communication procedures:  Most consultants should be in communication with you at least weekly to update you on progress and inform you of any snafus or surprises.  You may want to have them communicate via email with small bits of information more often, or you may want to have a deeper download every other week in person – or you may want a blend.  Ask the consultant how they prefer to communicate and be clear about your preferences as well.

  6. Have a contract:  Protect yourself and your consultant by having a clear agreement.  It should always cover basic issues including fees and charges, timing, consultant availability, the scope of work, confidentiality, intellectual property, and indemnity.  Be sure to include language that clearly states the consultant is not an employee (and by the way, don’t provide your consultant with corporate business cards, an email address, or a designated phone line – you want to steer clear of any impression that the consultant is an employee for legal and tax reasons).

  7. Get references:  You’d think this would be common practice, but it’s far more rare than you might suspect.  As to speak with 2-3 previous engagements and question them about the consultant’s responsiveness and reliability, as well as whether the final work product met the client’s needs.

A final note on consultant firms versus solo consultants:  Generally speaking, firms are more expensive than solo practitioners.  Firms have more overhead to support, and can run anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent more per hour, depending the nature of the engagement and the experience level of staff committed to your project.  The strength of firms is that they can bring a diversity of talents and strengths, but make sure you’re clear about the mix you are hiring.  This is your money, and you are making the hire, so feel free to speak directly to any preference you have for a certain partner or line staffer.  Also, make sure you are clear about the time commitment of senior staff versus line staff, and how communication will flow among team members and you as client.

OK, I hope this helps the next time you need someone like me to help you do what you do better.  Remember, the first cup of coffee and the initial advice that comes with it is free. Bottom’s up!

Photo courtesy Flickr user Kelly Schykulski via Creative Commons

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