Nonprofits do their work in three ways – the efforts of staff, volunteers and, when appropriate, contracted professional services. Professional service providers include outside accountants, attorneys and other consultants. There are times that hiring a contractor makes sense, for example when you require specialized expertise to accomplish a task or when you have a limited term project requiring attention.

You need to get good value for your money. But how do you know you’re hiring the right consultant for the job?

I’ll talk specifically about nonprofit management consultants, as that’s the theme of this blog. This genre has a wide range, including planning, assessment, system or staff development, training, process coordination, project management, team building, and so on.

First, you should think about the consultant’s approach to the work. There are three primary approaches to management consulting:

  • The Facilitator
  • The Expert
  • The Analyst.

In pure form, the Facilitator organizes and runs group processes. A good Facilitator brings people together, helps groups find consensus and keeps meetings on track.

The Expert is knowledgeable and authoritative. The Expert, in principle, knows how it’s done, from personal experience or awareness of the field. She or he can educate and prescribe.

The Analyst collects data, makes sense of it, presents it to the group and coordinates discussions leading to decisions. An effective Analyst slices and dices information and presents it clearly, enabling the group to set direction and/or take action.

All of this sounds good, but each type of approach has a potential flip side: the pure Facilitator is not a major source of content on strategy or organizational management – the wisdom must come either from the other folks in the room or information participants bring with them. The Expert’s knowledge may be limited, or it may not fully apply to your situation. The Analyst and the Expert need to allow enough processing for the group to own its decisions.

There are hybrids, of course, but nearly every consultant has one dominant approach. Just as importantly, your consultant must be capable in executing their approach (methods alone aren’t enough).

So which orientation is best? It depends. I can suggest four key questions to ask of your consultant before hiring:

1. What is your approach to the project or task?

Your consultant should have a specific, clear methodology, and should be able to articulate it for you.

2. What distinguishes you from other consultants?

Management consultants have unique qualities and differences. Understand the distinctions, and hire someone who will complement your group's strengths.

3. What results can we expect?

Your consultant’s deliverables and outcomes should be clearly specified. Understand how you'll be better off at the end of the engagement.

4. What contingencies are in place if things don’t go as planned?

It’s better not to have surprises if things go off the rails for any reason.

So, where does Public Interest Management Group fit into this discussion? PIMG’s dominant type is Analyst. We also bring expertise in nonprofit finance and operations (so we're a hybrid), but we lead with questions rather than answers, to empower our clients to understand (a) their options, (b) the comparative risks and benefits of alternatives, and (c) practical needs for implementing a strategy (in other words, we don't want theoretical plans that will go nowhere).

Our is approach the right fit for some nonprofits, and that’s who we’d like to work with - if we pass your scrutiny.

AuthorScott Schaffer