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Consulting | June 20, 2023

10 Tips for Selecting and Working with Consultants and Contractors

Guest Blog Author: Stephanie Cory (Principal, Stephanie Cory Consulting | Member, PANO’s Consultant Collaborative | Connect on LinkedIn)


Whether it’s help with fundraising, board governance, strategic planning, or program evaluation, nonprofit organizations often rely on outside help for guidance and extra hands. How do you, as a nonprofit leader, know when to bring in a consultant or contractor? Which do you need? How do you identify and select the right partner? This list of 10 tips can help you sort all that out so you can enter any engagement with outside help feeling prepared and confident.

  1. Know what challenge you’re trying to solve.

Determine what your goals are for engaging outside help. Do you need strategic guidance, a plan, or additional hands-on-deck? Think about what change(s) you want to see at your organization. Is that best accomplished with a short-term engagement with a specific deliverable or ongoing help in addition to your staff?

  1. Have realistic expectations.

Consultants can’t work miracles. You can’t expect to go from raising $500,000 a year to $2,000,000 immediately – or maybe ever. As a client, you also need to invest time and energy to effect change. For example, merely developing a strategic plan won’t take you where you want to go. You then need to implement it!

  1. Know your budget.

Imagine your organization needs a new website. You can spend anywhere from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars depending on what you’re looking for. Have at least a ballpark idea of whether it’s $5,000 or $100,000 you can spend. Sharing this information with prospective consultants and contractors is incredibly helpful for both parties. Many consultants and contractors can scale a project based on your budget. You also don’t want to waste everyone’s time if there’s no way you can afford someone’s services. If funding for a project is contingent on grant funding, share that up front. If you’re asking for a price quote, please share as much detail as possible about what your organization is looking for.

  1. Know who you want to do the work.

Are you looking for guidance and advice or someone to do actual project work? Take strategic planning, for example. Do you want a facilitator for a retreat and focus groups with you compiling the plan in-house? Or do you want a written plan ready for board approval? With either option, be prepared for staff and possibly board members to put in work. Someone will have to provide necessary information and files to a consultant or contractor. Retreats are only effective if participants are motivated and engaged.

  1. Target your search.

Where can you find the help you need? Ask your network. Who have other organizations worked with that they can recommend? Many professional associations for specialties have consultant directories – for example, the Association of Fundraising Professionals has a whole Fundraising Consultants and Resources E-Directory available on their website. Similarly, PANO’s Consultant Collaborative is a great resource for many of your consulting needs. Consider how important specific experience is to your project – do you want someone familiar with nonprofits in general, with small/large nonprofits, with your particular area of focus/type of organization (e.g., museums, libraries, social services, etc.), with your geographic region? Is the work something you would prefer to be done in-person or can the work be done remotely/virtually? If you’d like to bring someone on-site, discuss in advance what travel expenses might look like (e.g., mileage plus tolls, overnight accommodations, a plane ticket, etc.).

  1. Be efficient when obtaining proposals.

Instead of a request for proposals (RFP) that takes significant time on your part to develop and significant time from prospective consultants and contractors, consider reaching out to a reasonable number of consultants one-on-one. Because of the work involved and typical focus on the most affordable option, many consultants and contractors will not respond to a cold RFP. Instead, identify those who seem like a fit based on recommendations and your research. Call or email them to schedule a time to talk about your project. On the call, explain your needs and goals clearly. Skilled consultants and contractors will know what to ask you to put together a tailored proposal for your consideration.

  1. When issuing an RFP, be as considerate as possible of those who are responding.

If you decide you need to issue an RFP, be open to questions. If you already know who you’d like to work with, but your board or organizational policies require you to get additional bids, an RFP may not be the best way to get those bids. The RFP process can be time-consuming for both you and prospective consultants. When you already know who you want to engage, it can feel like a waste of time for all involved. Additionally, it’s unfair to ask consultants or contractors:

  • To give away their whole strategy in an RFP response.
  • To provide references too early in the process – you can obtain those later for finalists.
  1. View proposals as a conversation.

Proposals are not written in stone. A scope of work can be expanded or reduced to fit your budget. Deliverables and timelines can be adjusted. If you find a consultant or contractor you “vibe with” and would like to work with, talk to them about modifications to the proposal to make it work.

  1. Be considerate of the consultants and contractors you didn’t select.

Once you’ve decided who you’d like to work with, let the others who submitted proposals know they weren’t selected. While it would be ideal to explain why they weren’t selected, at the very least send an email letting them know you’re moving forward with someone else. Be thoughtful when sharing feedback with those you will not be working with; your first choice may not work out or perhaps another opportunity will arise to work with those you did not select. You don’t want to burn bridges by delivering unkind feedback or not communicating at all with those you did not select.

  1. Understand your role as the client in making the project successful.

Before and during an engagement, respond to questions or requests from the consultant or contractor in a timely manner. Meet agreed upon deadlines and timelines or communicate if you can’t. Pay your invoices on time or work out alternate arrangements if cash flow is tight. If the scope of a project changes, be prepared for the costs to be adjusted. For example, if you contracted for a half-day retreat and now your board has decided it wants a full-day retreat, expect the price to change accordingly.

Want to dive deeper on this topic? Check out this one-hour webinar recording, Consulting 101: A Nonprofit’s Guide to Hiring Outside Help ($30 PANO Members | $66 Not-Yet Members), presented by the author of this guest blog post! This session will provide tips for finding the best fit for your needs, help you determine your project scope, and offer guidance on where to find prospective partners. Stephanie also covers alternative selection methods to a formal RFP process, what criteria to consider when engaging a consultant/contractor, and how to manage expectations along the way (both your expectations and those of prospective consultants/contractors).

If you already know after reading this that your organization is ready to enlist the support of a consultant to take your mission to the next level, click here to learn how PANO’s Consultant Collaborative can help!


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