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Hilary Dunne Ferrone: Consultants

  How do you define “consultant”? Depending on your experience, there are various responses: one might say, “someone who is called in to help you through a challenging time or an exciting new project,” another might say: “someone you overpay to tell you what you already know” or, even worse, “someone who doesn’t have any idea what they’re talking about.” While I think the latter two definitions are unfair, I’m curious as to why someone might respond that way. Based on my experience, I wonder if perhaps this is a “shoot the messenger” situation.

Many years ago when I helped develop a program to build the capacity of local nonprofits, we engaged a consultant to do intensive training with board chairs and executive directors. She was a ball of energy and was amazing at her job! People would finish a training session with her and feel energized and ready to tackle the next challenge with confidence. Once in a while, an attendee would challenge her professional advice if it sounded counterintuitive or was simply contrary to what he thought. Her response was usually, “you are offering a personal opinion; I am offering a professional opinion based on a body of knowledge.” She left no question as to what she saw as her value and the role she was meant to fill. You could disagree with her, but you did so at your own peril.

More recently, I joined the board of a local nonprofit that was going through a difficult -- though quite expected -- transition. From all outside appearances, this nonprofit was on solid ground.  It served the community well, it held popular events, and it enjoyed a high profile in our region. But this belied internal turmoil: a change in board leadership, disgruntled staff, and a weak fundraising program that led to an over-reliance on the endowment to balance the books. This organization needed to restructure to broaden financial support and move away from relying on a few major donors who had been with the organization from its founding.

With the support of the board and staff, a consultant was retained to take us through a strategic planning process and to help us develop a fundraising plan.  This consultant was touted as one of the most respected in the field and he specialized in organizations with our mission. Board and staff jumped into the process and devoted a lot of time to this undertaking.

Everything was going swimmingly.... until it wasn’t.  The consultant returned with observations and suggestions that would require a big change in how the nonprofit operated and he had rather pointed criticism for how the organization was currently managed.

It’s amazing how quickly a consultant goes from highly experienced and knowledgable to a know-nothing imbecile. The staff did not want to hear this kind of feedback, and half the board was uncomfortable making any dramatic changes, such as were recommended. Needless to say, the consultant was paid, sent on his way, and never engaged again. Not long later, a second consultant was called in to help improve board and staff relations and, when he offered solutions that were unpopular he, too, was sent on his way.

As you can guess, this was not my most pleasant experience as a volunteer. But it certainly taught me a lot about what staff, board and the consultant need to consider before engaging with each other.

First: board and staff need to agree on what they want to achieve. Whether you’re asking an outsider to help build a new program or assess your current situation, there needs to be clear understanding of what advice is being sought. Otherwise, it’s too easy for the consultant to get caught in any discord.

Second: the organization must clearly articulate those agreed upon goals.  A consultant can only be effective if he or she knows specifically what to work on.

Third, and finally, board and staff must make a commitment to the process and be willing to hear unwelcome information. 

This gets back to my description of the consultant I worked with years ago. Consultants are not paid to share personal opinions, rather they are relied upon for their professional experience with various nonprofits. Their interest is in sharing this body of knowledge so that a nonprofit can flourish and serve its constituents honestly and effectively. Ultimately, the organization needs to decide what is best for it, but to cast aspersions on the consultant reflects an unwillingness to be challenged and casts doubt on leadership’s willingness to face themselves honestly. A good consultant will provide analysis and suggestions: what becomes of that information is in the hands of the organization.

Hilary Dunne Ferrone has worked in the nonprofit and government sectors for the past 20 years, including serving on the policy team in the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery. She currently serves on the board of the Fund for Columbia County and is co-chair of Berkshire Country Day School’s capital campaign.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.  They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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