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Solving the problem: Do we need to hire a consultant?

By Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, Notes on Nonprofits

I have been asked to describe when and how to hire a consultant. Nonprofits can choose to hire a consultant to help with a variety of issues.

Examples include strategic planning, board and staff training, coaching, organizational development, fundraising, grant writing, marketing, public relations, prospect identification, event planning, and interim leadership.

When to hire a consultant

Pivotal stage. Consultants can be helpful when organizations are being established, as they advance from one stage of growth to the next, and during periods of exponential change. These transitions can produce anxiety and growing pains which may be minimized by external help and expertise. Sometimes what got you here won’t get you there.

Objective assessment or evaluation. This is often the first step a consultant takes to fully understand the organization, its structure, governance model, needs, and challenges. In some cases, the issue presented as the problem is a symptom of a bigger or more complex issue. The result of the assessment typically includes a list of recommendations the consultant may be able to address as a second step in the project.

Resolve a problem. Although there are no silver bullets, a knowledgeable consultant can analyze a situation and provide clarity by identifying issues to be addressed. Sometimes the problem, or part of the problem, is staff or board leaders which can be difficult to recognize from inside the organization.

Interim leadership. Consultants can bring valuable experience and expertise after losing a key employee, when a project is being formed before a permanent staff member is hired to lead the effort, and to provide continuity during the search process for a permanent chief executive.

Proposal writing. Consultants who specialize in this form of revenue development can help an organization prepare for and apply for a competitive grant.

Fundraising. Consultants do not bring buckets of money or lists of donors that will instantly make gifts to your nonprofit. They can help you identify good sources, decide how much to ask for, improve the quality of your request, evaluate fundraising strategies, help you write a fundraising plan, teach volunteers and staff how to ask for a gift, and suggest ways to build relationships.

When not to hire a consultant

  • The organization is on the brink of bankruptcy.  Although there are consultants who specialize in organizational turnarounds, most do not rush in and save the day after months or years of financial deficits and failed attempts by the organization to resolve the issues.
  • Referee a disagreement or when a board decision has already been made. A consultant’s job is to teach problem solving skills and create a plan to put systems in place for dealing with disputes and making quality decisions to guide the organization in the right direction.
  • When they know the answers before you ask the questions. Author and fundraising consultant Jeff Brooks says there are three reasons a consultant has ready-made answers: (1) they only know one thing; (2) it worked somewhere else; or (3) there’s a hidden agenda.
  • To ask donors or members for money. This is the job of a professional solicitor. A consultant is an advisor and partner in helping directors and staff build long term donor relationships. I have written many times about commission-based fundraising which is against the Association of Fundraising Professionals Code of Ethics. Learn more at

Before you call a consultant

Define the issue and project for which you need help. Know your budget and the amount of time staff and/or volunteer leaders have available to commit to the effort.

Be ready to answer questions about the organization, governance structure, needs, challenges, and goals of the project. Knowing how you define success will help a consultant determine if and how they can help.

What to expect from a consultant

  • Appropriate experience and qualifications.
  • Clear understanding of the goals of the project.
  • Customized solutions based on your needs.
  • Ability to complete the project on time and within budget.
  • Recommendations from previous clients.
  • Timely proposal that clearly defines the scope of work.
  • Properly registered, licensed, or insured depending on the type of services provided.

How to pay a consultant

Consultants typically charge for services in one of three ways: an hourly rate, project fee, or monthly retainer. Be sure to discuss your goals and ask questions before agreeing to a fee structure.

How to fund the project

Consultant fees can be paid through a variety of methods including capacity building grants and donors or board members who underwrite the project.

Thanks for this question! Please send yours to [email protected]. Join me and Felina Martin for Notes on Nonprofits Live at noon Tuesday, Oct. 11, on Facebook for “Give, Get or Good Riddance: Board Giving.”

Notes on Nonprofits is a column in the Tallahassee Democrat produced by Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, President of Stansbury Consulting, and includes resources, responses to reader questions, guest columns, and timeless topics. This column first appeared on Sunday, October 9, 2022. Please send your comments and questions.

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