3 Things Nonprofit Consultants Can’t Do

Moving truck

Image by TheMuuj via Flickr

Hiring a nonprofit consultant is like hiring movers. Once you’ve had the experience of high-quality, professional help, it is  impossible to imagine how you ever did all that heavy-lifting on your own.

And yet, just like movers don’t unpack for you–or come back two weeks later to unload the dishwasher, there are some kinds of work your consultant can’t do for you.

Here are three big ones:

Build your Relationships

Successful nonprofits grow in size and influence by building and maintaining strong relationships with individuals and organizations.  Your consultant can help you decide which relationships to pursue and which to release.  She can even help you create the materials and systems you need to maintain and grow these community connections.

But she can’t execute the plan.

You have to send the e-mails,  attend the lunch meetings and reply on Twitter.  You have to make the phone calls, do the site visits, and write the thank you notes– because your organization’s relationships are strengthened as supporters move closer and closer to the heart of your organization.  That heart is you.

Tell your story

Data doesn’t change behavior.  Stories change behavior*– so the most effective way to build support for your organization is to tell the story about what your organization is doing and create easy ways for listeners to write themselves into it.

Your consultant can help you uncover your story.  He can help you identify the people with whom that story is most likely to resonate.  He can even help you craft your story to be as compelling as possible.

But he can’t tell it.

Stories come to life when the truth at their core shines through in the telling.  It is that authenticity that makes people want to connect.  Without the story and the committed teller, you might as well be reading out of the phone book.

Be the Decider

Your consultant wants what is best for your organization.  She knows more about the available options and the potential implications of each choice than you do.  You should certainly use her advice to inform your decision.  But you can’t abdicate the choice to her.

No matter how long and how carefully you’ve worked together, your consultant doesn’t know everything there is to know about your work.  She doesn’t have your intimate knowledge of your history and your people.  Most importantly, she is not responsible for the outcome of the decision.

As a leader of your organization, you are ultimately responsible for the outcome of decisions made on behalf of the organization.  Therefore, you can’t follow advice blindly.  You must ask questions when you don’t understand– and refuse to make a final decision until your questions are fully answered.

What did I miss?

What other nonprofit leadership tasks can only be completed by an organization’s own leaders?

And on the flip side, what kind of work will you never do without the help of a consultant again?

*The direct link seems to require a paid subscription.  And yet, if you Google “Use Stories to Change Employee Behavior” and click on the first result, it comes right up.

2 thoughts on “3 Things Nonprofit Consultants Can’t Do

  1. This is a post that I will be sharing again and again and again! Every nonprofit organization should read it — and every consultant should have it in their back pocket.

    As a consultant, I have often been asked about the organization’s return on their investment in hiring me — and the answer is always, “it depends.” It depends because while I can give an organization tools to make their lives easier, I cannot do the work for them. For example, I don’t make asks. I can help identify prospects, figure out a good ask amount, provide you with the support and practice you need, but I can’t make the ask. That piece is up to the organization.

    If we go through all the work to prepare for a major gifts campaign, and that last piece is just not completed, then the return on investment will be less than either one of us will be happy about.

    I also can’t implement the complete strategic, fundraising or marketing plan, in part because my contract is likely to be done before the entire plan is implemented and in part because it is the organization that must see that the plan is implemented as written, or changed along the way. I may help with its creation and provide the tools and systems to make it happen, but if the work isn’t done by the organization, the plan ends up sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust.

    One last thing. I can’t ask your questions for you. The best clients ask a ton of questions and want to understand why one approach is recommended over another. They challenge me, offer alternatives and request more information. I always worry if a client is not asking many questions and I make a conscious effort to provide plenty of opportunities for questions. At the end of the day, I can throw out a few questions, concerns or ask the client how they think something should be done, but I can’t ask their unasked questions for them. In this world, there is no such thing as a stupid question — and there is rarely ever one “right way.” Just because best practice dictates that your board chair personally solicit your board members, doesn’t mean that it will work for your organization. That’s OK. There are other ways and baby steps that can be taken.

    Thank you, Maureen, for yet another thought provoking piece!

  2. This is a great post, Maureen — so true. And thanks, Erica, for your comment. As a consultant, I can do many things, but that the will to change or pursue a course of action ultimately — and always — lies with the client. It was the client’s desire to hire me and it is their responsibility to use me. My job is to deepen the experience, shed light, and/or expedite a process.

    I resist projects where all I have to do is create a product for the client to use (or not). Where creation is involved, it’s done together with, hopefully, the client doing most of the work. That’s the only way I know the project stands even the remotest possibility of being institutionalized after I’m long gone.

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