There are many challenges confronting associations today. Some are facing financial challenges or encountering problems that will not go away – like diversifying their revenue, staff turnover, lack of board support, or managing the expectations of accountability and transparency. Other organizations are looking for innovative ways to grow and remain relevant to their members, funders, and stakeholders.
One alternative associations are using today to managing these anxieties is exploring various ways to utilize the expertise of consultants to help build a stronger association. Consultants not only offer advice but can also assist the organization in assessing their competitive position. Most consultants specialize in specific areas that can support an organization’s ability to grow strategically and remain sustainable.
Choosing a Consultant
Hiring a consultant can be an option or practical solution that will allow your organization to shift responsibility for a project, service or on-going initiative. Associations, and nonprofits alike, have traditionally hired consultants to assist with strategic planning, organizational development, marketing or training. However, in today’s environment, more organizations are looking to hire consultants to outsource short-term or long-term projects as a great choice for effectiveness and cost savings.
Outsourcing specific operational and programmatic functions, such as membership management, conference management, advocacy efforts, or overseeing software conversions, can be an effective solution and allow the organization to focus on other important areas simultaneously. Here are five reasons to consider why you should hire a consultant:
1. Economic environment is ever-changing
2. Access to experts, fresh perspective, and innovative ideas
3. Reduce costly overhead and resource allocations
4. Pay for specific services as needed – a cost-effective solution for small organizations especially
5. Extra resources to get the job done
Some Common Mistakes
Hiring a consultant can help you save time and money in overcoming specific obstacles. Let’s start with the assumption that your organization is contemplating hiring a consultant or firm to manage an operational role or a project-specific need. Typically, consultants bring innovative ideas, best practices and cost-effective ways of managing the organization’s resources while considering the ‘big picture’. Good consultants will look at your situation impartially and identify solutions quickly and efficiently.
However, unless the organization’s leaders, assess their needs clearly, determine what success will look like, and choose a consultant wisely, the relationship can be daunting and unsuccessful. Here are some common mistakes that lead to unsuccessful consulting relationships:
- Hiring a consultant for the wrong reasons (i.e. to accelerate a CEO’s exit or an attempt to create fear amongst staff)
- Lack of buy-in from staff, board, and/or stakeholders
- Hidden agendas, sacred cows, or signs of resistance
- Lack of clarity for the real needs and resources available
- Lack of commitment and time (both parties)
- Consultant or firm does not complement the organization’s DNA
- Professional credentials of the consultant is not a good fit
- Contract and scope of work is unclear
- Lack of timely payments to the consultant
- Communication issues or not responding to requests in a timely matter
In a partnership, you create buy-in from the organization and the consultant. Partnerships require working together and taking actions that will craft a vision and value-added approach to the work. Both parties are now empowered to share a common interest or participate in achieving a common goal. Just like a new hire, it is important to recognize the levels of experience of consultants vary and should be strongly considered before forming this crucial partnership.
Getting it Right
To ensure maximum success with strategic outcomes, hiring a consultant with the vision of creating an effective “partnership” can foster greater success. It all starts with getting the right consultant, with the right experience, and the right interpersonal skills for your organization.
Successful partnerships with consultants begin with the organization choosing a consultant wisely. Taking the necessary time to clarify the real needs of the organization or project and comparing the benefits and costs will drive your decisions for hiring the right consultant.
Likewise, consultants need to choose their clients with prudence. A consultant’s role is to help the client be successful. They should only accept projects for which they are knowledgeable experts and have the experience to deliver the best results. Considering the organization’s mission and business culture is parallel with their business practices will also give the consultant information to choose clients wisely.
Here are some things to consider while laying the foundation for the optimal consultant-association partnership:
• Understand the goals and needs
• Identify any barriers or scared cows that could influence the project
• Agree on the scope of work and methodology to be used
• Develop a budget and timeline
• Set key milestones
• Have deliverables ready
• Return calls and emails in a timely manner
• Determine points of contact and staff support
• Agree on Communication methods
• Stay informed and air any concerns
• Troubleshoot problems immediately
• Use each other’s time wisely
• Be on time for meetings & avoid re-scheduling
• Promptly submit and pay invoices
• Review reports together before dissemination
• Create a final report and debrief
• Celebrate successes
After laying the foundation and agreeing on expectations, the organization and consultant can now begin building this optimal partnership. Remember the approach begins with carefully selecting a consultant whose experience and approach fits the organization’s culture and needs; and the consultant selecting a client that matches their methods as well.
Finally, communication is the key to all thriving partnerships. Communicating regularly and holding each other accountable to timelines, deliverables, scope of work, etc. will go a long way in avoiding pitfalls. Openness and honesty will allow both parities to form a strategic approach to the project and avoid a painful experience – ultimately leading to success. Working together as partners – sharing a common interest in achieving the goals, creating change and setting a measure for success – will ultimately build a stronger association and optimize the final results.