How do I Find a Great Consultant?
Finding a great consultant can feel daunting. Being one myself, I admit that the number of us can seem endless and the approaches are quite varied. But if you go at it methodically, you can find your way to the person (or firm) that is right for you.
Know what you don’t know
The first step is to clarify what you need. Where are your knowledge or experience gaps? What problems do you need to solve? Many consultants have different specialties. The clearer you are about what you need, the better questions you can ask—and asking good questions is the key to hiring the right consultant.
Conduct a search and ask for referrals
With limited resources and time, you can get a pretty good sense of what is out there. Though a simple Google search will result in thousands of leads, if you control your parameters you can learn a lot about the ways different consultants present themselves. Try searching on major gifts, annual giving, foundation fundraising, corporate giving, or government grants. You can also search geographically. I guarantee that it will raise a lot of questions for you—write them down.
Cross-reference your Google search with LinkedIn—especially if you are considering boutique firms or independent consultants. LinkedIn is a great resource for getting a sense of the fundraising consultant’s reputation. Look at the consultant’s network—who is in it? Do you know anyone or any of the organizations? Don’t hesitate to connect and ask questions.
There is no substitute for a good network. Reaching out to friends and colleagues for referrals is a great way to check out which consultants have made good impressions. It’s also a great way to generate leads.
While boutique firms or individual consultants may not have the same range of resources, they are usually less expensive and may be more available and flexible.
Does size matter?
It’s important to pick the type of firm that is right for you. Larger firms usually are more expensive, but they have more resources. While boutique firms or individual consultants may not have the same range of resources, they are usually less expensive and may be more available and flexible. Large firms are often organized to serve larger institutions, while boutique firms and independent consultants are more adaptable to smaller organizations. Whether large or small, the most important question is: who is the individual that will work with me and what are her/his capabilities?
Conduct an Interview
It is very important to interview potential consultants. I recommend conducting a telephone interview first. See how the firm responds to your inquiry. Who calls you back? When do they call back? Was it a good experience?
When you get to the interview, ask good questions. These might include: What is the philosophy of your firm? How do you approach client engagements? In what areas are you most experienced? What are your specialties? How long have you been consulting? Can you describe the experience and expertise of your team? Who are some of your clients and can you tell me what you have done for them? Can you provide two or three references for me to speak with? I recommend adding further questions about your specific needs and how the consultant would approach solving them.
If you need more information to make a decision, don’t hesitate to request a proposal. Be clear about what you want or the problem you need solved. To be fair to the consultant, only ask if you are seriously considering her/his services—and be careful not to ask for consulting advice in the guise of a proposal.
Always, always, always check references.
Important things to look for in a consultant
Experience in the trenches: There is no substitute for on-the-job experience. As a friend of mine once said, “When you are up to your neck in alligators, a theory on how to drain the swamp isn’t helpful.” Every organization and every situation has unique elements. A consultant who has had significant responsibility within an organization brings experience, insight, and expertise that cannot be learned in a classroom.
Knowledge: Does the consultant know what s/he is talking about? Is s/he knowledgeable about best and proven practices? Are her/his models and approaches sound? Is s/he familiarity with the type of counsel you need? You can assess a consultant’s knowledge by reading the firm’s web page, through a proposal, and in the interview. Again, ask good questions. And if you’re not sure about the answers, check them out with others.
Character: An often-overlooked attribute is character. In your research, do clients comment on the consultant’s character? In interviews with prospective consultants, are they focused on selling business or solving your problems? Are they listening or telling? Do they exude integrity?
Intelligence: Consulting is about intelligence, whether it’s knowing stuff or having the intellectual capacity to solve problems. A consultant should be articulate, innovative, and have the ability to bring new, useful insight to your unique situation.
Importance of the fit
Finally, let me just say that intuition is underrated. In his research, Dr. Robert Hartman, known as one of the founders of the field of axiometrics (valuing and values), demonstrated that we all have access to empathy (the seat of intuition)—an immediate knowing—the non-judgmental, non-time-bound, connection to people and things. I always recommend the gut-check. At the end of it all, does this person feel right?