How to Be a Good Nonprofit Client to Your Consultant

We all know the tale about the scoundrel consultant who borrows your watch to tell you the time. But have you heard the one about the client who got all they wanted from their well-meaning consultant?

We are three “serial” consultants (we like to think of the well-meaning type) who together have the better part of a century of experience. We have lots of stories of clients who got great value from us and were fun to work with, too. And we have some tales of clients who wasted their money and left us feeling burned. Some of that is our fault, and we strive to avoid repeat offenses. But the main lessons are for clients who want to get the most from their consultants.

The truth is the best results come when consultants with the right skills meet clients who are the most demanding — before we start, as we work together and even after the work is done!

Before — know where you are going and how the consultant will get you there. 

Before starting an engagement, demand that your consultant aligns with you on:

  • What problem you are solving or what result you want
  • Why it is important to solve and why, in particular, now
  • Who brings the right mix of skills and experience (see sidebar below)
A side bar showing different types of consultants

Credit: Spring Impact

One of the most rewarding pieces of work we have done was for a large foundation that wanted quick, deep evaluations of about 30 social enterprises scattered across the country. There was potential for great impact and for work running over budget, something we both wanted to avoid. We both invested significant time upfront to develop the project brief, starting a tight working relationship that strengthened further in the effort.

That is all very well, but suppose you do not know what you want. After all, it can be hard to diagnose a problem on your own, which is why many people engage outsiders in the first place. That is even more reason to craft a working agreement collaboratively: demand engagement before the start.

Some signs that give us pause before we start are:

  • A broad scope, such as “a new mission statement,” with the hope that this can be completed in a meeting or two. A broad scope can open fundamental changes in strategy. If you are prepared for the journey, it can lead to exciting destinations. If not, it can lead to disappointment and frustration, particularly for staff.
  • A request for proposal without a chance to discuss, as if it were for a standard, off-the-shelf cleaning service. At least one major consulting firm we know refuses to submit their proposal before meeting the decision-maker because experience has taught them it is often a waste of time.
  • A request from a board to develop a plan before hiring the chief executive. One of us once tried to do this for a nonprofit. When appointed, the CEO had other ideas and none of the plans were used. The premature effort wasted resources and frustrated all of us.


During — demand that your consultants stay close and be frank, and do the same yourself. 


On the journey, demand that your consultants keep interactive, open and frank communication with you, giving you all the news and confirming or challenging views with analysis that is grounded in the reality of your organization and team.

In one of our best-ever relationships, our analysis of the client’s programs suggested that some had great impact and covered their costs, and some did not. The analysis showed that their programs did not really form a continuum of care but were disconnected. Although shocked at first, they soon rose from their seats and walked to the wall chart revealing the startling facts. We had what the diplomats call “a full and frank exchange of views.”

Within two weeks, the client was acting on the implications: finding new sources of funding for some programs and finding other organizations to take on the programs that it could not fund sustainably. Because the client kept us close throughout, they saw value quickly, did not wait for the final report and acted. It may have been their watch we were looking at, but our intervention enabled them to see the time more accurately by it.

In marked contrast was a frustrating engagement one of us had with a chief executive and board who wanted a “strategy refresh.” The board met the consultants and asked that the engagement be open to the possibilities for the next five years.

As the engagement unfolded, the relationship became less open and less frank than we had expected. We asked to talk one on one with board members and other stakeholders, as we believed that this would elicit more fruitful insights and ideas. The CEO insisted on attending meetings with board members as well as spending hours together before meetings scripting the questions. Asking the big questions seemed to undermine the CEO’s trust. While he was trying to manage political sensitivities, we failed to hear the insights needed for the engagement to succeed.

As the project progressed, it seemed that the CEO was simply seeking support for his existing strategy, while some board members wanted to explore more fundamental questions. The CEO was demanding less of us while the board wanted more. Just before the board meeting to discuss our recommendations, some board members circulated a document that suggested the strategy refresh was, frankly, not refreshing enough. It was not our finest hour, and it left the CEO vulnerable.

Demanding a close and frank journey of your consultant can be illuminating. Demanding the same of your team and its wisdom along the journey leads to impact.

After — follow up with the consultant… you will not always get an extra bill.

Often, it is weeks or months after the consultant wraps up a project before the results begin to show. As they flow in, call the consultant to discuss the results. Be open about obstacles. Seek counsel on what might produce better or faster results and other ideas you have been considering. Do not be shy about asking early and with sufficient time to course-correct. And make the friendly, informal calls short and sharp.

We, and most consultants we know, are delighted when clients follow up on the impact our work has had. We want to know how we did. Without clear results from our work, why would clients ever hire us?

One of us led a project with a social enterprise to determine how cloud computing might both enable more impact through greater reach for their services and enhance their internal operations. About six months after the project ended, the social enterprise’s VP of technology rang the consultant to say he was struggling to secure timely decisions for IT investments. The VP was frustrated that many of the strategy’s benefits were now at risk and people were starting to point fingers and blame.

After meeting with the VP of technology and then the CEO, the consultant realized that the organization was grappling with fundamental issues of decision-making and role clarity rather than any individual’s ill intent. At the client’s request, the consultant facilitated a discussion of this question with 20 or so leaders of the organization, which exposed the frustrations and issues each of them faced getting to decisions. As the CEO said after, the consultant, as an outsider, was able to ask questions and get answers that would have been difficult for an insider. It helped to focus on processes, role clarity, systems and metrics rather than faults of individuals.

In addition to bottlenecks the impassioned leaders in the room could solve, we talked about gaps in bringing the rest of the organization along on a significant change journey. By the end of the session, the stress reduction in the room was palpable. A few good laughs and “We can do this!” attitude emerged as the group adjourned. We agreed to stay in touch more frequently. No invoice would be in the mail — this was an investment in time and trust by both parties that would pay off in multiples for each of us.

Two years later, the client emailed the consultant with news that a cloud-driven risk had surfaced that might upend their entire mission and asked, “Can you help?”

What ensued was a series of consulting projects over a period of several years as the organization transformed. After an initial period of disruption and pain, the social enterprise has generated new sources of revenue, built new capabilities and forged new partnerships. As a consultant, it was an honor to be a part of their journey.

We appreciate clients who recognize that if our work is to produce value, how we spend our time matters. You will get the best out of consultants if you know what you want in advance (as far as that is possible), if you stick to the task and if you make sure what you agree is producing the results you want. Above all, be open — if a consultant is going to tell you the time accurately, you might have to show them the workings of your watch, not just the numbers on the digital display.

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