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Executive Director, Good Shepherd Services.
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Getting Your Money’s Worth From a Nonprofit Consultant

There comes a point in most nonprofit’s lives when they need to go outside their organization and hire a consultant to help with one issue or another. Who better to ask for advice on how to do that well than Ellen Simon, the former head of one of Harlem’s most prominent nonprofits and a leading nonprofit consultant now herself.  Thanks for the great advice in this week’s guest post, Ellen!


Getting Your Money’s Worth From a Nonprofit Consultant

Hiring a consultant can be expensive and many organizations often feel disappointed when they don’t get all they hoped for after they have hired the specialist. Here are some simple tips that will help you maximize your dollars and improve your outcome.

Preparation is essential.

Be clear, concise and precise in preparing your expectations. Preparation is the key to success. The time you spend before the consultant comes on board will maximize your dollars. As a consultant who has worked with both large and small organizations, I can assure you that the consultant will appreciate the clarity and specificity. Unfortunately, too often there is a rush to bring the expert on board to help fix the problem. Documenting the situation and the desired result prior to onboarding a consultant is a key first step. If preparation is incomplete, the end product will likely be imperfect. And both the organization and the consultant will be dissatisfied with the end result.

Clarify your objectives, expectations and time frame.

Say what you want, how you want it and when you need it. If at all possible, involve the staff members who will be using the product in the planning. Getting suggestions and buy-in from those who will be the end users of the product will help you get the best outcome. Create a document of the requirements that outlines the expectations, deliverables and time frame you have developed that you can give to the consultant. Too often a consultant is given imprecise, verbal instructions that lead to a final product that does not meet all of the organization’s needs. If the consultant is experienced, he or she will ask questions if the instructions are not sufficiently clear. The consultant will then update and maintain the requirements document so the end product is measurable. The difficult situation occurs when the consultant thinks that he or she knows what is being asked for but there is a large gap between his or her understanding and the organization’s expectations that is not discovered until the consultant tenders the final report. Decide who will be the consultant’s main contact. What sort of updates will be expected from the contact? Will there be a weekly status report? Will there be a regular conference call or meeting to discuss the progress of the project or product? The more you clarify what you need and want, the fewer surprises you will encounter.

Prepare a Budget.

After you work on your expectations, think about the numbers of hours it might take to achieve the deliverables you have outlined. Discuss and plan for any expected additional costs. Talk to colleagues who have used consultants about their experiences. Ask them what they paid, whether it was an hourly rate, with or without a cap to limit the total cost, or if they paid a flat rate for the project. Ask how other expenses such as postage were handled. Seek recommendations from them about possible consultants. Always get references from any potential consultants. If you have a maximum dollar amount that must include any additional expenses, include that fact in your document. Be clear up front and you will minimize unpleasant surprises later on.

If feasible, discuss with staff members how much of the preparation they will be able to accomplish and get their feedback on the numbers of hours they think their roles in the project will take.

All of this sounds simple, but unfortunately, few organizations adequately prepare. Spending your time before you hire a consultant is crucial in helping you get what you need.


Dr. Ellen P. Simon has worked as a nonprofit consultant for more than five years, with a diverse set of clients, advising on areas such as community involvement, grant writing, public health research and management.  Prior to that she ran one of the largest nonprofits in Harlem, providing programs in child care, youth services, senior services, mental health and home care.  BoardAssist is proud to have Dr Simon on our board of directors.