Professionally Speaking .... Hiring the right consultant for your organisation

Sandy Thompson

You wouldn’t hire a plumber to rewire your house. Likewise, you need to hire the right consultant to work with your organisation to get what you’re after.

Whether you need a consultant for a short term project, external oversight, or specific expertise; bringing in external support to help you achieve your mission is one way to upscale your efforts to address out-sized societal problems within an under-resourced environment.  But for many not for profit organisations the cost of consulting services is a significant proportion of their available resources, and therefore they need to choose their consultants with insight and careful decision making. This article discusses some of the things to consider to make sure you get the right professional for the job on hand.

You wouldn’t choose your dentist before checking out their qualifications and expertise, and the same goes for choosing your consultant – there’s too much to lose if your organisation ‘loses teeth’ as a result of a wrong choice!

There are two consultation dimensions to consider before you decide what type of consultant is best for your needs: generalist vs specialist, and process vs technical. While these are not necessarily an either-or, you should be clear on the mix of  technical expertise or organisation development you are seeking from your consultant. 

Generalist consultants tend to have good overall leadership and organisation management insight, but will have a couple of core skills e.g. building teams or creating systems and processes. Technical expertise includes specific knowledge in areas such as information technology, accounting and finances, board development. Process consultants tend to work in organisation development areas such as capacity building, organisation analysis, change management, coaching and mentoring, and building strategy.

David Maister, former Harvard Business School professor, suggests organisations look for three things when choosing consultants: brains (expertise); grey hairs (experience); and procedures (carrying out projects). The latter is when organisations seek short term implementation of a piece of work with known parameters.  Knowing  which you are requiring is essential.  Ideally engage consultants who work collaboratively with other like-minded consultants. In that way you can reap the benefits of a range of expertise and experience and also have access to others when your consultant is not available. 

You wouldn’t engage a nanny to look after your children without doing some kind of reference check –  the same with selecting a consultant for the precious community resource that is your organisation. Much in New Zealand is done through word of mouth, and reputation is everything. When getting a reference from previous clients ensure they are from organisations with similar values approaches to yours.

You might not want to employ a vegan to be head chef of your BBQ restaurant. Culture and values are the key ingredients for a successful organisation and a consultant having a good understanding of these, along with the organisation’s specific context, is the special sauce.

Our organisations are operating within ever-changing dynamic systems resulting in unprecedented complexity for our leaders. Your consultant needs to not only understand this and provide support that is appropriate, but they need to have the intuition to quickly come on board with who you are and how you go about doing it. While there is no one right way, there is the ‘not for profit way’; and that is being consultative, participatory and respectful of difference. Having not for profit experience and a strong affinity with not for profit philosophies and approaches should be non-negotiable in my book.

It would be on a rare occasion that you would go to see an accountant for relationship counselling. Experienced consultants know that the success of consulting largely rests on their relationship with you and how well you work together. Organisation systems theory and chaos theory have helped us realise that, as soon as a consultant begins to interact with an organisation they become part of the overall “system”.  They affect the organisation and the organisation affects them.  Again this requires consultancy flexibility but also a relationship that is open, honest and collegial.

The bottom line is you need to like your consultant if you are working on a big project together and you want to be able to enjoy it.

You wouldn’t ask a heart surgeon to replace your granny’s hip. While the profession of not for profit consultancy is the new kid on the block, it has been around long enough to develop some sound evidence based good practice.  W. Edward Denning, a renowned 20th century management thinker  argued that “If you can't describe what you are doing as a process, you don't know what you're doing.” Your consultant should be able to clearly describe the different stages of the consulting work, and how they will contribute to your overall goals and objectives

You wouldn’t ask a automotive engineer to be your tour guide.  The Consultants Development Institute in the US talks about consultants having not only  technical skills and interpersonal skills  but also “consulting skills”. That they need an understanding of “consulting and how to authentically engage with clients. They need an understanding of organizations, their parts and how those parts work together. They need a clear and systematic framework for analyzing complex problems and then guiding and supporting clients through changing their organizations — and sometimes themselves.” Beware of consultants who claim to have the answer and have inflexible plans and processes.

In good process consulting ownership of the problem should remain with you, the client, and you need to be actively involved in defining the key issues and building solutions that are culturally appropriate. To do this effectively a consultant should walk alongside you on your journey.

However, you might ask an astronaut to mow your lawns.  Choose a consultant who knows their strengths and is able to adopt the right role at the right time.  In his organisation development blog, Carter McNamara of Authenticity Consulting LLC suggests consultants have multiple roles that while are a continuum from expert to facilitator are more often than not in play simultaneously. These include:

  • Coach – helping individuals to clarify and achieve a goal by helping them to bring out and apply their own wisdom.

  • Collaborator/partner – working with another to benefit from the mutual relationship.

  • Educator/trainer – helping others especially to develop new knowledge, skills and insights.

  • Expert – providing specific information and expertise in specific areas.

  • Facilitator – helping members of a group to clarify their desired goals and how they want to achieve them - and then helping them to bring out and apply their own wisdom to achieve the goals (thus, a coach who is coaching a group also works in a very facilitative manner).

  • Problem solver – helping others to clarify their problems and then helping them to “solve” them.

  • Researcher – collecting, organizing, analyzing and reporting information for others.

Other roles might include analyst, synthesizer, impartial observer, critic, friend and mentor.

If you have made it this far through this article you are probably looking for a checklist, here it is:

        Be clear if what you are seeking is a generalist or specialist consultant, and what proportions of process and technical expertise are you seeking. 

        Ask for references and hire on reputation.

        Bring on board a consultant who is not for profit-centric and understands your culture, values and context.

        Choose someone you like, and you are likely to have a good relationship with them.

        Select a consultant who not only knows their stuff but also knows how to be a good consultant.

        Beware of consultants who claim to be experts with all the answers. The not for profit world is too complex for anyone to claim that status.

        How large or complex is your project? Consultants working collaboratiely in a team or who have access to a pool of other consultants to draw on, can offer a more robust service.

        Know how you want the consultant to help you; are you looking for a coach, partner, trainer, expert, facilitator, problem solver or researcher?

Taking care to choose the right person will ensure you get the right expertise, experience and procedures that will help your organisation to achieve its aspirations. The LEAD team are available to answer your questions and support your organisation. 

And if you yourself are a not for profit consultant, check out our upcoming masterclass, Shifting the Curve.




Penelope Cagney. (2010). Non profit consulting essentials: what nonprofits and consultants need to know. John Wiley and Sons: CA

Judith Chapman, (1998). Do process consultants need different skills when working with nonprofits?, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 19 Issue: 4, pp.211-215.

Consultants Development Istitute. Why Consulting Skills?

 Susan Ellis (2009). Free expertise: challenges in welcoming pro bono volunteers

The Non-profit Times. 23.17 (Sept. 1, 2009): p12+.

David Maister (1993) Managing the Professional Service Team. Simon and Shuster: New York

Carter McNamara of Authenticity Consulting, LLC. Blog: Consulting and Organizational Development.