When it comes to those pre-project proposal and contracting discussions, nonprofit leaders aren’t the only ones sizing up the situation during those initial meetings. The best consultants, freelancers and coaches (all of whom we are putting under the “consultant” umbrella here) are similarly analyzing whether the engagement on the table will suit us.

You might wonder why on earth anyone who makes their living contractually might be focused on anything other than winning the job at all costs. The simple answer is that client success equals consultant success. Our greatest asset is our reputation. If we take the wrong job—meaning one with excessive red flags—we stand to underperform, tarnish our names and, potentially, risk future work. That’s not to say that we turn away challenging work. Most nonprofit sector work comes with plenty of challenges. But let’s say that most of us arrive at early client conversations with an internal checklist designed to predict success for both the client and ourselves

While we can’t speak for all consultants, we have each trained, mentored, hired, and befriended hundreds of our peers over the years and hope to speak for many who have built careers in this field. While you might be spending your time in an introductory meeting contemplating a candidate’s trustworthiness, authenticity, and what in the world this person might charge, here are some of our predictors for the best client-consultant relationships:

Are you likely to do what you say? 

Yes, the trust factor is high on the list. Since consultants’ reputations are based solely on the outcome of their engagements, the foundation upon which they are built is a solid working relationship. At a minimum, we are looking to gauge a client’s ability to show up to meetings on time, respond to emails in a timely way and otherwise follow through on promises. This trait shows up early in a relationship when potential clients answer messages, provide documents, and garner information as promised. As one of our colleagues is fond of saying, "how things start out is usually how they end up." So if you find some of your best prospects are passing on your project early in the process, you might want to take a close look at how you are showing up. 

Will you tell me everything I need to know? 

Honesty is the guiding principle here. On one hand, it implies truth-telling—a low but important bar—and on the other hand, it gets at openness. A client can certainly tell the truth that, say, the CEO just resigned while not divulging that the reason for their resignation was due to evidence of grant funds being spent on an island vacation. That bit of detail just might change your ability to help the nonprofit improve its brand. Consulting relationships rely on openness as much as they do on truth-telling. When potential clients ask early on about confidentiality in our relationship and offer early insights into the depths of the challenges they seek to address, those steps hint at the likelihood for honesty.

Are you realistic about what it will take to make this engagement successful? 

The driving principle here is pragmatism. There’s no shame if a client comes to an introductory meeting lacking the experience it might take to achieve success. While consultants are no smarter than their clients, we usually have specialized in an area and executed it repeatedly. The idea that consultants possess some magical ability to make problems go away tends not to help either side. By the end of that first meeting or two, we look for potential partners who either ask probing questions about the engagement or those who are open to exploring the possibility that the root of the problem might lie in an unexpected place. 

What do you hope to get out of our work together? 

In our experience, expectations are the number one key to achieving stated outcomes. When those expectations are set early and on both sides, everyone can move forward with confidence. From frequency of communications to the engagement’s desired outcomes, clear alignment drives client work in ways that build partnerships that can last well beyond one engagement. 

Please join us on October 31, 2019 at 2 pm Eastern Time for How to Choose the Best Consultant for Your Nonprofit, so we can help you find the right consultant to help you grow your nonprofit and advance your mission.

About the Author(s)

Susan Schaefer (she/her) Founder, Resource Partners LLC

Don Tebbe Author, Speaker, Consultant Going Solo, Going Big

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