I’ve been both a nonprofit communications director and an administrative director, and have had the experience of hiring and supervising consultants, as well as being the consultant in that role. Here are three steps that I’ve seen make a big difference between successful and frustrating relationships for web-based projects with consultants.
From a legal perspective, consultants are not staff members, and any good contract will make that part of the relationship clear. But even so, focusing on three essential parts of the effective supervision similar to how you would for a staffer will lead to better web consulting to your nonprofit organization.
Those three supervision essentials are:
- Set clear expectations
- Create the right work environment
- Be clear on everyone’s responsibilities
Here we go!
One: set clear expectations
Just as you wouldn’t generally hire a staffer without a job description, don’t hire consultants for your nonprofit without some clear and specific list of what you expect them to do and when it needs to be complete. For a consultant, that often means specifying the outcomes more than the way they will actually perform the work.
That’s one of the central differences between staff and contractors: with staff, a supervisor sets expectations based not just on outcome but more specifically how they will deliver the outcome. The whole point of hiring a consultant is for us to use our expertise to devise the best route to the outcome.
And having said that, it’s important to specify if there are particular things that you absolutely know you’re counting on your consultant for. Often an effective contract contains certain deliverables to make clear what the consultant has to be absolutely sure to include in their work.
Two: Create the right work environment through information sharing
Even though consultants don’t necessarily work out of your office, they need an environment where they can do their best work. What really breathes air into a consultant’s workspace is information and context.
Especially given that a consultant is responsible for devising the best path to the desired outcome, context and background is everything. Part of the challenge is that as consultants with insight into a very specific process that we bring expertise to, we may depend on specific information that you or other leaders in your nonprofit may not realize is even relevant.
A consultant’s open-ended questions, while sometimes stressful, allow you to “roam around” in your answers, while offering a skilled consultant more context. These moments of candor can open up possibilities for consultants to do our best work.
Insight comes from being able to take seemingly disparate pieces of information and putting them together in unique ways. It’s what a skilled consultant does well, by sifting through plenty of information, prioritizing it, and coming up with a set of ideas on how to redirect the situation.
Three: Be clear on everyone’s responsibilities
A good project plan lays out specific responsibilities for all the parties. For a successful project, you need to be clear on not just what your consultant will do, but what your organization’s responsibilities are. This gives you the chance to review it and make sure that you have what you need (especially in terms of information and time) to get your part done.
One of the biggest challenges here is that consultant often know what we’re supposed to do – we’re doing what we do all the time. In contrast, the non-profit organization doesn’t have much experience with this particular process (or else they probably wouldn’t be using a consultant). Or you may be specifically hoping to avoid doing certain things. It can make it hard to accurately assess whether you are planning for the most appropriate amount of time for your role in the project.
Ask a prospective consultant: “What will you need from us?” If they say, “nothing,” that is often cause for concern. A good project will require you to stay central, and you can’t do that if the consultant is doing all the work.
It’s also good to know what will happen if you are late or unable to meet your responsibilities. Will the consultant be able to do this instead of you? Or will you need to come up with another solution?
Clarity on your responsibilities will allow you to create a more realistic plan for how to reach the overall goals.
Further Reading and Conclusion
Here are a couple places to read more about working with consultants:
- Hubspot’s 9 Things Freelancers Wish You Knew
- A previous post I wrote for the MRG Foundation blog: Approaching People to Work with Your Organization
- Idealware’s How to Find, Hire, and Collaborate with Technology Consultants
If you can keep those three steps in mind, you can lay the foundation for a successful project, and a consulting relationship where everyone is doing their best work and your results clearly show it!
Have you read the first two pieces in this Get Off the Nonprofit Rollercoaster series? Here they are:
- Part 1: Rational Budgeting for Nonprofit Tech Projects
- Part 2: Constant Improvement and Your Website!
Kathleen Pequeño @kpequeno is Senior Account Manager at Fission. Drop her a line at kathleen [at] fissionstrategy.com if you’d like to talk!