[PODCAST] 5 Questions to Answer Before Calling a Nonprofit Consultant

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Welcome to the TopNonprofits Podcast. In this episode of the pod, TopNonprofits’ Amy DeVita talks with Nonprofit.ist’s founder and nonprofit consultant, Heather Yandow about how to get the most out of your engagement with an expert.

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Amy: Today, we’re talking about consultants with the hope that you’ll gain a better understanding of when an organization should consider bringing in a consultant, or how best to prepare the board and staff for that additional help. How to find the right consultant for your specific needs, which questions should you ask before picking up the phone? Joining me by phone today is Heather Yandow. She is the founder of The Nonprofit.ist, and a consultant herself who has spent 20 years in the nonprofit sector. Hey, welcome to the pod, Heather.

 

Heather: Hi, thanks so much for having me.

 

Amy: Oh, well, thanks for coming here. Thanks so much, really excited about today’s conversation. But before we get started, why don’t you share a little bit of background with the audience about yourself?

 

Heather: Absolutely. So, I have been in the nonprofit world for about 20 years. The first part of my career was as a director of development and communications. So, I learned to love fundraising, and still do it sometimes in my volunteer roles. But for the past 9 years, I’ve been a nonprofit consultant focused on strategic planning, organizational development, and leadership development. And about a year ago, I launched an online directory of nonprofit experts called Nonprofit.ist.

 

Amy: I’m so excited to talk about Nonprofit.ist. And I know we’re going to talk about that in a little bit later in the episode. So, keep listening, guys. That is a really great resource you’re going to love. So, we’ll talk about that a little bit. But what we’re going to be talking about right now for our main conversation, related to that is really talking about consultants and how if you’re a nonprofit organization, you know, how do you know when you need a consultant? When you determine that you do need a consultant, how do you prepare for that? So fortunately, for us, Heather’s made it pretty easy because she has… she has created really this list of the 5 questions you need to be able to answer before, or you should be able to answer before you call a consultant. So, thanks for putting that together, Heather. We’re going to go over it and sort of add a little bit of depth to that right now. So, I really love this entire thing, as I just said. And especially that the very first question to ask and it’s so basic, right, is what’s… what is that challenge that you want to tackle? Sounds like it’s a simple thing. Do you want to expand on that?

 

Heather: Yeah, It does sound like it’s a simple thing, doesn’t it? So, you know, this question is on the list because I see a lot of organizations who come to consultants with either, “We want a strategic plan,” or, “We want help with marketing.” So, it’s… it’s vague, it’s nebulous, it’s unclear what’s really behind it. Or they come sometimes on the… almost the other end of the spectrum with a very detailed process of what they want to see happen. “We want 10 minutes views with these people and 3 focus groups, and then we want a retreat.” And neither of those really allow you to take best advantage of the consultants, take best advantage of that expert that you’re talking to. To do that, the best thing to focus on is, what’s the challenge you’re facing? If you think you need a fundraising plan, what’s the real challenge underneath that? Is it that the board isn’t really engaged in fundraising? Is it that you have a large team and they are not on the same page about what needs to be done? Is it that you don’t have a very good idea of what the data tells you about where you should be focused? Each of those challenges has a really different outcome and a really different way that you might work with an expert. So, getting clear about that challenge internally before you talk with somebody is most important, and not jumping to the conclusion of, “And here’s how we solve it,” but really building that in conjunction with that expert.

 

Amy: It does… yeah, it definitely presents itself a lot where it’s like, “Well, we need help fundraising.” And that’s a little bit too general.

 

Heather: Yeah, yeah. And, you know, strategic plan, I do a lot of strategic planning, so I’m probably somewhat complicit in this. But strategic plan means almost nothing, and almost everything. So, when you ask for a strategic plan, what’s really behind it? What do you really… what do you want to be different at the end of that process?

 

Amy: So, you gave… it’s funny, you… you gave an example of like, having it too specific, right, is also not helpful.

 

Heather: Yes.

 

Amy: Because it does… it’s too rigid and doesn’t allow for really the consultant to add anything to it. Can you give an example of like you’re… you’ve… you’re a consultant, what would be your ideal call from a nonprofit at that… at that point?

Heather: So, the ideal call from a nonprofit would be something like, “Hi, you know, we’ve been… we’ve been struggling with this issue for a little while. We’ve tried a couple of things. They’ve maybe worked, maybe haven’t, but this is what we’re starting to suspect that that’s really at the root of this challenge. Can you help?”

 

Amy: Mm-hmm.

Heather: And then, of course, they’ve answered the other 4 questions as well, which we’ll get into.

 

Amy: Right.

 

Heather: So, really, you know, folks have done some discernment internally have… have maybe tried some things, have discovered that they need somebody from the outside, and whether that’s on fundraising or on accounting on a legal issue, whatever it is, but they’re… they’ve decided it’s time to invite somebody in to help.

 

Amy: So, as you mentioned, there are 4 other questions to get into. So, yeah, absolutely. So, that… the second question really is focusing I guess on having buy-in and agreement among all of the stakeholders, or maybe not the stakeholders, maybe some of the stakeholders. So, tell me a little bit about…

 

Heather: Yes, the important stakeholders.

 

Amy: Important stakeholders. So, your second question is, “Does everyone agree about the challenge and the need for outside help?” So, tell us how we get there and, you know, how we can tell people… if everyone agrees.

 

Heather: Yeah, yeah. So… so, this question comes out of experience, right? Experience comes… this comes out of making some potentially bad decisions or walking into some… some engagements that were not great in the end. And one that comes to mind is talking to an executive director about the need that she saw for her board to do some work around the right roles and responsibilities of the board, about individual board members’ contributions to fundraising. And as we talked, she was very convincing and had some great examples, and I was… I was on board. I thought, “This is going to be a great project.” As I got into the project, I didn’t realize that there wasn’t agreement between the Board Chair and the Executive Director that this was a problem. Yeah, right?

 

Amy: Awkward.

 

Heather: Very awkward. And that they needed outside help. So, getting agreement from all of the (unclear) [08:14] folks, and that’s whoever is going to be invested and asked to invest time or energy into the project, can be really important. The piece of that that is particularly striking when you’re bringing in outside help is, do people agree that… that there is this need to expend resources? Usually, when you’re working with a consultant, there is some kind of fee associated with it. Sometimes you can get pro bono help, but there are often budgetary implications. So, if you’re devoting resources, financial resources to hiring somebody, there also needs to be that conversation with likely the board about what that looks like in the budget, and are you really going to devote that much time and energy to this project?

 

Amy: Heather, okay, so I might be… I might be off base here, but I’m just wondering, in that… under that question too, I mean, have you seen issues with ego that is involved with folks? I don’t know.

 

Heather: Absolutely.

 

Amy: Yeah, yeah?

 

Heather: Absolutely.

 

Amy: Okay.

 

Heather: Definitely issues with ego, definitely issues with stubbornness, with belief that… that, “I’m not the problem,” that, “somebody else’s problem. And if we could just fix them, then everything would be okay,” right?

 

Amy: Mm-hmm.

 

Heather: My… one of my favorite stories about this is I worked with… I’ve worked with an organization who I really love and admire, and I’ve worked with them over the course of the 9 years of my consulting practice. And probably 7 years ago or so I did a training for their board about getting more engaged around major donor fundraising. And it was an excellent trading, right? As I say… the same, I said to myself, “It was a good training. They all enjoyed it. They had a good time. They said they were going to go do it.” So, when she called me 3 years later to say, “Well, you know, we’re… we’re struggling with our board and fundraising. Can you come to another training?” I had to say, “Well, we did that once, remember? And it didn’t really work. So, maybe what the board needs actually isn’t a training. Maybe we need to circle back to the first question, what’s the real challenge here? And what does your board chair think is the real challenge? What does your fundraising chair think is the real challenge? What’s really underneath this?” Because slapping on a training is easy to say yes to. It’s something that the board knows they can pay attention to and they can pay for. And it’ll make the problem of engaging in fundraising go away, right?

 

Amy: Right, mm-hmm.

 

Heather: “We’ve solved that problem, check. We did the training.”

 

Amy: Yeah.

 

Heather: And I’m not even sure it’s conscious, but it’s… it is something that I see. So… so, that gets to ego, it gets to stubbornness, it gets to assuming the solution before you’ve actually identified what their real challenges.

 

Amy: You’ve got your work cut out for you. Okay. So, you know, next… so, you’ve got those first two questions, number 3 really focuses on timing. So, the question you said to ask is… ask yourself is, “When do you want to do the project?” So, tell us a little bit about why timing is important and, you know, what things around timing we should really consider.

 

Heather: Yeah. So, timing, when you’re talking with a consultant, can sometimes make the difference of if this person can work with you or not. So, if you are in a crisis mode, and you need somebody who can come in and do something at the end of the week, that’s really important to know. If you have a natural deadline of grant that’s coming up, a grant project that’s… that’s coming up, that’s really useful to know. A lot of times, when you’re working with a consultant, our calendars might (unclear) [12:16] out a month, 2 months, 3 months in advance, and we don’t actually have the bandwidth to do anything tomorrow. But if we can do it 2 or 3 months down the road, we’d be happy to do this work with you. So, getting a sense of, one, “What’s the total timeline for the project? What’s driving that timeline?” and then the second piece is, are there already important dates on the calendar? So, do you already know you’re having a board retreat in July, it’s on the calendar, everyone’s coming? If that doesn’t work for my calendar, it might mean I can’t do the whole strategic planning process because of that 1 date, but that’s really helpful to know.

Amy: So, the next one, money, money, money, money, money.

 

Heather: Yes, yes, yes.

 

Amy: It’s… it’s such a… it’s a touchy subject with a lot of organizations, I think. And also, you know, oftentimes, they feel like they’re doing the… we shouldn’t be spending any money; I get that a lot.

Heather: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

 

Amy: So, it is touchy and… but it’s 1 of the 4… 1 of the 5 questions that you said we need to discuss, which is… it’s not, “Do you have money?” it is, “How much money…”

 

Heather: Yes.

 

Amy: “… do you have to help address this challenge?” And I like that it says, “How much money do you have?” it’s not, “Can you… can you afford it? Can you… is it…?” you know? So…

 

Heather: Yeah.

 

Amy: Tell us a little bit about that.

 

Heather: It’s a question that I ask… yeah, yeah. I have learned to ask this in the first 15 minutes or so of a conversation, because it really helps to ground, “Is this… is this organization putting resources behind this ask? So, are they… are they serious about it? Do they have some resources behind it?” and also helps me to get a sense of what the potential scope can be.

Amy: Mm-hmm.

 

Heather: So, when I talk to someone in strategic planning, that could be a $2,000 project, that could be a $50,000 project. And to have a sense from the organization what their budget is helps me as I’m brainstorming with them, as I’m listening to their challenges, as I’m helping them to think about what could be, it helps me get a better understanding of what… what’s possible and what I should be suggesting, what’s the… what’s the world of possibility there?

 

Amy: Mm-hmm.

 

Heather: The other real challenge for nonprofits is if you are talking with a number of folks, if you put out a request for proposals, for example, and you don’t have a suggested budget, you’re going to get a whole range of proposals.

 

Amy: Mm-hmm.

 

Heather: And often, you’re not really comparing apples to apples. You know, you could be comparing, again, this $50,000 proposal to a $10,000 proposal, and that’s not really fair to either one. You might really want to save money and go with a $10,000 one, and the $50,000 person could have done something great for $10,000, they just didn’t know, they didn’t know that was your budget. So, to the degree, you can get really clear, it’s fine to have a range, you know, “We’re looking to spend 10 to $12,000,” or, “We’re doing a 1-day retreat, we really want to keep it under $2,000,” those kinds of things can be really… can be flexible in this.

 

Amy: Okay. So… so, think about that. Get to those numbers together in advance.

 

Heather: In advance.

 

Amy: And… and that helps everyone out.

 

Heather: And if you don’t know, it’s fine to ask the person you’re talking to you, “How much does this usually cost? And I can give you an estimate.” You know, I can say, “Based on what we discussed here, what it could cost. And you can go back and talk with people and get more information and we can go back and forth.” That’s okay, but… but it’s really helpful to get into the numbers early on in the conversation about how to design a project.

 

Amy: I think then the fifth question, I guess, it started from easy to hardest, because I feel like question number 5 is probably the one that’s the biggest challenge. So, the question is, how much organizational time and energy are allocated to help address this challenge? And that seems like that’s kind of a… that’s a biggie. So, tell me…

 

Heather: It is, it is.

 

Amy: … some suggestions on how… how to make that work, how to start…

 

Heather: Yeah. This is where I see projects really fail is an organization knows it’s time to redo their marketing plan, it’s a couple years old, and they’ve got some money in the budget and so they’re going to hire a consultant and they’re just going to make it happen. And the staff and board at the same time are also putting together their biggest fundraiser of the year, doing board recruitment, and they’ve got this huge battle that they’re fighting in the legislature. And… and then that new marketing plan fails because the staff and board had absolutely no bandwidth to engage in the process.

Amy: Mm-hmm.

Heather: So, when I’m talking with folks about any kind of project, I want to know what else is going on in the organizational life of the organiz… of the organization. So, what else is on your calendar? When are people taking vacations? I work with the organization that works with teachers and they pretty much don’t do anything in July and August, they just kind of shut down.

 

Amy: Mm-hmm.

 

Heather: So, thinking about what’s happening both on the annual calendar but also in the bigger lifecycle of the organization is really helpful, and it gives me a better sense of what… what’s going on in the organization.

 

Amy: Mm-hmm.

 

Heather: And if you have a lot of other big projects happening, you might not want to take on another big project. So, thinking about, what’s the organizational time and energy? Do you have space in your board meetings to discuss this, if it’s something that needs to be discussed with the board? Do you have other processes that are happening with the staff? Or do you have some room for staff to pick up some of these pieces? A lot of… one misconception about the work of consultants is that they go off and make all of these decisions and write some kind of report and come back and tell you what to do.

 

Amy: Mm-hmm.

Heather: And then that… that is certainly not the way I do my work and most of my colleagues. We need engagement from nonprofit leaders, from boards, from staff. We’re going to need data and information on the front end. We’re going to need discernment and synthesis and prioritization and feedback all along the course of this. And so, if you are looking at your calendar for the next 3 months and can’t figure out how to squeeze in some meetings or make some room in existing conversations, then the project is probably not going to work. And so, really thinking about bandwidth and time for this.

 

Amy: Good, good advice. Before we get to the Nonprofit.ist, I have a question that maybe some of the folks out there are wondering right now. Before you even get to question number one, what would be some signals that you generally would see in an organization that are indicators that, “Yeah, it’s time to think about bringing in a consultant,”?

 

Heather: Good question. So, I think in some ways depends on what kind of help you might need. So, certainly, the first is where the expertise you need… need is just beyond the scope of your staff. So, you know, you’ve gotten to a size where your internal staff just can’t handle your… your day-to-day accounting. You’ve grown to a staff size where you really need some outside HR help. So, some of this is kind of in the natural evolution of an organization, you reach these places where you need a little bit more help. Sometimes eventually, reach a size where you can bring that hell back inside the organization again. But for a lot of organizations, they’re depending on these outside folks to provide expert help in lots of ways. When we’re thinking about a consultant who’s helping to do strategic planning or fundraising planning are these kind of episodic pieces, a lot of times, the (unclear) [21:04] there is, “It’s time to do it. It’s been a couple of years, our strategic plan has expired, our fundraising plan has expired.” So, sometimes, there’s natural triggers that it’s time to do this work again. For the pieces that are more ongoing, persistent challenges, sometimes the trigger is that, “We’ve been struggling with this and we’ve tried a few things and haven’t gotten any traction. So, it’s time for us to think about bringing in somebody from the outside who has a little bit more expertise.” And if… if that gets ignored, sometimes you get to the last trigger, which is, “The organization is in crisis. We don’t have funding. We’re losing senior staff. We can’t recruit board members.” There’s some kind of more acute crisis, or at least it’s felt as an acute crisis that’s… that’s sparking you to make the call.

 

Amy: Well, thank you for explaining that. I think that’ll be helpful. What… so now, let’s get to the Nonprofit.ist, and it’s the website address is Nonprofit.  i s t.

 

Heather: That’s correct.

 

Amy: And what… so, Heather, tell us, what is it? What does it do? And…

 

Heather: Yes.

 

Amy: … how did you… how did you come about bringing in this and making this happen?

Heather: So, Nonprofit.ist is an online resource full of nonprofit consultants, coaches, accountants, lawyers, and other experts. So, anyone can come to the website, search for people who can help you, contact them directly through the website. It’s free to get access to all of that. And we have over 200 folks from all across the country who can help you with all sorts of challenges. All of the things we’ve talked about today, we have experts who can help you. And this really started as I’ve been in the nonprofit world, as I said for 20 years, and a lot of my colleagues who are nonprofit leaders come and ask for my referrals, “Who do you know that does accounting? Who do you know that does HR?” And I have a great network, but really saw that there was an opportunity to build a much bigger network and to build something that was comprehensive and nationwide. And actually, we’re in 3 countries now, so even bigger than just the US. So…

 

Amy: That’s awesome. How many… how many or…? Sorry, how many folks do you have on there right now as part… who are listed and searchable?

 

Heather: Yeah. So, as of January 2020, we have 217.

Amy: Oh my gosh, that’s awesome. Because I could never… like you, people will ask me, “Who do you know then does and specializes in…?” and, you know, I can’t remember all of that.

Heather: Yes.

 

Amy: And on top of it, I think sometimes you know people for one particular skill set, but not others. And so, it’s great that they’re able to showcase all of that. And what I love about the way you have it set up is that it’s searchable by a number of different fields, right? So, you’ve got location, I think, and…

 

Heather: Yes.

 

Amy: … key words. Go ahead, you tell, do tell.

 

Heather: So, you can search by location, find folks who are close to you. You can even look at them on a map. You can search by specialty. So, we have about a dozen specialties. So, if you just want to see everyone who does diversity, equity, and inclusion work, you can see all of them. And then you can search by keyword, and people’s entire profile are keyword searchable. So, if you want somebody who has a specialty in land trusts or a specialty in advocacy, you can find those people and really narrow down the list.

 

Amy: That’s awesome. That is awesome. Well, I’m going to be… I know we’re all going to be using it, and looking forward to working with you some more on that and looking forward to keeping in touch. So, with that, all of you out there listening, you’ve got the 5 questions to know to have answered before you contact any consultant. You have those red flags or you have those signs that it’s time to talk to a consultant. Well, Heather, you’ve been a wonderful guest today. Thank you so much for sharing all of this. If one needs to get in touch with you, what’s the best way to get ahold of you?

 

Heather: Yeah. So, you’re welcome to go to Nonprofit.ist, and my contact information is there. And if you want to contact me directly, it’s heather@nonprofit.ist. So, the one takeaway I hope you leave this conversation with is, before you reach out to a consultant, it’s really important to have all of those good conversations internally so you can get the very most out of that engagement.

 

Amy: Excellent, excellent. Alright, thanks so much, Heather. Take care.

 

Heather: Thank you.

 

Amy: Thanks. And thanks to all of you out there listening, and we’ll do this again real soon.

 

 

 

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Amy DeVita

Amy DeVita is managing partner at Top Nonprofits. A publisher, entrepreneur, mother, wife, social media enthusiast and fan and avid supporter of the do-gooders in the nonprofit/ for-impact sector. She has written for Top Nonprofits and Third Sector Today; she has been quoted on pieces about social media and social impact on The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. She was named to the Leading Women Entrepreneurs in NJ Monthly and she is a member of Social Media for Nonprofits' Leadership Council. In her spare time she enjoys kayaking, yoga, hiking, traveling, and playing Scrabble. Amy lives in New Jersey with her husband, two children, and three dogs. In 1984 she earned the "Most Improved Average" honor on her bowling league.