Smaller organizations – especially charities and non-profits – have a focused mission: serving their communities. They retain staff and volunteers who have expertise in delivering their mission, with talents and skills to support the work they do. This expertise is often specific and ensures that the organization meets its day-to-day needs.
But over time, things change. Personnel are promoted, retire, or leave. Volunteers move on to other things. Boards of Directors turn over. Funding criteria changes and is more complex. The organization has to spend more and more time thinking about things that aren’t important to its mission but are critical for keeping the doors open and the lights on. Expertise that was – and is! – the lifeblood of the organization sometimes isn’t enough to ensure that the organization can continue fulfilling its mission.
That’s where a consultant comes in.
A consultant has expertise in one or more areas that aren’t necessary for the day-to-day operations, but that add value to the overall organization. There are lots of reasons to hire one.
Sometimes the consultant comes in for a periodic, specific need. Human resources consultants, for example, will conduct a candidate search so that the Executive Director only sees the best 3-5 candidates out of hundreds of applicants. In this way, a consultant sifts through the resumes and does a first round of interviews to ensure that the ED only sees the best possible candidates. Executive Directors are busy people and don’t have time to spend hours or days away from the always-important and usually-urgent work of their organization. A one-time consultant adds value by freeing up the time of an ED.
Other consultants work in a reactive mode and are called only when they are needed. IT consultants, for example, might be on a retainer and be called to troubleshoot computers or onboard a new employee. They are essentially on-call employees paid at a fraction of the rate of a full-time employee. They’re also not responsible for 40 hours of work each week when only an hour or two is really ever needed.
Still other consultants might perform a one-time task required to optimize the organization or satisfy a funder’s requirements. In this area falls things like organizational reviews and program evaluations. They are important elements of any strategic planning process but are often not part of the suite of tools available to an employee. Perhaps an organization’s staff doesn’t have the appropriate skills or expertise. Or perhaps a funder requires a third-party validation of the work done by an organization. Sometimes a Board of Directors even wants to see how an outsider might do things a little differently instead of “the way they’ve always been done.”
Finally, some consultants might perform ongoing work to achieve a specific goal. Government relations falls neatly into this category. An organization might be seeking a government grant, want to access a government program, or influence a decision a government might be making. Many organizations cannot afford a full-time government relations specialist and so seek outside help from someone who knows and understands government structures and processes. In this case, an organization pays for someone’s expertise to fulfil a specific goal.
Every organization has different needs and priorities. But one thing is clear: small organizations simply cannot afford all the expertise they might need on staff. Which means they cannot afford not to hire a consultant when they need one.