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Inside the Margins: A Cleveland Literature Industry Study


Reference Desk


Hiring A Consultant

Consultants can bring expertise and a fresh look to your organization. Before hiring a consultant, however, you must first understand what exactly the consultant will be asked to evaluate. Managers often mistake symptoms for problems. Such an error may interfere with the consultant's ability to help you; however, looking at the symptoms is a necessary first step in your effort to identify the source of the actual problem. 

Types of Consultants

There are a number of consultants available to assist you and it is important that you research the needs of your organization prior to selecting one. This will save you time and money in the long run and guarantee that you have selected the best consultant for your particular organizational need. The list below provides various types of consultants and their key areas of focus:

  • Diagnosis and assessment consultants:  identify your problems with you
  • Problem-solving consultants: suggest ways of solving your problems.
  • Research and analysis consultants: investigate the trends, events, obstacles and opportunities affecting your organization's goals.
  • Training consultants: teach your board and staff essential skills.
  • Mediation consultants: help resolve disputes with or within your organization.
  • Facilitation consultants: help set goals for an important meeting, such as an annual retreat or membership meeting, and lead group members through a series of structured steps to meet the goals.
  • Contract services consultants: hire, plan and execute high-skill tasks of limited duration.
  • Systems development consultants: devise reliable methods for conducting daily business or they may concentrate on providing the best available equipment to accomplish important tasks.
  • Executive searchconsultants: locate candidates to fill key staff positions.
  • Organizational process consultants: help identify and resolve problems in communication, personnel conflict, and collaboration that hinder you from attaining your organizational goals.
  • Planningconsultants: work with the board to devise and complete a strategy for the organization's future.
  • Fund development consultants: assist board and staff in developing strategies for fundraising or carrying out fundraising plans.
  • Board development consultants:  help to identify goals for your board, help you plan to recruit new members and train the board to meet the goals.

Some useful resources to further your consultant research:

The best way to hire a consultant is to research potential consultants and interview them in person or over the phone to determine that you have found the one best suited to the needs of your organization. 

How to begin hiring a consultant

Step 1: Develop objectives

  • What are your problems? (define both symptoms and cause)
  • What are your expectations? What are your group needs?
  • What should be accomplished at the end of  the consultancy?
  • What skills are required to complete the consultancy? (what type of consultant you will need)
  • Which board and staff members will be the organizational contacts?
  • What is the time-frame for the consultancy and the preparation of the consultant’s written report?

Step 2: Develop an Request for Proposal (RFP)

A request for proposal (RFP) should be developed and sent to prospective consultants as part of the search process.  It should include all objectives and stated needs of the organization.  The RFP should also contain any special requirements that may be important to your board and/or staff; for instance, if the consultant has local clients or experience. RFPs generally include the following information:

  • A brief description of your organization including mission, history, programs, facilities and sources of funding
  • A copy of your organizational chart and relevant brochures
  • Your specific requirements as identified through an introductory statement that briefly explains the need and desired response from the consultant
  • A statement of work to be done that provides detailed information relevant to the problem you expect to rectify
  • A contract outlining the scope of the work to be completed, time commitment involved and payment parameters 
  • Contact information for  the individuals within your organization that the prospective consultant might need to contact and sources for additional information
  • The anticipated end result or goal of the consultancy; for example,  a new system design, a manual, a report on staff response to a training program
  • The desired format of the proposal
  • Any special information or regulations pertaining to your organization or sector that may affect the proposed work
  • The need for interim progress reports 
  • An explanation of how the proposal will be evaluated

You can find sample RFP's in Arts Cleveland’s Tools section.

Step 3:Interviewing a consultant

Once you have received proposals, you need to decide who you would like to interview. There a number of ways to conduct an interview, but there are some key points you may want to address:

  • Outline the purpose for hiring a consultant, asking how the consultant or firm might proceed. Review your objectives.
  • If this is an interview for a consulting firm, ask the presenters who will be doing the work.
  • Ask the consultant what they expect of you and what you can expect of her or him.
  • Evaluate the consultant's personality, chemistry and working style by observing:
    • How well the consultant listens to what is being said
    • What questions the consultant asks
    • How well the consultant analyzes the situation
    • What solutions are presented and how realistic they are
  • Discuss fee estimates and project time-lines.

For more suggestions on questions you can ask in a consultant interview, see sample questions to use in screening consultants[2].

Step 4: Contracting with a consultant

Once you have found the consultant that you want to work with, it is imperative that the guidelines and expectations for the consultancy are formally outlined and agreed upon by both parties:

  • Request a project proposal or outline that includes the expectations of deliverables and fees.
  • Negotiate and agree upon a price for the work.
  • For short-term projects consider writing a Letter of Agreement:
    • A description of the work to be accomplished
    • The expected date of completion
    • The detailed fees and schedule of payment
  • For long-term projects, you should consider drafting a formal contract. This protects both parties from the common complaints of cost overruns and missed deadlines. It includes a number of additional details:
    • A work plan with tasks to be completed, deliverables and timetables
    • Hourly or daily rate fees, information on monthly billing, on completion or retainer basis including type of invoice required
    • Direct costs: Determine how to bill travel, long-distance phone and fax, and subcontracted services.
    • Workplace: Where will the consultant work? What administrative support, equipment or supplies are expected?
    • Contract dates: Define when the contract begins and ends. Consider how the time-line will be amended or extended.
    • Termination clause: Under what conditions may one or both parties walk away from the work before completion? Notification may be 60-days, 30-days or less; if a dispute arises, arbitration may be required.
    • Rights to data: If proprietary information is collected, determine conditions under which data can be used and who has access to it once the work is completed. If confidentiality issues are involved, the consultant must be informed.

Step 5: Review of work

Throughout the consultancy process, there should be continual opportunities to touch base with the consultant to stay informed about the process.  This will help avoid any potential problems or disappointments between the consultant and the hiring organization.  Once the job is completed, you and your staff should reconnect with the consultant to find out how the process went:

  • Were there any problems along the way?
  • What worked best and why?
  • What didn’t work and why?  

By compiling and reviewing this information you will have a more informed approach for future consulting situations.

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