Extraordinary summary for our Lunch Analysis by core contributor Pratik Das! Full recording in our resource library.

February 15 DPP Lunch Analysis Summary – What to Ask When Hiring a Consultant

This month Donor Participation Project (DPP)’s Lunch Analysis – a monthly brainstorming session on how to increase donor participation in nonprofits – featured a discussion around the topic – What to ask when hiring a consultant. The session was led by an eminent panel comprising of Julie Knight, Executive Director of Annual Giving at Carnegie Mellon University, Carla Willis, Senior Consultant at Washburn & McGoldrick and Peter Moes, Chief Development Officer at United Way of Salt Lake.

Background of the Speakers

         Julie Knight oversees the hybrid Annual Giving Program spread across 15 different units at Carnegie Mellon University. All throughout her career, she has focused on growing alumni participation in higher education as well as pipeline development. Julie has hired as well as worked alongside many consultants in the technology, coaching and data analysis space and prior to academic advancement she herself was an academic research consultant for different state governments and the federal government.

         Carla Willis in her role as Senior Consultant at Washburn & McGoldrick, a full service advancement consulting firm, helps higher education and independent school advancement teams to pinpoint needs, spot emerging trends and devise forward-thinking solutions for strategically timing campaigns and aligning activities with evolving organizational priorities. Carla focuses on specializing campaign readiness, feasibility assessments and alumni surveys. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Carla has hired many consultants as Vice President for Advancement and frontline officer at four different institutions.

Peter Moes comes from a higher education and healthcare annual giving background. As Chief Development Officer at United Way of Salt Lake, Peter oversees all aspects of development from annual giving to corporate giving and foundations. The United Way of Salt Lake focuses on creating better outcomes for children and families in the community.

Key Takeaways

Basic considerations which you may have when hiring a consultant include how much time you have in terms of your deadline, how much time your consultant has, what is your budget, etc. Apart from these, there are few more points which sit on top of the basics. These are:

(A)  Points to Consider When Hiring a Consultant 

  • Current expertise and staff morale – The current expertise of the team needs to be considered to understand where the consultant will be coming in to add value through collaboration. More importantly, staff morale needs to be considered when bringing in a consultant. This needs to be pre-planned in terms of what the landscape looks like in your institution, what are your staff thinking, will there be concerns in terms of job replacement – it is best to nip these in the bud before bringing in the consultant. It is crucial to have internal buy-in from your team and not unilaterally make the decision of hiring a consultant. In some instances, if it’s a large enough project, one may even consider creating a small consulting selection team to help with the selection of a consultant. The way forward is to build trust and have everyone on the same page regarding why the consultant is coming in and how the work or project will be benefited with everyone working together.
  • Deliverables and scope – It is important to pre-plan the deliverables and scope and set an expectation from the beginning. Understanding what you want to see at the end of the project and figuring out who needs to be part of that conversation between where you’re at now and the end of the project is key. Critical discussions about collaborating to formulate and define the scope could be in tandem with your consultant and not only internally with your team.
  • Internal procurement process – The internal procurement process of hiring a consultant differs from institution to institution. One needs to be mindful of how the internal procurement process varies in terms of length of time, whether it has to be competitive, what the written and stated rules are as well as the informal rules. You will also need to understand the contract – what’s being signed, whether there could be any potential flags for yourself or the consultant moving forward. If you are new to this, it’d be best to find somebody who’s already done it and talk with them.
  • What does success look like for the end user – It would be useful to bear in mind the end user and the adoption factor – how is it going to be adopted. Whether it’s a new technology or new processes or the knowledge about a campaign, you would want to consider how the end user is going to actually use this and what success looks like from their point of view. The end user should be invited into the room when you’re setting up the project before meeting with the consultant or when you’re meeting with the consultant and trying to work out the deliverables and scope including the scope bar.
  • Primary point of contact – Deciding who is going to work most closely with and be the primary point of contact for the consultant is key to ensuring that the consultant does not receive different messages from different people on the team. This person also serves as the point of contact for any information or data that the consultant might need to be gathered from the client side.
  • Consultant collaboration – There could be a situation where your organization is working with more than one consultant and there may be a need or opportunity for the consultants to collaborate on different aspects of the project and share information and have that cross-reference and connection.


(B)   Challenges to Consider When Hiring a Consultant

These are applicable to both client and consultant.

  • Scope Creep – Scope creep happens when the project is expanded in terms of the work that is already being done. It means additional work beyond the original scope of the project or work. A great first thing to think about is when do we sign a new agreement vs. just continuing to build onto the existing agreement. Sometimes contracts last multiple years (it may even be six months) and the needs of the client or what the client originally set out for may have changed over that period of time. It is important to reflect and re-examine what it is exactly that we set out to do originally and how that has changed at certain milestones over time. Then to have a conversation with the consultant and come to an agreement to move in the new direction if necessary. It is also equally important to contain the scope for leadership and set boundaries so as to meet deadlines. Sometimes leaders may get excited seeing some preliminary results from a consultant and they may want to add things to the original scope but it is important to make them realize that the additional scope may be a totally new agreement with the consultant with different parameters, budget and timeline.

From the consultant side, scope creep could mean opportunity for additional business or it could also mean not receiving the correct value of the work that is being put in. It ultimately boils down to trust, open conversations about what is in the scope and what is not, figuring out whether it is an additional project or containment within the same project, and building upon the relationship which is the responsibility of both client and consultant.


  • Missed Deadlines – Missed deadlines could happen a number of times for a number of reasons attributable to both sides. Specific deadlines for different milestones could be missed, when the original scope is expanded to put in additional work or when something that is required to come from the client (e.g. data) is delayed or it could also be due to leadership change in the organization. This could have significant repercussions depending on the size of the consultancy that you’re working with – if it’s a one or two person shop, the project itself may get delayed or even if it’s a large consultancy, it could have a dramatic impact in terms of how they will be able to produce the final results or meet the next deadline. It then becomes important to have an open honest dialogue about if this isn’t met, then what are the next steps and how can we make this better and work together to be able to build this forward. It is important to realize that missed deadlines can come up because of things outside our control and therefore it’s important to have flexibility and back-up plans in such situations.
  • Data – It’s a two-way street in terms of transferring information about data. For instance, in case of CRM conversions, data can be difficult to come by in terms of being able to provide that to consultants. At the same time, getting that information back in a usable format from the consultant and making it have an actionable impact aligned with the proposed goal is a challenge – for example, considering whether the data is actually going to be useful or is it just nice to know data. Data organization (e.g. considering whether a spreadsheet is sufficient or can it actually be put back into the database) and security around data transfer including intellectual property implications (both from and to the consultant / client) are also challenges to be taken into account at the forefront at the time of pre-planning. It is important to make sure in the interview stage that you’re asking precisely what data is needed by the consultant to produce the deliverable and also to make sure from beforehand that you actually have or are in a position to provide that data.
  • Multiple iterations – Deciding to have multiple iterations is part of the expectation setting at the beginning in terms of communication. It is important to have milestones and check-ins on earlier drafts before the final deliverable so as to avoid any scope for disappointment or unexpected surprises. It is important to have expectations in place about what the final product will look like and the results provided as a consultant being in sync with what the client is expecting to come.

(C)   What to do in case of failures?

Case 1: This information isn’t supporting our argument

There may be situations when the final report or the work by the consultant does not support what the client has been talking about or what the client wants to say. While it is important to have unbiased and representative results, it is equally important to consider what positives can be taken from the results that will help the client and that can be used by the client to get to the desired objective. In such scenarios, it is important to set expectations up-front and have work draft reviews placed into the schedule. Everybody should be clear as to what things are before any presentation to leadership. It is also the consultant’s responsibility to ensure the information that is shared is accurate. The consultant can co-present the data and the findings along with the client so as to be flexible and support the argument while at the same time staying true to the results.

Case 2: The deadline has been missed, now what?

Deadlines can be missed for many reasons. It becomes important to consider what lead to the missed deadline, what are the implications, how to get back on track and are there any contractual repercussions – where does giving grace to people run out in terms of being able to meet additional deadlines, or what are the implications on the next stages of the project or thinking about workflow beyond that particular client, especially if the deadline has been missed from the client side.

Case 3: Let’s create dashboards!

Many institutions are working towards having dashboards and visualizations of data that provide a lot of information. It might help to recognise that such dashboards and visualizations are not as straightforward as creating some bar charts – there’s a lot of data work and data joins that go into it – and it might help to recognize that there are multiple micro-steps to be able to get from point A to point B. It is important to consider how can you facilitate the consultant to execute at the level at which the consultant wants to execute the project. This can be done by recognizing what the whole project entails and not just the visualization or dashboard at the end, recognizing who can support that internally, being prepared for multiple iterations by having a backups to your backup, and recognizing how you can use that information by making the consultant a part of that conversation.

(D)  Great Questions to Ask

Ask the Consultant 
Ask the Primary Users

How many iterations of the <<consultant product>> can we go through with you?
What gap will this <<consultant product>> fill for your team?

On average, how many clients do you balance at the same time? What are you currently at? 
What “must-haves” are essential to your team using this <<consultant product>>? 

Are there any peer institutions that you have worked with that I can talk to? 
Are you willing to be a part of a cohort for regular users to provide feedback and prioritize edits?

If we realize through the process that we need additional work completed, what options do you have available? 
What is your end goal for using this <<consultant product>>? Who will be using it? 

For the <<consultant product>>, will you rely on any subcontractors?  
What if the information from the <<consultant product>> doesn’t support our strategy/assumptions?




developerp Asked question February 21, 2023