Hiring consultants of any kind is always a challenge for not-for-profit organizations. Unlike a physical product you don’t know what you’re really getting until you’ve signed the contract. Moreover, consulting services are typically very expensive, highly customized and the results of the work are sometimes critical to your organization’s success. In a study we did for the United Way of New York City (UWNYC) some years ago, we found that while most of the consulting engagements UWNYC funded for member organizations were successful, several wound up doing more harm than good and in fact actually set the client back. We learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work in consulting and what we found can be reduced to four key points:
- The consultant was difficult to work with (he or she was often inflexible or unavailable or did not get along with staff or only thought in terms of billable hours)
- The consultant had a canned, one size fits all ‘process’ and was unwilling to collaborate or adequately understand the nonprofit’s unique situation– the consultant in other words was a know-it-all
- The consultant was unable to understand the nonprofit’s ‘big picture’ or the environment in which it operated
- The project failed to build the nonprofit’s internal capacity or help it grow in a strategic way
The study focused on consulting in general and was not specific to program evaluation though we did look at a number of evaluation projects. Since we are sometimes approached by executives in the nonprofit sector with stories of evaluations gone bad, we thought it might be useful to share some thoughts about how to hire an evaluation consultant.