How to get the most from a consultant

You have decided there is a particular project which you need some outside expertise or one which you don’t have the available resources in house to undertake in the required timescale. As an organisation in the charitable/community and voluntary sector, making your budget stretch as far as possible is second nature to you.

So when is it a sensible decision to take on external help?
There are a range of reasons why you may consider engaging consultants but oftentimes it is simply down to your board and staff operating at capacity and outsourcing the work will ensure that your particular project is undertaken in the timeframe you need it to and without impacting on your day to day service delivery.   There is of course also considerable value in accessing expertise in particular areas which may not be available in house and you have the comfort in knowing that all aspects are professionally addressed.

How to go about selecting a consultant
Planning is essential before you appoint anyone. The old saying goes ‘fail to plan and plan to fail’. There are a few key elements which your board or senior management should agree upon before embarking on appointing a consultant;

  • Consider exactly the outcome you require,
  • What budget do you have available?
  • When do you need to have it completed?
  • How long do you envisage it should take to complete the project?
  • Who within your organisation is available to oversee the project?
  • How much time do they need to allocate whilst the project is ongoing?
  • Will consultation with staff be necessary and what is your preferred method?
  • Most importantly agree on a very clear brief with timescales and required outputs?
  • Consider then what information/documentation/access to staff/board/stakeholders will the consultant likely need to undertake the project for you?
  • Have regard to the culture of your organisation, ideally you want to engage a consultant who can relate to what you do and how your organisation operates.
Sourcing a Consultant
Do your research and advertise in accordance with your procurement policy. Consider phoning consultants for a no obligation consultation; this can be helpful in reaching a decision on the direction to take. If you have a maximum budget allocated, then it is best to make this information available to potential consultants; there is little point in you ending up with several submissions which are far beyond what you can afford. Of course, you must also be realistic in relation to what you can get done for the money you have available. On the other hand, there is some benefit in ‘fishing’ to see the range of prices that come back, however, this does come with the already mentioned risk and you have to decide. Assess what you need to achieve and if your budget doesn’t match this, consider programming the project and work with your consultant on this.

Take up references before deciding on what consultant to appoint. Recommendations from organisations who have worked with the consultant previously are worthwhile and gives confidence as you proceed.

Always meet your consultant before commencing the project.

Agreeing Terms with Consultant
Always sign a contract or terms of engagement with the consultant and don’t leave any room for doubt for either party. This document should include clear detail of the project to be completed, timelines and payment schedule.

Timelines & Monitoring the Project
The Consultant should always provide a timeline for the work along with an indication of total cost even if operating on a daily rate. You don’t want any surprises when the invoice arrives.

Ensure that you have to hand all of the required information and documentation to enable the consultant to proceed without any delays. Coordinate availability of staff and board well in advance – you don’t want to have the cost of a consultant in your office when key staff are unavailable. Some projects may require a working group for effective management.

Benefit from the external expertise
You are paying for the service so keep an open mind to suggestions and recommendations from the consultant. Remember that one of the benefits of engaging a consultant is the fresh pair of eyes on what you are dealing with every day.   The consultant will have worked with lots of organisations so that experience can be helpful for you.

Review work undertaken
Take the time to review all work that the consultant completes for you. Make sure that it is in accordance with the agreed brief and in project amendments. Clarify anything you are unsure of and maintain regular contact with the consultant. If there is anything you are unhappy with raise it with the consultant before final sign off. A good consultant will welcome your feedback and will endeavour to provide you with a quality end product.

Finally, debrief with your team following completion of the project – note the benefits and advantages and learning for future contracts. If mistakes were made, you do not want to repeat them whilst you do, of course, want to replicate a positive outcome.