Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

January 2, 2012

Bad consultants are bad news for nonprofits

By Todd Cohen

The charitable marketplace is home to some great consultants and a lot of good ones.

They understand and care about charities and the communities they serve, and want to help them improve.

But consultants who are mediocre at best, and who care more about their fee than they do about charities and the communities they serve, are courting nonprofits and foundations in growing numbers, and those organizations need to be wary.

Often exiles from nonprofits because they were ineffective, burned out or just wanted a bigger paycheck, bad consultants can drain nonprofits’ limited funding in return for simplistic advice masquerading as strategic thinking.

Many who could not cut it as nonprofit professionals turn to consulting because they spot easy prey in nonprofits desperate for strategic advice.

Some of these consultants, despite their professional mediocrity, recognize that shameless self-promotion can yield a big payoff.

They radiate self-confidence, and try to sound smart by parroting philanthropic and business jargon.

They crank out books that consist of little more than superficial, feel-good prescriptions for fundraising success and organizational improvement.

And they aggressively book themselves to speak at conferences, workshops, lunches and webinars, where they weave self-congratulatory tales of their own consulting work into their presentations while hawking their products and services.

Their showmanship makes believers of nonprofits hungry for help, and resonates with foundations eager to find intermediaries to push foundations’ agendas in return for lucrative fees.

What these consultants are selling is blind faith in their image and self-confidence.

But after paying the fees, many nonprofits are left with little more than a consultant’s promise that cosmetic and formulaic changes will improve their organizations.

Nonprofits buy what mediocre consultants are selling because, strained to the breaking point in our damaged economy, and struggling to make ends meet in the face of rising demand for services and of shrinking resources, they need help and want to believe the consultants can provide it.

The icing on the cake is that consultants are neither regulated nor accountable for whether their advice actually makes a difference.

The hard work of turning that advice into results remains with the nonprofits.

And if the nonprofits fail to improve, the consultants are long gone, with the convenient excuse that the nonprofits did not follow their recommendations.

Many foundations also are smitten with consultants.

Their endowments can insulate foundations from the struggle to survive in the real-world marketplace, where success depends on good ideas, good strategy, good execution, and hard work.

Because they control endowments, even though the assets typically represent wealth created by other people, executives and program officers at many foundations fancy themselves experts, if not sages.

And admiring their own reflection in consultants, foundations pay them to push their ideas and agendas on nonprofits.

‘Consultant Nation’

Jan Masaoka, outgoing editor-in-chief of Blue Avocado and incoming CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits, recently questioned the growing clout of what she calls the “Philanthropic-Consultant Industrial Complex.”

The infrastructure of consultants and organized philanthropy is “changing who’s running the show,” she wrote on Nov. 11.

“Rather than supporting nonprofits,” she wrote, “foundations and consultants are increasingly telling nonprofits what nonprofits should be doing.”

When a foundation announces it is launching a new initiative for low-income seniors, for example, “we now assume that much of the money will go to re-grantors, researchers and consultants rather than to on-the-ground nonprofits and the seniors themselves,” she wrote.

In an article on Dec. 10 entitled “Consultant Nation” that looked at the growth and influence of the consulting business in the for-profit world, The New York Times reported that what separates consultants from business executives is that consultants “remain removed from their decisions.”

Unlike executives who climb the corporate ladder at a single company, the Times said, consultants “do not execute the decisions they make and live every day with the consequences.”

That also is a big problem with consultants in the nonprofit world: They swoop in, ask questions, facilitate a board retreat, produce a report, pocket their fee, and leave.

Nonprofits and foundations need to stop this madness.

They need to take a hard look at consultants who want their business, and ask tough questions about who they are, how they work and what they actually do.

They should request samples of consultants’ work, and ask other clients what they were like to work with, what advice they actually delivered, and what kinds of results that advice actually produced.

If they do not become more informed and critical consumers of consulting services, nonprofits and foundations will have no one to blame but themselves if all they get for their money is a report filled with philanthro-babble and empty promises.

And in the end, the ones who will pay the price for bad consultants are the people and places the nonprofits and foundations exist to serve.


  • At 2:10 PM, Anonymous William Hinman, CFRE said…

    Yes, as in any industry, there are some bad apples in the proverbial bushel. But your almost solely negative perspective on the business of consulting casts something of a dark shadow over the entire consulting field.

    The sage advice given deep into the piece remains true always: ask probing questions, seek concrete evidence of results-based consulting services, and trust the learned judgment of others who have actually worked with the particular consultant involved (not just the consulting firm, but the all-important actual person who will team with the non-profit to accomplish the project at hand).

    "An ounce of prevention..." the old saying goes. True as well with we consultants!

    William Hinman, CFRE
    William Hinman COnsulting
    Winston-Salem, NC

  • At 2:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Todd, I love the "philanthrobabble." Interesting piece. I hope those who need to read it find it.


  • At 3:03 PM, Anonymous Bob Hartsook said…

    Put me under the microscope! Once again you have raised one of the most troubling issues in the nonprofit world. Now beginning 26 years of running one of America's largest consulting practices, I have always told my team, "Successful projects are the result of great staff, terrific volunteers and wonderful leadership. Failed projects are because they hired the wrong consultant." Thanks for raising this issue, quality consultants will welcome the exposure.

  • At 4:59 PM, Blogger Peter Lucash said…

    Wait a second - this is a broad swipe at freelance labor. A good consultant can provide expertise in a specific area, and help the nonprofit exec and board to reach their own decisions. If the nonprofit doesn't have the expertise in an area, it can buy it (hire someone), borrow it (freelancer/consultant) or build it (assign a current staff person to develop an expertise - go to conferences, read, talk to people, etc). When you hire a consultant, you haven't given up your responsibility - as the clients, YOU are in charge, and need to be learning as the project unfolds so you can execute the plan. It has to be YOUR plan in the end.

    To me, consulting is more about providing an expertise, providing temporary manpower, and being able to focus exclusively on one project. The client has to be involved all along and be learning from me, OR from the retreat I facilitate or analyses I perform. I'm staffing the exec and board.

  • At 11:14 AM, Blogger Mitch Hurst said…

    May I suggest a simple test? The Communications Network -- the national association of communicators in philanthropy -- has a handy little "Jargon finder" on its Website that really is the lexicon of "philanthrobabble." You can find it here --> If a consultant uses, say, three of any words or terms found in the jargon finder they should be disqualified.

  • At 8:09 AM, Anonymous fundraising ideas for schools said…

    It is true there are many people out to benefit only themselves in the 'non' profit arena but really there is a lot of profit to be made from charity and in reality you have to run a charity as a business. Be careful who you let into your organization to help you. Protect yourself by getting good references and checking out people before letting them have information or details that they could benefit from.

    We live in a cynical age but the niave will suffer if they do not protect their charity.

  • At 9:33 AM, Anonymous ALLEN SMART said…

    Todd, you hit on many unspoken truths here. So many of the consultants I come across in North Carolina are people who were marginally successful (or unsuccessful) non-profit staffers that really want full-time non-profit employment. Particularly, for small or newer non-profits with inexperienced boards, this places a burden of due diligence that is very very challenging.

    The cadre of consultants that actively seek foundation work is another story with all the cautionary tales that you describe. Many really want to be a foundation staffer so the motivations are sometimes very unclear to me.

  • At 3:22 PM, Anonymous Mazarine Treyz said…

    Dear Todd,

    I appreciate you bringing up the fact that we have to vet nonprofit consultants more carefully.

    In my own practice, I don't give simplistic advice or strategic thinking. I wrote a book called the Wild Woman's Guide to Fundraising and I teach webinars offering step by step guides on how to do various tasks, including finding sponsorships, finding grants, and putting out direct mail pieces.

    I disclose exactly how much I've personally raised with the methods above. But I also do my research and look at the best of the best in the field before offering advice to nonprofits. I don't just rely on my own experience.

    I think the best consultants can offer nonprofits the gift of shortcuts and best writing samples, at the very least, if they are focused on hands-on, how-to instruction.

    I would be wary of strategists simply because no one consultant can be an expert on strategy for every type of nonprofit. I'd be more inclined to trust a consultant who specialized in, say, K-12 educational strategy.

    As has been said in the criticisms above, you need an engaged board, a dynamic leadership, and resources.

    People need to take responsibility for the situation they created, not blame the consultant for not giving them a quick fix.

    One consultant alone cannot overcome the fact that no one on the board has ties to a foundation.

    One consultant cannot transfer 10 relationships with corporations to a nonprofit to get those sponsorships.

    One consultant cannot overcome a 5 year lapse in sending appeals with the first appeal.

    One consultant cannot overcome the lack of any development staff to carry on the work once they leave.

    You talk about nonprofit consultants not taking responsibility for their actions. What about creating contracts where the consultant works together with the nonprofit, checks in with them over a period of 6 months to 1 year, to help them tweak their fundraising and development?

    Nonprofits should look at what can realistically be accomplished with the assistance of a consultant, rather than expecting the consultant to solve all organizational problems in the space of a week or a month.

    Don't you agree?


    Mazarine Treyz

  • At 4:36 PM, Blogger kmorr806 said…

    I agree with most of the other comments.
    As a nonprofit executive for 15 years and a consultant for six I believe I bring wisdom and experience to my clients. I am candid about my experience and abilities and I offer many small nonprofits higher-level skills than they could afford on a full-time basis. I wish there were credentialing for consultants - but also for executive directors! The nonprofit must perform due diligence in hiring a consultant. The consultant must bring knowledge, experience and strong communication skills to the client, but whether that knowledge is accepted/appreciated/acted upon is up to the nonprofit.

  • At 4:19 PM, Blogger Rhonda said…

    While I agree that many consulting relationships do not resolve the issues they were intended to address, I think your "analysis" is quite off the mark.

    Yes, some consultants are interested only in their fee. That is also true of many so-called professionals in any number of sectors.

    Usually, however, the consultant is brought onto the scene to address an issue that is quite critical to the organization's success. This issue is real, and the symptoms are causing some sort of challenge—otherwise the consultant would not be called in.

    An external consultant can often achieve results that the staff cannot, for a variety of reasons.
    The objectivity brought to bear by an external consultant can often help identify the real source of the problem, because he/she is not too close to the issue or overly influenced by institutional culture or history.
    Sometimes, the organization needs someone external to tell the story in a new way. Or a non-staff to take the fall if "kill the messenger" reactions are anticipated.
    Sometimes the staff just doesn't have the time to deal with a special project or initiative.
    Sometimes a particular set of skills is required for a short term project or initiative, and from the standpoint of HR management, it is more efficient and pragmatic to hire a contracted specialist rather than try to fit a regular employee into the role. In fact, the current economic climate makes this way of purchasing talent an actual "best practice."

    Reasons for failure?
    Sometimes the consultant wants to establish too much dependency (this ensures repeat fees). A good nonprofit consultant wants to build the capacity of the organization to self-manage and develop self sufficiency.

    Most often though, the organization has not properly understood the issues and challenges, so the project starts off in the wrong direction all together. Often a highly competent consultant will realize this and state "I think you really need so-and-so, because the issue is really such-and -such, which is not my specialty." But even the best consultant can be misled by misstatements and misleading messages.

    The developing of the work agreement and scope of the engagement is a responsibility of the consultant and the client, working jointly. By assigning your most experienced and intuitive team members to this function, the organization can often know whether the consultant fully understands the objectives.

    After the consultant's work is concluded, often the end result is no change, no solution or no new initiative launched. Books have been written on this singular topic. But to say the fault lies solely with the consultant is grossly misleading.

    I recommend: that organizations undergo a thorough internal exploration process before engaging a consultant, to fully understand their own motivations, their level of commitment and their perceived readiness. The initial conversations with the prospective consultant be in-depth and that the overriding value in the relationship be honesty and trust. Those elements must be present for the engagement to succeed. I also recommend that clients define how much implementation assistance and follow up they want from the consultant, and select one that addresses these components.

    At the end of the day, the board and the executive teams are still responsible for the success of their endeavors. Managing a consultative relationship effectively is an indicator of competency and a commitment to organizational learning; and can allow new synergies, new insights and powerful innovations to be set loose in positive ways, enabling positive impact and organizational improvements.

    Rhonda Magee
    Garden Hill Consulting
    Denver, CO


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