Consultants and capacity building

The word ‘consultant’ comes with a set of associations, and not all are nice. Rapacious, arrogant, and likely to extort additional fees from you every time you look at them funny—and that’s just the good ones!

As with all clichés there are some elements of truth to this, not helped by the extraordinary day rates charged by international consultancy firms. But there is a world of difference between the ‘big four’ and the many committed and knowledgeable people who want to help make the social sector a better place. I’ve led NPC’s Research & Consulting team for six years now so of course I may be biased, but I have seen, across both our work and others’, people going above and beyond to help strengthen the work of charities and funders.

There are good reasons for using external support providers. Whether it’s accessing specialist knowledge, getting an objective and informed take on your situation, or just needing an extra pair of hands for a while. The much abused Einstein quotation ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’ is relevant here. There is a power to simply being on the outside of your situation that gives consultants an advantage when it comes to seeing it clearly, and I was pleased to see this came out in the recent review of the Impact Readiness Fund: ‘Providers were valued for their expertise and labour, but were most instrumental…as external agents of change’.

The Impact Management Programme is building on learning from previous capacity building programmes like the Impact Readiness Fund and so we are aware of the worst criticism, that these programmes are just a ‘scheme for consultants’. In the Impact for Growth strand we require both providers and charities and social enterprises to attend the same training sessions to foster a shared understanding and common language. This pre-grant stage also helps organisations identify their own needs first before engaging with a supplier. We also do not specify what amount of funding has to go to the provider to give organisations more flexibility to design projects that work best for them.

We appreciate the stakes are high for social sector organisations using consultants, whether part of this programme or not. You’re only likely to use them for things you can’t do yourself and their fees represent a considerable investment of money, as well as time. So here are my 5 principles to help you get the best from consultancy support:

1Pick carefully

Do your homework, get recommendations, talk to referees on the phone, and above all speak to the people who will be doing the work—are they credible and do they understand you? The most thoughtful people and organisations reflect on their work and write about it. Google them, check out their website, look up key people on Twitter or Linked In. Have they got views? Do those views reveal knowledge and judgement?

2Clarity is key

The clearer you are about your needs the better. There can be a temptation in the honeymoon period to put off conversations that feel difficult in order to preserve goodwill. Don’t do it! If you have an inkling that you aren’t on the same page, test it out. Ask the question. Confirm your understanding even if it reveals a conflict. The need for clarity also extends to the basics. Be clear who in your organisation is responsible for managing the work. Tell people internally why the work is being done and what will be needed from them. Make the time available for their participation.

3Share responsibility

Bringing the consultants in doesn’t mean an easy life. If they’re going to do their job properly they will need access to people and information within your organisation and they will need engagement in order to ask questions and discuss ideas. It’s in your interests to give them the best possible materials to work with and that demands a joint effort. The same is true for implementation. Consultants can support the difficult process of organisational change, including helping you plan the how. What they can’t do is actually deliver the change on your behalf. You cannot outsource leadership to consultants and attempting to do so is almost certainly going to backfire.

4. Build trust

There is a mindset that is suspicious of consultants by default. It sees them as inherently seeking to take advantage of clients, with constant vigilance required to prevent that. Expect high standards of course, but avoid this kind of adversarial relationship because it doesn’t work. Just because someone is charging you for a service it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be treated like a human being! So be reasonable, treat them as a partner and give credit for a job well done. Consultants respond to thanks and recognition the same as anyone else.

5.  Be aware of your reactions

Consultants should not shy away from giving difficult messages. You are best served by their honesty, and their professional ethics should demand they provide it. They won’t always be right, but the whole point is to learn so you should at least give them a hearing and be mindful of your own reactions and feelings. You may feel defensive and it’s worth considering why that is, or it could be they are touching on some difficult or taboo subjects within your organisation. It may be painful for you to hear, but it is often on this territory that the greatest opportunity for learning is to be found.

The real benefits of consultancy come from the process of working through situations and issues with someone objective and thoughtful. Like therapy, the best consulting work draws solutions from the client rather than imposing them from the outside. Certainly be suspicious of any consultant who jumps straight to solutions. Good consultants ask questions and listen to the answers, and offer their own judgements sparingly but tellingly.

• Take a look at the Impact Readiness Fund review for more useful reflections on the role of providers in capacity building. If you would like to discuss this further we are hosting a learning event in London on Monday 11 September. Email: to register your interest.