I’m in charge of hiring a consultant to help our foundation with strategic planning and streamlining our internal grantmaking process. What are some of the most important questions to ask when soliciting potential consultants and what are some reasonable expectations we should keep in mind?

By: National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers member’s Molly Penn and Deborah Flood of Penn Flood Consulting 

Deborah Cropped

Molly 2013 B Cropped

In our experience, it is important to describe the process clearly and with uniformity to all prospective consultants so you can do an “apples-to-apples” comparison of their respective approaches.  Toward that end, you may want to consider these internal questions we typically ask in our preliminary conversation with a prospect foundation client.

  1. Project Goals: First, clarify what you want the consultant to help you with and to what extent those goals overlap. For example, some foundations might want to use the board retreat to do the bi-annual strategic planning and streamline the grantmaking, while others may see those as separate initiatives (spearheaded by board and staff, respectively). It is also important to outline what you would like your organization to have accomplished by the end of the consulting project.
  2. Board Engagement: Consider how hard or easy is it for your board to reach alignment on major issues, such as strategic direction. Consider how active and involved is your board in strategy development and execution? The answers to these questions will be important to communicate to prospective consultants so they know how to shape the process and the board’s involvement in it. BoardSource has a variety of resources on assessing your board that can help you work through this.
  3. Scope of work: One thing to consider is that consulting costs will vary depending on the amount of work you need them to do. Ask yourself: to what extent will the consulting process involve interviewing grantees, research of best practices, or internal conversations? Clarity on expectations of the scope of the project is essential for success.
  4. Deliverables: Determine the magnitude and scope of the deliverables you will require from the consultant. What form will those deliverables take? Are they for internal or external audiences? Be as specific as possible.
  5. Major Milestones: It is important to set expectations around timelines and deliverables as well as around what the foundation will need from their consultant to demonstrate to executive staff or the board. A few suggestions to accomplish this are to establish a midway checkpoint meeting, ask the consultant and managing staff to provide monthly update memos, and provide a final presentation of findings to the board.

With these questions answered, you will want to give the same information to all prospective applicants.

We recommend the following steps the complete the selection process: 1.) send an RFP and answer any questions applicants may have; 2.) review proposals with a few other staff; 3.) invite your top two for a conversation/interview. When you interview prospective consultants, you might ask:

  1. What has been your experience working with other foundations similar to ours?
  2. What expertise would you bring to this project and why would that be helpful?
  3. Given what we’ve described, what would be your approach to this project?
  4. Is there something we are not considering that you would suggest?
  5. What is your facilitation style?
  6. How would you handle the power dynamics when speaking to our grantees?
  7. What is your experience in this grantmaking area – to what extent do you bring process vs. content expertise here?

Most importantly, keep the questions open-ended so you can listen for the ease of information exchange – how well do they listen, their rapport with you – to determine the culture fit.


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