8 Tips for Hiring a Strategic Planning Consultant

So, your charity, association or community group is ready for a new plan! The old one is expiring and needs a real refresh. Or maybe your organization is new or recently merged, so the plan will be brand new. And congratulations; you’ve realized that you need someone without a stake in the outcome to guide the process. But who?

I hope you find these tips helpful. I’ve been on both sides of this step many times.

If you choose to ignore this tip, there is no point continuing to read. I don’t know of a single good strategic planning person or firm in the English-speaking world who will bother responding. You can only attract large firms (see #4 below for why you don’t want one) or consultants desperate for work.

Find a few recommended consultants and talk to them about their approach to planning and the outcomes they will enable. Ask a few that sound good for a quote – a few pages and a bio. Or several bios if applicable, some of which may come from sub-contractors; that’s OK.

Ask for a proposal if your procurement policy demands one and the budget for the consultant (excluding tax and expenses) is at absolute minimum more than $25,000. Make the proposal requirements simple so you don’t turn off busy people. Give a reasonable time to respond. Asking for a proposal for $25,000 or less is simply disrespectful.

If you provide neither scope of work nor budget, you won’t be comparing apples to oranges when the quotes come in. You will be comparing parrots to pineapples. And most of the quotes will be useless to you.

Tell the consultants about your organization, especially the status of consultations already done with all your relations (you might be more familiar with the business term “stakeholders”). Gathering advance information is the biggest variable for the cost of strategic planning work. If you have 20 major partners to be consulted and 18,000 clients, it’s going to take a lot of work to collect planning data!

Answer their questions. Consider the quality of their questions to help you determine which consultant to ask for a quote or engage. Ignore the people who tell you every potential bidder must have exactly the same information, so it all has to be in writing. I’m a founder and former Chair of the Ethics Practitioners Association of Canada and can tell you there is nothing ethical about wasting your resources with such formalities. Such procedures were intended to apply to big projects like a new government building. See above – good people will ask beautiful questions and they are the ones who deserve the answers.

Based on my experience, you are likeliest to receive excellent quotes if you say “Our budget for this project is $_________. What can you provide within that ceiling?” The good ones will want to accommodate and give the greatest value. Consultants choose to work in the NFP sector because helping to create a better world gives them more satisfaction than the bigger fees they could have charged for-profits.

Unless your not-for-profit budget looks like that of a Fortune 500 company, the big firms will propose experienced, well-qualified people who will invariably not be available when you are ready to contract with the firm. It’s called “bait and switch” and I’ve seen all of them try it, especially when I worked for the Ontario government and a regulatory agency. You will be offered junior people with limited experience, if any, in the work you need done.

If there is an individual at a large firm whom you specifically want, specify that in the request for a quote or proposal, and put in the contract “no substitutions.” If the firm tries to insist on a substitution, just go to the next consultant on your list.

When you set out qualifications, remember that the big firms can always list three similar contracts in the last three years – but it’s highly unlikely any of the people who did them will get assigned to your contract. Small firms can only handle a small number of contracts a year.  They probably don’t have multiple recent ones for organizations just like yours – unless what you want is a cookie-cutter plan just like the ones they did for all the others in your sub-sector. Yes, there are consultants who only serve one tiny niche. They are a safe choice if you don’t care about innovation or the unique needs of your community.

Keep in mind that you are far more likely to be supporting a consultant of colour or an Indigenous consultant if you give preference to an independent consultant or small firm. And such a choice may also support your ability to consult with the community and incorporate equity, diversity, inclusion, belonging and justice in your plan.

If strategic planning is one of the top three services listed on their web site, they likely spend professional development time every year to keep up with the field and know the latest wise thinking. If it’s farther down the list, it’s likely there just in case they don’t have enough of the work they prefer and are best at.

If at least half of their work isn’t with not-for-profits, they may take a corporate approach based on organizational success rather than on creating a better world for your clients, members and community. The roles of the board, senior staff, funders and community members are usually very different in our sector; strategic planning consultants need to understand that. 

The discount they offer might be offset by the savings they have by ignoring NFPs in their professional development. Which conferences specific to NFPs have they attended in the last two years? Which books specific to NFPs have they read? Which podcasts? Which webinars?

Be especially wary of consultants offering pro bono work unless they are making the offer because they are already passionate about your mission — as well as having the right expertise. The time of your board and staff members is immensely valuable; don’t waste it. Ask yourself – do we have the time and resources to start over if this “free” service doesn’t work out? Is anything ever really free?

A good strategic planner will likely offer to write down your plan, as it develops, in a format that provides great guidance to every decision and operational document over the lifetime of the plan. A fancy graphics version for public communications can come later and not necessarily from the same person.

If they offer to just write your plan based on documents and a few interviews, that would be their plan, not yours. No one in the organization will care about implementing it or finding the revenues to make it happen. It will include misunderstandings and standardized thinking that doesn’t reflect your reality. And you’ve taken away the most inspiring work a board member can do.

Strategic planning requires group work involving the full board and senior staff (or all staff in a small organization) at a minimum. Preferably a wider selection of all your relations. Ideally there will be multiple sessions to learn from your partners and community, and develop the main aspects of the plan. Smaller working group sessions can then refine the details (mostly with staff at this stage if you have a senior staff team). Facilitation skills are essential for this work, but only a sub-set of good facilitators also know strategic planning.

  • No client references specific to NFPs and strategic planning;
  • Offering a SWOT. I know some of my colleague use this worse than useless tool because their clients ask, though I always just said no and helped to educate clients on better options. To proactively offer one means they are decades behind in wise thinking or care more about pleasing a client than good outcomes. See Why Not to SWOT;
  • A planning approach based on current resources or focussed on fundraising. You can only get great plans by starting with a dream for the ideal world you want to help create, then being realistic about what you can achieve each year towards that ideal world, with the resources you expect it will attract. I’ve seen good strategic plans bring in amazing new board volunteers, grant offers, new partners and more. There are fundraising consultants who are also good at strategic planning, but I don’t think there are a lot of them;
  • Sample plans that detail how the plan was developed, and with who, over so many pages that the actual plan starts on p.43 (yes, that’s based on real experience). The consulting report may be relevant when the plan is being approved or for review when the next round of planning is being considered, but not for the years in-between. The Strategic Plan needs to be short enough to explicitly guide every Executive Director report to the board, every ED performance review, every board and staff decision;
  • Claims that a plan will apply without updates for years. Strategic plans need to be living documents that can be updated by the board as the world changes. A plan that isn’t updated annually is likely just a dust-catcher.

Consider whether your NFP could get together with a number of small organizations with related missions to develop a plan for a better community. Share the cost of a consultant, or at least the initial steps including gathering data, developing a vision, and developing mission statements that, together, could make much better progress towards the vision than any one organization on its own.

People often move from employment to consulting and back. A larger NFP nearby might have a good strategic planning consultant on staff who they would loan to you. They would benefit from the (non-sensitive) information and experience the staff member brings back.

Organizations that exist to support other NFPs, like United Ways, community foundations and management support organizations at universities, sometimes make consultants available free or almost free to their organizations. You still need due diligence to make sure there’s a fit with your needs.

Your major funders have a vested interest in your NFP having a good strategic plan, and might make a special grant, or include strategic planning in a capacity-building grant, so you don’t have to take resources away from program delivery.

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