Dear Nonprofiteer, How can I know which consultants are any good?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

 
I have been in the
racket here for coming up on 20 years, the vast majority as a grantmaker. 
(I once commented on a Foundation Hall of Shame feature–btw my favorite feature of your site–as "Grantmaker Concerned
with Grantmaking.")
 
I would love to hear your reaction to an idea that I
have been kicking around, but have pretty much abandoned. You seem like a good
source of opinions generally, and given your consulting experience I am
especially interested in your thoughts.
 
A few months ago I started noticing how often I was being asked by grantees
and other acquaintances to recommend a consultant to do this or that —
development, strategic planning, etc. (It was kind of like the
phenomenon of thinking that you might want to buy a Prius, and and suddenly seeing a Prius every time you turned your head.) The question "Do you
know anybody who could help with….?" seemed to be on everyone’s
lips. 
 
It occurred to me that there was not really much of an organized
information marketplace to help people find the answer to this question. (I have
checked the ACN site, but their consulting reference section really just lays
there — blah.)
 
At which point my analogy-addled mind thought about my (very good)
experiences with Angie’s List. So why not create a site that would allow both marketing opportunities for consultants AND
client feedback?
 
I talked about the idea with several colleagues, and the reviews were
mixed. Some saw virtue in the concept, others focused on the potential for
abuse, and still others — mainly current or former consultants —
HATED
the idea.  Much of this seemed to be motivated by fear of what a
bad review (justified or not) could do to their reputations, but the larger
and better point was that a client/consultant interaction is much more like a
relationship than a transaction. As a result, it would be very hard to capture
its nuances in a web review — unlike perhaps the services of an
electrician or the quality of a hotel room.
 
I have, with some regret, come to accept the latter argument as
persuasive, but I was reading the Nonprofiteer and thought it
might be worthwhile to ask you to either help start a conversation (if you
think there is a gap that needs filling) or nail down the coffin lid, so I
can go back to focusing on other things with a clear conscience.
 
Signed, Grantmaker Concerned With Quality
Dear Grantmaker:

Obviously I’m not a pure-bred consultant, because I don’t quite see what the problem is with the idea you suggest.  Of course, obviously you’re not a pure-bred grantmaker, because you’re asking for opinions and feedback instead of merely imposing your will!

My analogy-riddled brain goes in a slightly different direction: consulting is a profession, therefore it should emulate the self-regulation, self-discipline and reporting mechanisms of other professions.  The distinction between those and the discipline-of-the-marketplace imposed by Angie’s List may be more apparent than real; but bear with me for a moment. 

Both law and medicine have figured out that the only way to minimize state regulation is to take responsibility themselves for assuring a minimum level of quality in the services provided by their practitioners.  They use a pair of mechanisms to achieve this: the certifying entrance exam and the complaint registry.

At least when I was coming up in nonprofit consulting, there was serious resistance (including by me!) to entrance exams, certification and other barriers to entry.  But if you don’t barricade entry, you’d better have systems for ejecting–or at least identifying–problem entrants.  And if consultants’ stated preference is "neither," we need to stop calling ourselves a profession.  Perhaps more important, if our stated preference is "neither"–if no form of self-regulation is considered acceptable–then we can look forward to regulation by 50 state Attorneys General.

So let’s face the fact that we have to establish some sort of complaint database system.  But let’s further recognize the difficulties of designing that system.  Should we enable complaints but then only permit prospective clients to ask "Have
any complaints been recorded?" (as some of the medical societies do)?   Or should we make the full complaint available publicly?  Should we permit consultant responses?  Should the whole thing end with the cyber-debate, or should there be some further system of adjudication?  Count on it: if consultants don’t answer these questions, someone else will answer them for us, whether that’s a government body or merely a disgruntled client.  If
you doubt me, consider the proliferation of "COMPANYNAMEsucks" gripe-logs on
the Web.

Even if consulting is "a relationship not a
transaction," that doesn’t mean the interaction can’t be
evaluated–rather, it suggests a higher standard should be applied.  Fear of abusive evaluation is certainly justified–what consultant hasn’t had a client simultaneously expect the moon and fail to pay, and then subsequently blame it on us?  But there’s a recognizable difference between "I brought my terminally ill mother to Dr. X and she died anyway" and "I brought my terminally ill mother to Dr. X and he mis-diagnosed her condition, sent her home with an aspirin, refused to take any subsequent calls from us and THEN she died anyway."  Doesn’t that indicate that having more, rather than less, information available to prospective clients would protect consultants from abusive ex-clients?  Once they can actually read the complaints, prospects should be able to tell the difference between legitimate disappointment and unreasonable expectation.

Just in case that’s not true, perhaps consultants should be permitted to respond: "Yes, I gave Mrs. Y an aspirin and refused to see her again.  That’s because I’m a dentist, and I told Mrs. Y’s daughter that I was a dentist and that she needed to go see an MD but she refused and spent her time stalking me and calling me at 3 o’clock in the morning instead of seeking out an actual doctor."

The Association of Consultants to Nonprofits (of which, full disclosure, I was a founding member and am a proud member to this day) could probably never have gotten off the ground–and certainly could never have gotten its Website with referral function off the ground–without a sort of gentlemen’s agreement not to look too closely at the skills of its members.  That’s the nature of a nascent professional society.  But now that the Association (and the profession, for that matter) are a couple of decades old, it may be time to consider adding a feedback function to the referral database–again, because someone’s going to, and our interests are more likely to be protected if we do it ourselves. 

A simple feedback format is best: member consultant notifies professional society when a project is complete; society sends a brief survey to the client: "Was the project a success?  Would you be willing to recommend this consultant?  If not, why not?"  The survey should also include a question about whether there was a written contract, because whether or not the consultant did what s/he promised depends so thoroughly on what s/he actually promised.  Sweeten the deal for consultants by including a "Kudos Korner" that’s as easy to access as the forum for complaint.

In short (too late for that!), while there are knotty issues to be resolved the notion is a good one.  The alternative is for nonprofits to operate blindly (which they do in lots of areas but which never leads to anything good) or for nonprofits to rely on recommendations from funders–who are, as you’ve so graciously acknowledged, not likely to know much more about the subject than their grantees, and whose disproportionate power leads to truckling by consultants, favoritism by funders and poor service to nonprofits.

Other thoughts, anybody?

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4 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, How can I know which consultants are any good?”

  1. Steve Klass Says:

    Dear Nonprofiteer

    In the end, all we as consultants have IS our reputation. I have no problem with a complaint site. People who perceive my services to them as unsatisfactory are undoubtedly talking to each other when they ask each other to recommend a consultant. With so much conversation going online these days, it is perhaps only a matter of time before the complaints get onto websites.

    But I would offer a couple of other solutions that involve using existing sites. The Nonprofiteer herself recommends use of existing consultant databases, such as the
    ACN. I belong to (among other affiliations) a larger North American community of nonprofit capacity builders, the Alliance for Nonprofit Management.

    This leads me to, hopefully, my best advice: why not contact organizations that exist to provide technical assistance to nonprofits, such as management service
    organizations (MSOs) and statewide/metro-wide nonprofit associations? Almost all of these employ consultants as subcontractors or volunteers and provide consultant databases (sometimes with complaint-logging features) for area nonprofits to use and, they strive to remain neutral to preserve their own credibility.

    In other words, I would go to the organizations that are already addressing the
    challenge of consultant-vetting on a local/regional level to benefit nonprofit service delivery organizations, rather than re-inventing the wheel. To find consultants in your service area, three great starting points would be The
    National Council of Nonprofit Associations member list, the Alliance for Nonprofit Management (for MSO lists) and since the original blogger was “concerned with quality”, how about the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (join and ask your peer grantmakers whom they trust).

    Steve Klass, Principal
    Klass Strategies

  2. Paul Oostenbrug Says:

    I joined another consulting organization–Health Systems Direct–which asked me to complete an application form (kind of like applying to college) and asked me for two or three references. They described this as a differentiator between them and other consulting firms. Their claim to fame was that they provided high quality services using staff that were the equivalent of those that worked for the big six accounting firms (or however many there are these days) but at a much lower hourly rate. The credentialing process and making referrals available gave the firm a “cachet.” They also required one to attend annual consulting professional development sessions.

    Of course I never got much work from them, but that is another story. The CEO took an interim job that turned into a permanent job. And the entity dried up. It had an Atlanta focus and most of its business was located in the southeast–so there was not much for me to plug into.

    You should be able to find them at healthsystemsdirect.com.

  3. Stuart Barnes Jamieson Says:

    Has anyone had any experience with the Alliance for Nonprofit Management and their newly-drafted document entitled, “Ethical Standards in Nonpofit Capacity Building”? I have read it through and find it to have some helpful principles for doing consultant work.
    I don’t think it is really easy to find on their website (www.allianceonline.org), but folks can e-mail me if they want to see a copy…

    Stuart Barnes Jamieson
    Organizational Development Consultant,
    Habitat for Humanity International
    sjamieson@habitat.org

  4. Nonprofiteer Says:

    All of these resources are variations on a theme, namely, assessment of consultants by fellow professionals. While I have every respect for the professionalism of my consulting colleagues, I think we need to acknowledge the clients’ legitimate desires to have their concerns–which are not always the same as ours, and not always different in predictable ways–be heard and responded to.

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