Picture this: You’re sitting in a strategy meeting, asking, “Why would we need to hire a consultant? Can’t we manage on our own?” It’s a question many foundations grapple with. After all, consultants demand time and resources, and finding a great match can be tricky. But under the right conditions, partnering with consultants can provide your foundation with fresh perspectives and valuable support.
We asked three foundation leaders to shed light on when and why it makes sense for foundations to call on consultants. Stephanie Banchero, Director of the Education & Economic Mobility Program, The Joyce Foundation; Priscilla Enriquez, Chief Executive Officer, James B. McClatchy Foundation; and Alfred Mays, Senior Program Officer / Director and Chief Strategist for Diversity and Education, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, each have their unique consultant experiences, but converged on some common themes that hold insights for all funders.
Where It All Begins: The Need
The unmet need is at the heart of consultant collaboration. For instance, Alfred leverages consultants to develop communication strategies and program design projects for which his small team needs more bandwidth. Priscilla thinks about the roles and functions someone outside the foundation would be better suited for, such as a meeting convener, facilitator, or researcher, allowing her team to focus on and play to their strengths. Stephanie considers unfilled roles or gaps when seeking a consultant, such as a researcher with particular expertise.
Three Things You Should Expect When Partnering With a Consultant
Enlisting consultants isn’t merely about filling gaps; it’s about tapping into specialized expertise. Funders can expect:
- Heightened capacity. All three foundation leaders emphasized consultants’ immediate contributions —time, skills and services tailored to the moment’s demand.
- Seasoned expertise. Consultants can bring specialized subject-matter expertise and an outside-the-box viewpoint, augmenting internal talents. Alfred looks for consultants who possess practical experience, finding that a “been there, done that” perspective helps facilitate project design, implementation and scaling.
- High-quality deliverables within a defined timeline. A consultant’s scope of work is time-bound, incentivizing a focused results orientation. There’s a certain predictability that comes along with contracted work. “With consultants, you have clear beginning and end dates,” Priscilla observed. “Things are buttoned up.”
The (Unexpected) Benefits of Working with Consultants
Beyond the expected, funders can gain many less well-known benefits from partnering with consultants.
- Skilled, neutral facilitation: All three funders cited working with an experienced consultant that could facilitate without a personal agenda as a key benefit. Stephanie notes that “‘[the skilled consultant] doesn’t have an agenda when stepping into a space, can pivot on a dime and can help move the group to consensus.” Consultants can help a team move conversations forward, as when Priscilla’s board struggled to formulate a strategic plan. The consultant’s impartial presence sparked candid dialogues and revitalized a stalled strategy.
- Preserving a foundation’s focus and culture. Consultants can supplement without merging into your team. Priscilla sees this approach as strategic, enabling the team to retain its internal culture. Working with consultants, in her view, eliminates the need to assimilate them into the team and allows her team to stay focused on their core work of grantmaking.
- Exploring new ideas and approaches. Consultants’ expertise can augment your foundation’s talents, extending services and impact. Alfred’s experiences showcase how consultants can nudge foundations beyond their comfort zones, allowing them to test new approaches. Collaborating with consultants empowers Alfred to break free from the constraints of conventional staffing, enabling him to address temporary needs and venture into new areas at Burroughs Wellcome.
Navigating the Partnership: Practical Advice from Funders
What are the underlying principles for a positive consultant partnership? Alfred, Priscilla and Stephanie share wisdom to navigate these collaborations.
- Being values-aligned and understanding the local context makes a difference. Alfred intentionally works with local consultants because they are often more proximate to the communities Burroughs Wellcome serves than he or his staff. And as Priscilla noted: “Place really makes the difference. It’s important to [McClatchy] to work with people from the Central Valley.”
- Be clear about working styles and expectations at the outset. Stephanie asserted, “Clarity on the front end is key. You need to know what you want at the end of it.” Priscilla suggested that the foundation “be transparent with the consultant” from the beginning and has found that the “best consultants are the ones that are flexible and comfortable with change.”
- Consider how you will sustain the work long-term. According to Stephanie, “In a perfect world, you’d build the muscle of the org[anization] to do what they’re hiring the consultant to do. The institution wants to be able to do what needs to be done. [And] the consultant should think, ‘When I leave, how will you continue to do this work going forward?’”
When is a consulting partner a value-add to our work?
Partnering with a consultant is a decision that foundations must make on a case-by-case basis. As Alfred, Priscilla and Stephanie have shared, consultants can be trusted partners, bringing new perspectives, expertise, practical knowledge and capacity your team may not have. While questions may persist—”Do we truly need consultants?”—the collective wisdom of these leaders prompts another question: “What can a consultant do that would allow us to make an even greater impact?”