Editor's Note: This article was updated in 2008 by Becky Wiegand, and in 2012 by Ariel Gilbert-Knight.
Finding the right consultant is crucial to the success of your project. Here are some tips for choosing the right consultant to meet your organization's needs.
Before You Get Started
Before you start trying to select the perfect consultant for your project, you can save yourself a lot of time and hassle by ensuring that your project goals are well defined. You should develop a request for proposals that clearly states the budget, time constraints, and final outcome. This will help both you and the consultant determine whether the consultant is a good match for your organization.
Finding a Consultant
To find your consultant, here are some tips for getting started:
Choosing the Consultant
An in-person interview is usually the best way to find out if the consultant is someone you want to work with. But if you have only a small, well-defined project, a phone interview or web conference may be enough.
The following questions will help form your decision:
- Does the consultant's technical experience match your needs? Look at the consultant's educational background, work history, references, and portfolio of similar work. Does the consultant understand the hardware, operating system, and software that your organization uses or is likely to use? Has the consultant worked on similar projects before?
- Does the consultant understand how nonprofits work? A consultant who has experience working with nonprofits may have a better understanding of nonprofit needs and challenges. If you use consultants who work mainly with commercial businesses, make sure they understand the nonprofit world. It helps to make sure that consultants understand your agency's specific mission as well. They should grasp also why the project is important to you, and what organizational goals you hope to reach with that technology.
- How well does their solution fit? Talk through your needs as you see them. Ask them what solution they would propose. Can they articulate how the solution would address your needs better than other alternatives? Some consultants have a special relationship with certain vendors, and will recommend their products even if they are not what you need. Others may recommend something simply because they are more familiar with it.
- How well do they communicate? The consultant should be able to communicate technical ideas in a way a non-techie can understand. So when the consultant uses technical terms, they should explain what they mean, and make you feel comfortable in asking for more clarification, even if they are basic questions.
- How busy is the consultant? Can the consultant commit to finishing the project in the time frame you want?
- Is the consultant clear about their responsibilities? Ask them to articulate what their role will be and what specific tasks they will have to accomplish. The best way to determine this is to ask them to submit a proposed work plan or scope of work (see the work plan section below for more information).
- What fee structure does the consultant use? Some consultants charge by the hour, some charge by fulfilling specific deliverable tasks, and some charge for the whole project. Are they willing to break the project down into stages, with an estimated fee for each stage? The bottom line, of course, is whether you can afford their rates or get them to negotiate.
- What kind of future support is available? For example, you could hire a consultant to create a new website for your organization. Their contract may end once the site launches, but they may also have a regular maintenance retainer included in their contract to continue to provide support long after it launches. This may be just what your organization needs, but it also may not. It's always best to know up-front what their terms will be.
If the consultant makes a good impression during the interview, you should still check their references carefully.
Request a Work Plan or Proposal
The final step in making a decision about a consultant is to see a concrete proposal or work plan for the project. If you decide to go with that consultant, you can incorporate the work plan into the contract you write. Ask for an explanation in terms you understand.
Once you have interviewed the consultants, checked their references, and seen their proposals, the bottom line is how you feel about them. Who can you work with best? Do you think they are right for your organization's project?
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