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When to Use Consultants

Deciding if a tech consultant makes sense for your organization

When to Use Consultants 
Kevin Lo - April 15, 2012
Learn when a consultant might (or might not) be the right choice to help your organization meet its technology goals.

Will a consultant meet the technology needs of your organization? Or is it time to hire dedicated IT support or an external support company?

When To Use Consultants

Ideally, your organization has developed a vision and an overall timeline of tasks through a technology planning process. An outside technology consultant's work should be one aspect of your overall vision for technology support.

A consultant is the natural choice for many common projects, such as installing a network, creating a website, or building a database. These require more specialized knowledge and resources than you would usually expect to have internally.

Consultants generally are not ideal for day-to-day maintenance and technical support, because that is likely to be quite expensive. It is best that you have (or develop) the ability to support your technology internally. For day-to-day maintenance, if you do not have internal support, it might make sense to work with an external support company instead.

In some cases, though, a consultant can be appropriate for ongoing maintenance for specific technologies, especially if that is part of the original project contract. For instance, some network consultants will contract with you to maintain the network for a monthly fee. They may include a certain number of visits per month, and charge extra for emergency calls.

Existing Support Options

Think about the current support resources you may already have.

Your warranty may cover the issue you are facing. When you call a technical support number, be assertive about getting explanations you understand. If the support person is using a lot of jargon, you can ask them to explain very simply. In addition, you may have a staff member that can help with the problem, and you may end up not requiring the services of a consultant. Even if technology support isn't their main role, that staff member may be tech-savvy enough to help fix minor problems.

Other ways to get support include:

  • Using a search engine: In your query, include the software program name and version and the problem you encountered. If you received a specific error message, enter the name of the software you're using, along with the exact message text.
  • Check the vendor's website: Most software vendors provide some kind of product help in the form of answers to frequently asked questions, documentation, or discussion forums.
  • The TechSoup Forums are another great place to ask technology questions. Nonprofits face many of the same technology challenges, so if you're having a technology problem, another organization might have asked the same question or know of a great solution.

Technical Volunteers

Technical volunteers can be a source of substantial help for nonprofits. Before you hire a consultant, consider if all or part of the project could be accomplished by a volunteer. Volunteers are especially good for projects with limited, short-term deliverables.

To get the most out of your volunteers, see TechSoup's downloadable handbook, Working with Technical Volunteers: A Manual for NPOs.

Systems Administrators

For the majority of nonprofits with more than 10 or 15 computers, hiring a system administrator, full-time or part-time, is the most cost-effective long-term solution for regular maintenance needs. As you upgrade in order to access the Internet and share files and data efficiently, your systems will become more complex. The more complex your systems, the more you need to have someone on staff who understands them.

If you have a very old system with a mix of older hardware, it may still be easier to maintain with a regular system administrator who gets to know it well rather than with a consultant who is used to working with current systems.

The current and future size of your organization in the next three to five years should factor in to your decision as well.

If you are considering bringing on a consultant for problems of a routine maintenance nature, think about how effective a consultant can be in reaching your goal. Is your budget big enough to include a full-time or part-time system administrator? In the short term a consultant may be cheaper, but in the long term you may want to build up institutional knowledge of your systems.

If you haven't built the systems and structures to support healthy technology use at your organization, no consultant will make your issues go away. But if used correctly, as part of your organization's overall technology strategy, consultants can be a great benefit to your organization.

Image: Consulting, Shutterstock