The "5 W's" of Hiring a Nonprofit Consultant

"To hire a consultant or not to hire a consultant? That is the question... "

For weeks, months, or maybe even years, your board or leadership team has been contemplating on hiring outside assistance. "Do we really need it?" "How much will this cost us?" "Where do we even find the right one?"

It's not an easy decision nor is it an easy task. It takes a great amount of internal decision-making to determine if your organization needs to hire a nonprofit consultant.

Before hiring a nonprofit consultant, I want you to consider the "why, what, when, where, and who" questions of hiring a consultant. Being able to assess these "5 W's" will help your organization determine the need for a consultant and give you steps to take during the process.

1) The "Why"

"Why do we want to hire a consultant?"

Nonprofit consultants hit every aspect of the nonprofit world all the way from external development like marketing and PR, event management, and internal development like fundraising, technology, and capacity building/organizational development (my specialty).

Trying to determine if hiring a consultant solely based on their "genre" of work would be quite difficult and could lead your organization in the wrong direction it needs to go.

Continually asking "why" until your team gets to the root cause will help hone in on the need for a consultant.

For example, your organization has struggled in fund development for the past few years and it's been suggested by a board member to hire a funding consultant. Okay, so why do we need a funding consultant? To help with funding. Why do we need help with funding?... And so on.

Your board/leadership may discover that roles are unclear within the organization and turns out, there is not a clear definition of who/m are leading funding efforts. Aha!

Continually ask "why" and you will discover the specific reason you may need outside guidance.

2) The "What"

"What are our goals/expectations for the consultant?"

Keep in mind a couple of things here:

1) Once your leadership has decided on the need for outside assistance, it's vital to have clear goals and expectations prior to actively seeking out a consultant.

Ask the question, "what is the change we want to see?" Don't just ask your leadership! Ask donors, employees, the community the organization serves! Having an inclusive mindset when determining what the organization needs is going to encourage a positive relationship between organizational stakeholders. You may be surprised by the helpful feedback!

After that collection of input, start creating "SMART Goals" (Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound).

Having SMART Goals will give both the organization and the potential consultant clarity on what the tasks are at hand and will drive who your organization hires.

2) It's important that you recognize that no consultant can solve all your organization's problems. If anyone promises you that, they are not for your organization and you should run away as fast as you can. "Saving" is not conducive to your organization. Being able to learn from and entrust in your consultant is pivotal to the growth of your organization.

That being said, have realistic expectations about hiring a consultant. Meaning, don't expect them to know the organization's needs without guidance-have a project plan, timeline, and outcomes (using the SMART Goals) your organization wishes to achieve with the consultant's guidance.

Know consultants have expectations for your organization as well. For example, with each client I work with, I expect timely responses to emails and calls so I can move forward with the timeline we agreed upon.

During the interview process, talk with potential consultants on expectations so there are no surprises in assigned roles.

3) The "When"

"When do we need to hire a consultant?"

This question is not answering the literal time to hire a consultant, but answering if the organization has the capacity to hire a consultant.

There is not a one sum fee all consultants abide by. Some charge by the hour while some charge by the project. Some consultants require to be on retainer (being paid a specific rate, with a timebound contact, usually a 6 or 12-month basis) or an as-needed basis.

Determining the organization's available resources (like time, funding, and human energy) early on will signify when your organization is ready to hire a consultant.

When it comes to funding a consultant, it all depends on the scope of the project and the timeline your organization is looking at. Most consultants are straightforward and will not steer you wrong-ask for an RFP (discussed below). I would suggest your organization minimally budget for $75 an hour.

4) The "Where"

"Where do we position the consultant in the organization?"

Who is going to be the point of contact for the consultant? Will they need to be in-house or can they work remotely? Answering these questions is again, checking the capacity of the organization.

We, consultants, ask TONS of questions. We ask questions so we can ensure accuracy in our work. When there is no designated contact to retrieve information from, the longer the process takes, potentially losing time on the project and internal momentum. We need to know upfront who our POC is so there is nothing lost through the organizational grapevine.

Just a heads-up, if your organization hires a consultant that will need to meet in-person, your organization will need to budget for that as well.

5) The "Who"

"Who do we hire?"

If you have made it this far, congratulations! Your organization has determined the need, goals, and the organizational capacity of hiring a consultant!

You've made it this far in the process, now you need to know who to hire!


The most common way for nonprofit organizations to find consultants are RFP's. Request for Proposals (RFP's) will give consultants a chance to showcase what services they offer and the rates of those services. Again, the RFP will need to reflect the SMART Goals through the project proposal that is laid out in the RFP.


Just like your organization would hire any staff, it's necessary to have an interview process after the organization has selected a few candidates.

Ask all the questions! This is a time to check the background knowledge of the potential consultant, reference checks, what the expectations are (remember we discussed this earlier), and determine if they are a good personality fit with the organization (yes, this is important).

Don't Rush

As this has been a process to determine if your organization needs to hire a consultant, it's also a process to actually hire a consultant. Remember, the organization is seeking the return on investment-don't just select someone based on a proposal or a ten-minute conversation.

Be aware of those "red flags" like false claims on their websites (faux testimonies/clients), lack of response/urgency at the beginning of the RFP process, grand claims of "saviorship" (we talked about this earlier).

The Contract

After all the RFP's, reference checks, and interviews, your organization has decided to contract with a great nonprofit consultant perfect for your organization! Most consultants will require a signed contract when the scope of a project is agreed upon. The contract is for protection for both the organization and the consultant. Before you sign the contract, confirm with your legal advisor to ensure the validity of the agreement.

That's It!

Finding the right nonprofit consultant is no walk in the park. It's going to take dedication and time from your board/leadership team to really take a step back and fully look at what is organization is lacking and how it can be guided by an outside voice. We Nonprofit Consultants truly love the work your organization is doing and we hope to be apart of that success!

By answering the "5 W's", your organization will be more equipped to determine if your organization needs a consultant, determining the goals for a consultant, and who to consider as the organization's consultant. Best of luck to you and your organization!

Additional Resources To Potentially Hire a Consultant

Here are a few resources your organization may find beneficial during the quest for a nonprofit consultant!

Lessons Learned: Hiring Consultants

Budgeting for a Consultant

The Association of Consultants to Nonprofits

ACN_Hiring and Engaging Consultants
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