It should be a win-win situation. You work for an inspiring nonprofit. Someone in your organization has brought in a seasoned professional as a consultant to help work through a known challenge. You’re short-staffed (and overworked), so this should be a good thing. For the consultant you see a chance to provide value to an organization you care about. You have the time, the skill, and the interest in helping.

So… why do these engagements sometimes end up with one or both parties walking away?

In writing this article I interviewed nonprofit executives, professionals for hire, and a psychologist to get underneath a possible answer to this question and to identify some lessons learned that can help create a more positive outcome all the way around. 

Human Nature

For the nonprofit exec, there may be some excitement to have added help, but there is also a level of trepidation. How will I have time to on-board this person? How do I give him or her meaningful work? What if they see that we’re not that organized internally? What if the issue this individual was brought in to help on is not my main priority and will actually divert me from what I think is important? Will this end up actually hurting the organization instead of helping?

For the professional, there is also excitement and a touch of fear. What if they don’t like my ideas? I know what’s right based on my previous experience but what if I can’t get them to pay attention or see the value in what I’m proposing we do? What if it’s a waste of time and I can’t help them?

As it is often said, “Beginnings are difficult, endings are sad, but it’s what you do in the middle that counts”. Each person comes into a meeting, relationship, or project with his or her own agenda, hopes and desires. If you had a relationship with this person across the table would the beginnings be easier? Of course they would. You would have a common understanding of the mission, a shorthand communication style already established on how you would work together, and an implicit trust between you. Taking the time up front to understand…

➢ where the organization and the individual are trying to go,

➢ what challenges they face,

➢ what has worked and not worked in the past,

➢ and, most importantly, what are the expectations for this engagement

are all critical to getting off on the right foot. Starting with this common understanding of where each person is coming from and where they hope to go helps build a relationship (even for a short-term engagement) that will last well beyond and is beneficial to both parties.

The Power of Time

In the crazed world of nonprofit management, it seems like time is always your enemy. There is simply not enough of it to do all the things you want to do to advance your mission. When, say, the Executive Director brings someone in to help you on a project, how do you politely say that not all members of the leadership team are in agreement that this project is a priority? In addition, “the planning and coordinating of resources is, in and of itself, a full time job” as one nonprofit exec put it. The short answer here is Straight Talk.

It took me about 10 years into my corporate career for people to start saying my middle name was “no filter”. One might see this as a negative, but luckily, in my instance it was a positive. Once I stopped worrying about pleasing everyone who asked for my assistance, I began to express the realities of the workplace more directly and, as a result, was seen as much more effective.

For the boss who has brought in the extra assistance, be upfront about how this work will cause you to reprioritize your own work and resources, if that’s the case. As one consultant put it:

“Somebody can come from the outside and start something up that really drains the existing staff. Management needs to monitor this and recalibrate as needed. Discuss in advance, for example, the organization’s appetite for trial and error. A consultant might come in with the experience of trying a few different approaches to see what works, but if both parties don’t share that appetite, agree on what you will do. If you don’t have that type of process in your organizational culture, it might seem like more work.”

Again, be upfront with what you believe will be effective, listen, and go from there.

For the consultant working with the nonprofit, Straight Talk is a must. In one example, a nonprofit was changing its focus to go from being a service organization to being a science/research-based organization. This mission shift is a bold one, for certain, but the consultant had to be upfront about the impact this change would have on the services they were currently providing. “Are you willing to make that trade-off?” is a vital Straight Talk conversation that was had and was well appreciated.

For a new project / relationship, start with the mundane: How does this person like to work? In person meetings or phone calls or text messages? How often? How do we keep each other in the loop but not slow down our respective work efforts? What milestones can we set to make sure we’re staying on track? Getting straight from the start how we will work together is key to not making this addition of help a burden but instead a blessing. As one very astute nonprofit exec put it, “Make the implicit, explicit to ensure we have an understanding of how we will work together and to make sure we are aligned in our desired outcomes.” 

The Only Constant is Change

I was saddened to hear the story of one professional who succeeded in meeting all the objectives the nonprofit had put on her, only to find that in the end she could no longer work there. With only six months to go, this executive had redesigned the organizations’ website, got them into two major publications, and met all the grant requirements on time and within budget. So what went wrong? Before leaving, she met with her main contact, whom she liked and respected. She was surprised to hear that they had wanted to be more involved in the creative process and that they “would have done things differently”. “It was infuriating to see the disconnect”, she recounted. “He didn’t instinctively see the value nor have confidence in the work that’s been done for the organization. I overreached for what their tolerance for rapidity was and their expectations for results.”

The lesson here is to insist upon checkpoints along the way. This is tied to the time challenge mentioned above, but with all parties running at full speed, it is important that you establish intervals for when you will provide updates and recalibrate as needed. What happened in this instance is that the organization really lost interest in the project that the grant was for and, instead, would have preferred to redirect the resources to another project. Had she known this along the way, she could have better used her time and been more effective in the eyes of the nonprofit.

What is Value?

The final point I’ll make is around that term “value”. As one psychologist put it, people mistakenly enter into partnerships, business engagements, and the like with the hope that someone will make them feel valued. No one can “make you feel” one way or another. This need goes beyond whatever project you may be working on and is not the responsibility of your client to make you feel one way or another. So get that need in check and understand yourself and your motivations. If you are working with a certain nonprofit because you care about their cause and mission, then find out what they need and what they would value from your participation in their efforts. If we’re all on the same page about that from the start (and recalibrate along the way as needed), odds are we’ll be sad to see the engagement end because we enjoyed each other and accomplished so much and not because things went awry.

Stay tuned for more Straight Talk articles to come!