The Arts Consultant: planning for a useful consultancy

 In arts administration, arts leadership, Arts management, arts organizations, non-profit management

So you and/or your Board of Directors is planning a project that will involve the use of an outside consultant or consulting firm.  We’ve all seen consulting projects that have been irrelevant and even terribly disruptive.  We’ve also seen projects that have bootstrapped organizations to the next level or supplied one small key piece of the puzzle that allowed an organization to maximize existing resources.

How do you plan a consulting project and provide oversight to the workplan to get the most out of a time-limited relationship?  It will be as good or as bad as your organization makes it!

Develop a project that is relevant to the organizational needs:

  • successful consulting projects are driven by and responsive to the organizational strategic plan
  • successful consulting projects are responsive to organizational strengths and needs.
  • successful consulting projects have a draft plan in place before potential consultants are approached
  • successful consulting projects are rarely driven by “friend of the board” consulting opportunities, to address shortterm needs due to staffing/funding shortfalls,  nor projects proposed by the consultants themselves

Choosing the consultant.  Find someone with strong relevancy to your organization’s needs.

  • Talk to colleagues, funders, professional organizations
  • Look at the past experience of the consultant for indications that they know your sector and how to work with organizations of your size, especially when sectoral knowledge is very key to the project.
  • Be sure the skills and expertise of your consultant is a match for the specific focus of the project, e.g. “social media marketing” and not just “marketing” if they are charged with a social media marketing plan.
  • Be sure that the consultant you are in conversation with is able to be as hands-on and present in the organization or as independent as your project needs them to be. Be frank with the consultant about what you need and don’t need.
  • Discuss the draft plan with the consultant as well as the opportunities, strengths and limitations of your organization. Be receptive to suggestions that enhance your plan but wary of someone who wants to make huge changes to the plan.  They may not be a fit for what the organization needs.

Assure everyone involved in the project is clear about lines of authority, responsibilities and reporting.

  • In successful consulting projects there is organizational oversight. Who directs the consultant’s work? Who intervenes if a consultant’s work is not being done, goes off-course or is being disruptive of operations?
  • Is there a staff member(s) assigned to assist the consultant? If so are those staff members aware of how they will be expected to assist? This needs to be spelled out, “You will be required to occasionally assist X by research and assembling information.  This is not to take precedence over your regular work, should not involve more than 1-3 hours work per week.”
  • In successful consulting projects, staff understand the scope of the project and how it integrates with their own work and what they might be asked to do to assist with the project
  • Do staff know what information is permissible to share?  Be thoughtful about privacy legislation and your own valuable contact lists.
  • Do staff understand the likely outcomes of the project?  “The information you give us on information flow and ‘who does what’ in your department will guide an HR reorganization that could change reporting structure and job descriptions”.  Understanding the importance of the project will elicit buy-in.

Why consulting projects fail?

  • Irrelevant projects:  A marketing plan for an organization without the staff or finances to support the plan.  A “think outside of the box” innovational strategy that is not sustainable due to known factors.
  • Choosing the wrong consultant: You picked someone with a knowledge of foundations and government funders to plan and pioneer an individuals and corporate donor campaign.
  • Absentee or “in your hair” consultants: lack of clarity about workplan and style leads to a consultant that no one can connect with, (“I’m sorry but I am in Abu Dhabi for 6 months and I need to get my cellphone unlocked before I can call you back”) or a consultant who is disruptive of daily work with a barrage of phone calls, emails and drop ins
  • Lack of oversight: Consulting project takes on a life of its own due to lack of oversight.  Results unlikely to reflect original goals and project either becomes irrelevant or disruptive. Results become hard to assess when it is unclear what the consultant actually did. Staff resent a consultant taking on roles that is in their job description.
  • Lack of clarity about reporting structure/staff roles;  Due to busyness and lack of information staff are uncooperative, stalling the project or the opposite, staff unduly priorize consulting project to the detriment of higher priority work.  Consultant, unclear of how to get needed help, goes to anyone who answers the phone for help sometimes causing duplication and confusion.  Consultant unclear of boundaries, contacts staff at home, via personal email  etc. Staff who have no mechanism to refuse to put in extra hours for consultancy project  ask for huge overtime payments or time in lieu due to work heaped on them by the consultant.
  • Lack of clarity/process and ethical considerations in information sharing.  Wary staff refuse to share information needed for the consultancy.  Staff fail to priorize information sharing because they don’t know how it will be used. Staff who misunderstand Consultant’s scope share privileged information. Consultant offers the organization contact information that is not supposed to be shared. Our contact list is shared against our wishes and our contacts complain.  Individuals added to our contact list complain about spam.  We see a decline in funding results from known sources the following year and discover our list of funding contacts is being used by a competitor who has hired our former consultant.

Key Points:

  1. Strategic needs and long-term goals should drive the project, not shortterm opportunities or needs
  2. Select a consultant who matches the project, the organization and the work style of the team
  3. Provide clear oversight to the consultant and clear responsibilities/communication lines for the staff
  4. Get the necessary buy in from staff by sharing the project’s goals and likely outcomes
  5. Be thoughtful about information sharing making sure protections and permissions are clear
  6. Track the project regularly assuring reports are accurate
Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers
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