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Learn how to become an effective consultant to an organization, a community group, or the community at large.


Due to your work within the community, you may be asked to serve as a consultant for an organization or community group. This is an opportunity to increase awareness about your group or cause, create working relationships with other organizations in your area, and serve your community in a way other that you normally do. In this section, we will discuss what a consultant, does, and when and why you might want to be one.

What is a consultant?

Note: This section is meant as a companion to Choosing a Consultant. As a result, much of the material covered in that section – for instance, “What is a consultant?” – is only referred to or briefly summarized here. Please refer to the previous section for more detailed information about consultants and what they do. As suggested there, it may be helpful to read both sections, regardless of whether you’re planning to select or serve as a consultant.

In the U.S., at least, the word “consultant” conjures up some very specific images: either the highly-paid person who is hired to improve or evaluate a business or organization; or the full-time employee who is termed a “consultant” so that his employer can avoid providing him with benefits.

In this section, we use neither of these definitions. For our purposes, a consultant is an individual (or, occasionally, a group or organization) that provides experience and expertise about an issue or process – sometimes for a fee, but often as a public service – to an initiative, organization, group, government entity, or community to further its development or goals. Let’s examine briefly what you might be able to offer as a consultant.

Knowledge relating to an issue.

As the terms “experience” and “expertise” imply, there are different kinds of knowledge a consultant may bring to bear on an issue:

  • Theoretical knowledge gained from study and/or experiment.
  • Practical knowledge gained from experience.
  • Firsthand knowledge of a target community.
  • Expertise in using a particular method or approach, such as street outreach or family literacy.
  • New ideas based on theory and/or practice.

Knowledge of a process.

Some processes that consultants typically address:

  • Assessing community, organizational, or other assets, needs, or preferences.
  • Strategic planning for an organization or initiative.
  • Planning an intervention or initiative.
  • Implementation of a strategic plan, intervention, or initiative.
  • Starting an organization.
  • Organizational development.
  • Personnel issues and interpersonal relationships within an organization or other group, among organizations or groups, or between an organization or group and those it serves or aims at.

Expertise in specific areas.

Consultants are often asked to perform a specific function for an organization or group, or to advise in a narrow, clearly-defined area. Some possibilities:

  • Advocacy
  • Negotiation, contractual relationships, and other business matters
  • Grantwriting
  • Facilitation
  • Community relations and PR
  • Evaluation


Sometimes, an organization needs someone with no stake in its history or operation to analyze its workings or to help it through a difficult period. A consultant, particularly one with an understanding of organizational development, can bring perceptions uncolored by personal investment or by unwillingness to change the way things have always been done.

Affirmation and support.

An organization hiring a consultant does so to fulfill some need, otherwise they wouldn’t have hired the consultant in the first place. That need involves some content, skill or task, but it may also may have to do with the organization’s gaining validation, reassurance that its goals, purpose, and actions are legitimate and praiseworthy. Consultants can and do provide this kind of feedback when it’s merited, and it can help the organization immeasurably.

A distinction should probably be made here between advising and consulting. When you ask a colleague who’s the best paper supplier in the area, call the director of another organization to ask for her opinion about solving a specific personnel problem, or simply sit down to talk over your situation with someone who’s had similar experience, you’re taking advantage of advising. You’ve probably acted as an advisor as well, perhaps helping a friend think through the complexities of a job change, or giving another organization a fundraising idea. Advising is an informal, unpaid relationship, generally between friends or colleagues. It’s usually short-term – often a single conversation – although you may call on a particular advisor many times over a long period to help you in different situations.

Consulting, on the other hand, is a formal relationship, usually (although not always) paid. It generally lasts either a set amount of time or until the consultant completes a specific task. Consultants are hired because of their expertise, while advisors might simply be friends or have a particular piece of knowledge (that paper supplier) that’s useful. The differences are generally in the length and formality of the relationship, whether or not money exchanges hands, and the level of knowledge, experience, and/or skill the advisor or consultant needs to carry out the task at hand.

Why might you serve as a consultant?

So…because of your knowledge, expertise, or other abilities, you’ve been asked to consult with an organization or community. Should you do it? Consulting can be time-consuming and frustrating: people may resent your presence, and there’s no guarantee that anyone will do what you advise, or follow the path you’ve helped to facilitate. There’s also the chance that it will cut into your everyday work.

At the same time, consulting can provide an opportunity to push health and community work in a more productive direction, or to ensure that services are provided to those who need them. It can also be personally gratifying and fulfilling, and might be financially rewarding as well.

The whole question of pay is a complicated one here. Many people make their livings as consultants to non-profits. They conduct courses or training, present workshops, speak at conferences and retreats, and assist with organizational management and development. Some confer on funding possibilities and write grant proposals. Others help with contract negotiations – both internal and external – mediate disputes, or plan and run events.

All of these are among the many areas on which you might be asked to consult. Whether you charge, and how much, may depend on how important the issue is to you and your organization or community, and what you expect to gain from consulting. If your main purpose is to see a new initiative or service put into place, you might well choose to offer your services for free or nearly so. By the same token, if your organization stands to profit from your consulting – in prestige, credibility, recognition, and support – then doing it without pay might be a sound investment.

If you or your organization can’t otherwise afford the time you’ll spend, or see consulting as a money-generating activity, payment becomes an issue. That imposes limits on whom you’ll work with, since many non-profits and community-based groups and organizations, especially those just starting up, have no money to spend on consulting. You’ll simply have to weigh the various factors involved, and decide – if there’s no immediate offer – whether or not you’ll ask to be paid.

If you consult with another organization or group for free or for a relatively small amount of money, it gives you the option of refusing to work with a group, or negotiating some other arrangement if it sets out conditions that you don’t agree with, or asks you to do something you feel is ineffective or wrongheaded. If you’re being paid well, you’re more apt to feel obligated to accept what the organization wants, even if you disagree with it. On the other hand, it’s only fair that you be compensated reasonably for the work you do.

You may be faced with some hard choices, especially if you choose, for philosophical reasons, to consult for an organization that has little money. Some consultants make decisions about payment on a case-by-case basis; others simply state their fees and work for those who will pay them. Many do at least occasional pro bono (free, in the public interest) work. How you decide to handle payment will depend on your individual circumstances, philosophy, and needs.

Each situation has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, but there are a number of reasons that you might decide to serve as a consultant:

It is not unusual for a director or employee of an organization to act as a (paid) consultant on her own. It is also not unusual for an organization to raise funds by selling the expertise of its staff. In this type of situation, the staff member is paid for consulting at a predetermined rate (usually his regular salary, but sometimes at a higher rate) by his organization, while the organization receives a larger sum as a consultant fee. In such a circumstance, the staff member should have consultant duties written into his job description from the beginning, and should agree to the arrangement.

  • To facilitate a particular intervention or initiative. You believe that the work is important to people’s lives, and you think you have the ability to help make it happen.
  • To benefit or have a positive impact on a population you serve or are concerned with. If the work you’re being asked to consult on will have a direct impact on the folks you’re concerned with, you might be more inclined to take on the task.
  • To nurture an organization that will provide a needed service to the community. Your consulting might help to establish a new program or organization, or strengthen a current one, that addresses a gap in services, and that will be an asset to the community for the long term.
  • To cement relationships with other organizations, and encourage collaboration rather than competition among health, human service, and community workers. You might act as facilitator of a coalition, or as a broker of collaborative grants or other collaborative activities. Alternatively, you might be asked to mediate between organizations that have a dispute or disagreement. Consulting in these ways can not only result in better relations among the organizations in question, but can also improve your relationship with those organizations as well.
  • To gain recognition and credibility for yourself or your organization, or establish yourself or it as an “expert” in the field. Your being asked to consult probably means that you and your organization are already recognized as leaders in the community. Consulting can bring more of that recognition, as well as community support and publicity for your work. In addition, your reputation as an expert may ultimately lead to increased opportunities for your work and for funding.
  • To earn needed money for your organization. Paid consulting is one way that many non-profits generate funds to funnel back into the work of the organization.

It is not unusual for a director or employee of an organization to act as a (paid) consultant on her own. It is also not unusual for an organization to raise funds by selling the expertise of its staff. In this type of situation, the staff member is paid for consulting at a predetermined rate (usually his regular salary, but sometimes at a higher rate) by his organization, while the organization receives a larger sum as a consultant fee. In such a circumstance, the staff member should have consultant duties written into his job description from the beginning, and should agree to the arrangement.

  • To help solve a longstanding community problem. You may have the expertise or organizational skills to help the community tackle a problem that has so far been unaddressed or unsolved.
  • To advance a good cause. It may not be your major interest, but it’s worth supporting, and you have the opportunity to help.
  • To help a friend. A good friend or colleague may need your expertise or skills to help get a project off the ground, or to turn her organization around. This is actually one of the more common reasons that community workers serve as consultants.
  • To foster long-term social change. In any of the above situations, you may have the opportunity to change the way the community deals with an issue or issues in general, the way it thinks about itself, the ways in which individuals and groups relate to one another, or other factors that can profoundly influence the community’s future direction.

When might you serve as a consultant?

What are the times when you might be asked to consult with another organization or community group? There are of course as many answers to that question as there are groups, but there are some typical situations when consultants might be needed.

  • At the beginning of something new. This might be the conception and start-up of a new community-based organization or coalition, the planning for a new intervention, the beginning of a new initiative, or a new direction being taken by an existing group. Whatever the circumstances, if you have experience in the area people are heading into, they may ask you for help.
  • When an organization or group is having a problem. A coalition that’s having difficulty attracting and keeping members, a service agency that’s trying to improve its effectiveness, an advocacy group whose message is falling flat – these and numerous other organizations and groups might look for help when things aren’t going well.
  • When the community sets out to tackle an issue you’ve been working on. You or your organization may be the logical source of expertise here.
  • When you see an opportunity to help, and believe you have the knowledge, expertise, and skills to do so. You may be able to see things that people within an organization or community initiative can’t, and offer your insights to help the group improve its work. Or you may be concerned that a service or initiative important to the community isn’t getting off the ground, and volunteer your assistance.
  • When your acting as a consultant would clearly benefit the population you care about, or add to the credibility and reputation of your organization. Consulting to an organization or initiative that will bring more services to the group you’re concerned with can make the work of your organization more effective. Serving as a consultant can also spread the word about your organization, and make it easier to find support and funding. Since your expertise will help the group you’re consulting for, it’s a win-win situation.
  • When you’re asked. An organization, group, or community may have a need that it feels you can fill. Not only is it flattering to be chosen in this way, but it may be an opportunity to perform an important service.

Who might serve as a consultant?

As is obvious from what we’ve discussed so far, consulting covers a broad range of tasks, and consultants are chosen from a broad range of situations. Is yours one of them? Some of the most common in health, human services, and community work include:

  • Current or former program directors or other staffers who have direct experience with an issue, with a population, or with organizational design, development, and management. Successful firsthand experience is probably the most valuable asset a consultant can have, because it can help him identify not only what to do, but – even more important – what not to do.
  • Current or former local or state officials, legislators, and others who’ve dealt with issues from the policy standpoint. In general, these people are most effective as consultants on advocacy. In some instances, however, through experience with legislation or community efforts, officials have become expert on particular issues.
  • Community activists. In the course of their work, activists often learn more about an issue than anyone else. Because they’re actually part of the community, they may have a better understanding of the overall situation, of opposition, and of the factors influencing an effort. In addition, activists bring their passion to the table, which can often be helpful in keeping focus on the issue and staying with the task when things look bleak.
  • Advocates. People who’ve become advocates for a particular cause or population usually have to become experts. Part of a typical advocacy strategy is to establish yourself as the fountain of all knowledge about your subject, and you can’t do that without actually knowing a great deal. In addition, advocates know about – no surprise – advocacy, and may be asked to consult in that area as well.
  • Members of the target community or population. These folks are a tremendous resource in a number of ways. They understand best the culture and needs of their own group, for instance, and can keep an intervention or initiative from repeating past mistakes or making new ones. They also can help assess whether particular methods are appropriate or effective, and what alternatives might be more so.

For many years, the Channing Bete Corporation designed and produced pamphlets about community health topics – substance use, heart health, domestic violence, etc. They asked a group of adult literacy learners to consult with them on whether a number of new pamphlets were written at a level accessible to most people, and whether the material in them was accurate and relevant to their lives. The learners prepared a report with their feedback, which was used the to change some of the wording and content in that set of publications, and learners were compensated for their time.

  • Academics – including students – who work on a particular issue or process. Graduate students or professors who’ve been studying a particular population or issue may have important insights about how to address it, or know about approaches that have been successful in other places. Their research skills are often useful in areas such as assessment and evaluation as well.

A business school professor assigns groups of students in his non-profit management class to work with non-profits on management and strategic plans. The students gain experience with real-world problems and situations, and the organizations receive the benefit of learning about the latest ideas in non-profit management.

  • People with organizational and process skills – counselors, mediators, social workers, psychologists, etc. These professionals may have knowledge about dealing with certain situations, be able to run meetings or conduct groups, or help with interpersonal problems within an organization or group. They may also be asked to train staff members or volunteers in these or other areas, or to consult on hiring or other organizational issues.

This is by no means a complete list of possibilities. We might also include those with specific technical skills – computer networking, GIS mapping, etc. – and professional consultants who make their living assisting organizations in organizational or staff development, training, financial management, and numerous other areas.

How do you serve as a consultant?

Acting as a consultant is, as you might expect, very different either from being in charge of a group or from being an employee. On the one hand, you have very little actual authority, if any: whoever you’re consulting for can choose to ignore your advice, or to refuse to cooperate with a process you try to establish or facilitate. On the other hand, you have a great deal more freedom than an employee would have, and can always choose to withdraw if the situation becomes too frustrating. (Withdrawing, of course, becomes more complicated if you’re being paid.)

You also have the opportunity to negotiate about any and all aspects of your arrangement. That should happen at the beginning – as part of the drafting of your contract, if you have one (see box below). You can and should negotiate and adjust whatever is necessary in order to make it possible for you to do the best job you can, maintain your ethics and your philosophy, and create the greatest comfort possible for both you and whomever you’re serving as a consultant.

To be a successful consultant to an organization, group, or community takes planning and sensitivity, as well as a good understanding of the context in which you’ll be operating. There’s a lot that needs to be done before you actually get down to the work you’ve been asked to do…but that preparation is part of the work you’ve been asked to do. Without it, you’re not likely to be successful.

Every consulting opportunity is different, and the actual work depends on the nature of the opportunity. You’ve been, or will be, asked to consult because that actual work is what you’re good at. What we’ll look at here is how to lay the groundwork for doing that work successfully. Each step of that groundwork requires both some information-gathering and some action on your part.

The first two of these actions – defining your role and defining your relationship with those who ask you to consult – are important enough that they are often laid out as part of a contract, if you’re getting paid. Most consultants operate on a contract basis if there’s money involved, with the contract stating the amount of pay, the time period in which the work is to be completed, and the specific task(s) to be carried out. The contract can also serve to define roles, relationships, and other characteristics of the arrangement, so there’s no doubt and no misunderstanding later. If there’s no money involved, the two parties might still draft a memorandum of agreement to define and guide the consultant’s work.

If there’s money or some other consideration – barter for services, or something similar – changing hands, the negotiation around your role and relationship will probably take place as part of the discussion about your contract.

Define your role

What exactly are you being asked to do? As we’ve discussed, there are a variety of roles available, and it’s important to establish at the outset which of these is the expectation of whoever has asked you to consult. In addition, an employer may specify certain tasks or actions that aren’t necessarily part of the overall consultant role you’ll be playing, but which still are part of the job you’ve agreed to. Some typical roles, one or more of which you may be asked to take on, are:

Advisor. You will probably have no official say in what goes on, but can suggest possibilities. You may work with a group as a whole, or with one or more individuals who pass your suggestions on to the group (or choose not to, as the case may be.) The advisor role may be more or less permanent, and may range from consultation on a close-to-daily basis to once a year or less. This may be a public or behind-the-scenes relationship.

Public is better, simply because a behind-the-scenes arrangement, if it becomes known, leaves everyone open to the charge of private deals, underhanded scheming, foisting plans off on the unsuspecting group, and the like. If your role is out in the open, and everyone knows about it, the process is much better off.

A special case of the advisor role is that of mentor. This may be an informal relationship, but can be important nonetheless. Sometimes, an experienced health or community service person might act as a sounding board or advisor for a new organization, for a new director or other administrator, or for a member or members of an organization. Mentoring can range from simple encouragement to suggestions about methods of operation or service delivery to the teaching of technical skills.

Facilitator. A facilitator is not a decision-maker, but rather one who impartially conducts a process. This may range from simply running one or more meetings to facilitating the whole process of planning, implementing, and evaluating a new intervention or community initiative. In this role, you are usually prevented by your impartiality from taking a position, but you may be able to structure the process, and thus have considerable influence.

Organizations and other groups may ask facilitators to take on different tasks.

  • Facilitating an initial meeting, or facilitating meetings in general.

Tom Wolff, one of the Community Tool Box team, acted for years as facilitator for the meetings of the North Quabbin Community Coalition in central Massachusetts, a group that he had helped to establish.

  • Carrying out an agenda that the group has already determined. They may already have chosen a structure and a process, and are asking you to use your group-leading skills to carry them out. This could include facilitating a retreat, a planning or visioning process, or a board development session.
  • Setting up and conducting a process to help the group achieve a goal, make a decision, resolve a dispute, etc.
  • Helping the group decide on a process, and then conducting that process.
  • Facilitating a limited, specific process that may be a part of a larger whole or an end in itself. Many organizations use facilitators to handle transition when a leader leaves or the organization restructures, for instance. In this situation, the facilitator works with the organization to determine what and who might best meet its needs – what kind of director it might need, what kind of person might be that kind of director, and where the organization should concentrate its search to find such a person. The organization then uses the information and insights gained from the process in hiring the new director.

Expert. Here, your value lies in your knowledge – theoretical or practical, or, more typically, both – of a particular issue, method, or field. A new or newly expanded organization might ask the director or financial officer of a more established organization to help it create a financial management system, for instance, or might ask for help in solving a personnel issue or developing personnel policies. A community anti-violence initiative might call in a researcher whose field is youth violence prevention, or the director of a successful community violence prevention program to help it develop an action plan. This category might also cover friend-of-the-court written testimony, or expert witness service.

As a close-to-home example, the University of Kansas Center for Community Health and Development, the home of the Community Tool Box, is often asked to act as a consultant on evaluation, one of its particular areas of expertise.

Specialist. A specialist has knowledge, but also the skills to perform specific tasks. She might set up a computer network for an organization, for example, or place stories she has written in the media. One of the most common specialist roles is that of grant writer; the author, for instance, as a consultant to a community college, did the groundwork and wrote a successful funding proposal for an ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) program.

Trainer. Another common task for consultants is training staff members, volunteers, or others in a specific skill or process. This type of consulting may include training in a technique or method, supplying information helpful to working with or understanding a particular population, education in new theories or research, or training in a process such as conflict resolution. Consulting as a trainer could range from a one-shot motivational presentation that might last an hour to a days- or weeks-long course.

  • You’ll be much more effective as a consultant if you and the folks you’re working with understand from the outset exactly what your role will be. They may want you to take on more than one, and that can be perfectly reasonable, as long as it’s understood beforehand, and you can prepare for it.
  • Equally important is your own clarity about what roles you’re willing and able to take on. If you’re being asked to do something you know you’re not good at or aren’t willing to do, then you shouldn’t do it. If you think the role you’re being asked to take on is the wrong one for what the group hopes to achieve, then you should be willing to suggest alternatives. And you should be willing to refuse to consult if you feel that the situation is set up for failure or frustration, and to explain why you’re refusing. All of this ties in with the next step in your groundwork:

Define your relationship

A key point I’d make here – and here is perhaps the most important point I can offer for this section – is that the most important factor in determining the success of a consulting arrangement is the consulting relationship. But “relationship” means something broader that what’s outlined below. It means the degree of comfort and trust both parties have with each other. In other words, a good consultative relationship should be, and needs to be, a good human relationship.

If the consultant is a bona fide expert, but is somewhat aloof in manner, or is not entirely reliable, or is not readily available, or does not seem to show caring for the well-being of the organization or its clients, then the consulting relationship is less likely to be strong, and the consultant’s guidance, even if completely on-target, is less likely to be followed. The consultant relationship is first and foremost a human relationship, and that human connection needs to be made and maintained throughout.

Will you be working for the folks who’ve asked you to consult, or with them? In other words, do you have any say in what you’ll do or how you’ll do it? In general, consulting works best when a group works with a consultant, taking advantage of her knowledge and skills while at the same time keeping its own goals in mind.

The best way to avoid problems brought on by a misunderstanding of or disagreement about your relationship with the group that’s asked you for help is to discuss the issue at the very beginning. If you have a clear sense of what you want the relationship to be, and of what your limits are, it’s best to state that, and to work from there. If the group has sought you out, the chances are that you’re in agreement, or can reach a mutually acceptable compromise.

Some other questions to consider when thinking about relationships:

  • Does your role define the relationship, and are you in agreement about what that role implies? If you’re being asked, for instance, to be a trainer, do you know whether there is a specific method of training or specific content that you are expected to include? Who is in charge of determining these things?

This is important in a number of ways. If the relationship isn’t a collaborative one, you may be asked to use methods or include content that you see as unproductive or disagree with. You may decide that you don’t want to be in a situation where someone else dictates to you what will happen, rather than your working it out together. That’s why you should know what the shape of your relationship will be before you agree to consult.

  • Are you working with the organization or group as a whole, or just with the director or a small group or the board? Who has decided to ask you to consult? To whom are you responsible?

Issues that can arise here include resistance to your proposals or facilitation from those who haven’t been consulted (see directly below), and an incomplete picture of the organization that doesn’t include the viewpoints of many of the people who’ll be expected to carry out whatever you help the director or board to decide upon.

  • Has your presence been imposed on the group, or has there been general agreement that your help was needed? Will there be resistance or resentment from some of the people you’re expected to work with? Will they be skeptical about your ability, and/or about what you’re doing?

This situation is clearly not ideal, but it’s not impossible. You need to clear the air before you go any further. With the help and cooperation of those who brought you on, you can talk to those who are suspicious or hostile, determine what the problems are, and do your best to solve them together. If it’s clear that you’ll get no cooperation, even after doing your best to ameliorate the situation, you may decide not to work with this group at all.

Once you’ve defined your role and relationship, get it in writing. There should be a written contract or agreement that states clearly what you’re being asked to do, what support (if any) the organization will provide for that work, to whom you’ll report, etc. The agreement should also include any products that are expected to come out of your work (a report, a curriculum, a videotape, etc.) and to whom they will belong. It should cover timelines and deadlines, if any, and what and how you’ll be paid, if that’s a consideration. In other words, it should spell out as clearly as possible exactly what you’re agreeing to do and what the organization is agreeing to in order to make that happen.

Especially if you’re consulting as a favor, or offering your services free because you believe in what the organization or group is doing, it may seem that a formal agreement is overkill. In fact, the opposite is true. Having an agreement that specifies the details of the consulting arrangement can prevent misunderstandings (and thereby make the work more effective) and later resentment and hard feelings (thus enhancing harmony in the community.) A written agreement may be crucial to your success as a consultant.

  • Part of the relationship may also have to do with the consultant’s availability. Is the consultant primarily expected to come to scheduled group meetings or one-on-one appointments, or is he/she also expected to be available on-call, possibly even nights and weekends? This issue may not be always be relevant, but sometimes it is, and when it is, the degree and extent of availability may need to be clarified.

Do your homework

While defining your role and relationship are necessary, it’s also necessary to remember that the reason for consulting is to help the organization or group achieve what it wants to achieve. That means gathering some background information. How much depends on what kind of consulting you’ll be doing. Running one or two meetings might not need a great deal; but if you’re facilitating a strategic planning process, you’ll want to find out as much as possible.

Learn as much as you can (time may be a factor here) about the organization or group you’re consulting with. Here, you might want both to do some reading (reports, organizational history, old and current newsletters, etc.) and talk with a representative sample of people both inside and outside the organization. Some information you might concern yourself with:

  • History. What has been the history of the organization or group in the community? Is it new? If it has been around for a while, how is it viewed? Has it dealt with this issue or process before? How? How successfully? What have been its successes and weaknesses? Is it still doing what it was originally founded to do?
  • Personalities, personal relationships, and turf issues. Who are the people you will be working with, and what are they like? Do they get along with one another? How are they viewed by the community? Are there personal conflicts that have an impact on the work of the organization? Are there turf issues, and how do they play out?

Turf issues arise when people feel insecure and believe they have to defend their "turf," their own little piece of the organization. That can translate into their hoarding information or materials, or becoming jealous of or hostile to anyone else who tries to do any of what they do, even in attempts to help them. Defending turf can poison the atmosphere of an organization, ruin the relationships among staff, and make it harder for the organization to do its work. The more secure everyone feels, the less likely turf issues are to arise.

  • Vision and mission. What exactly does the organization see itself as working toward? Does it have a vision? Is there a mission statement? Does the work of the organization reflect these? (And does everyone in the organization know what they are and agree with them?)
  • Organizational culture and philosophy. What are the expectations for relations among people in the group, including beneficiaries of its work? Are adult participants treated as equals, or as “clients,” who are somehow less intelligent or competent than other people? Is there a hierarchy among staff members, or among staff and board? Does the culture encourage passion for the work, or is it just a job? Does the organization see itself as working toward social change, as empowering its staff and participants, as doing work that has a clear benefit for society as a whole?
  • Structure. Who is responsible for what? Are there layers of managers and staff, or is everyone essentially on the same plane? Is there a “chain of command” that’s seen as such? Who makes decisions? How flexible are positions? How flexible are policies and procedures? (Perhaps a better question for many community-based organizations is “Are there policies and procedures?”) Is there a board, and what is its role?
  • Priorities. What does the group care about? What are its main goals? (These may not be the same as its vision and mission would have you believe.) If it lost part of its funding, what would it choose to give up, and what would it choose to continue?
  • Funding and resources. What are the group’s major funding sources? How much funding is available, and how secure is it? How many people contribute to the work of the group, and what kinds of training and expertise do they have? What does the group have the capacity to do?

Learn about the community. Because the community provides the context of the group you’re consulting for, it’s important to understand as much about it as you can. If it’s the same community you work in, you may have most or all of the information you need. If not, there are a number of aspects of the community that might be important:

  • History. What’s the community’s history with the group you’re working with, and with the issue or population in question, if there is one? What is the general history of the community, and how does it affect the community as it exists now?
  • Personalities. Who are the people in the community who command the most respect, and to whom others listen? Are there groups of people – an ethnic group, the Chamber of Commerce, an informal business consortium, the clergy – who wield a great deal of influence? Which individuals are allied with which others, and which don’t get along? How are people literally related, through marriage and blood, and what are the implications of those family ties?

Although many of these questions are most easily answered in a small community, even large cities are essentially collections of small communities. In a large city, therefore, the community may mean a particular neighborhood, a public housing complex, a geographical area, an ethnic group – whatever makes sense in relation to the work of the group you’re consulting for.

  • Culture. While culture often refers to the practices and beliefs of an immigrant or religious group, it may also be based on class, on the community’s history and environment (people in rural areas are much more likely than city dwellers to own guns, for instance, and to be hunters), or on local conditions. Understanding not only what is accepted and rejected in the culture, but also why, can be extremely helpful.
  • Politics. Who holds the power in the community? Are they easy to deal with, and sympathetic to the work of the group? How do community politics work, and how do they fit in with what the group is hoping to do?
  • Economics. What are the economic strengths and weaknesses of the community? What are major sources of community income? Who controls the money, or its sources? How great are the gaps between wealthy and low-income citizens? Are poverty and economic insecurity (possible loss of jobs or major industries) serious problems for the community?

Learn about the issue(s) the group is involved with, even if that’s not your major focus as a consultant. You may have been asked to facilitate a planning process or an evaluation, for example, but it’s important to know as much as possible about the issue, and about how it fits into the process you’re guiding.

Use your communication, interpersonal, and organizing skills

As a consultant, you want to be understood, to present ideas, questions, and suggestions in ways most likely to be heard by those with whom you’re working, and to make people comfortable enough to enjoy working with you. In addition, it will be helpful to put things in a format that makes it easy to act, and indicates progress toward goals. Some ways to achieve these ends:

  • Be as clear as possible. This means making yourself clear in any communication, whether about an observation, an idea, the process, or your relationship with those you’re working with (and making sure that you understand them clearly as well). It also means being as clear as possible about what exactly the group actually hopes to gain from your help, which may be unstated in your contract or initial agreement.
  • Ask lots of questions…about everything. And take careful note of the answers.
  • Once you have adequate information, make a plan for your work, inform others of it, and work through it deliberately, along with those you’re serving.
  • Be respectful of everyone, regardless of his status.
  • Don’t be too quick to provide “the answer.” Try to make problem-solving an inclusive process. This might include not making pronouncements about what should be done (unless you’re asked directly, and even then it’s not always necessary). You can advance advice through observation (“This is what I see…”), for instance, or through defining the problem and eliciting suggestions (“Given that situation, what should we do about it?”), or through providing a number of options for discussion, based on what you’ve heard and observed.
  • Ask for feedback frequently, accept it graciously, consider it carefully, and act on it when appropriate.
  • Create markers of your and the group’s progress, and share them with the group.
  • Be positive. Maintaining a positive attitude will not only keep you going, but will buoy up the group you’re working with, and get them thinking positively as well.

Tailor your guidance to the group and the situation

The point of clarifying and learning as much as possible beforehand is to do the best job you can. That entails taking all you’ve learned into account, and coming up with strategies that apply to the group you’re working with. You have to tailor your advice or activity to this group and the community. That means conferring constantly with those you’re consulting for, to make sure that what you’re proposing or doing makes sense for them. Some considerations to keep in mind:

  • Adjust your style, your suggestions, your guidance, etc. to what people will accept. Regardless of how sure you are of your ideas, if they’re not philosophically consistent with those of the people you’re working with, they won’t accept them. You have to start where they are, not where you are. This doesn’t mean you can’t give your honest opinion if you’re asked for it, but you should be prepared for it to be rejected if the group is simply not ready to accept it.
  • Take the group’s unique circumstances into account. Something that worked beautifully in your organization or another that you know about may not work at all for this group. Available resources, community or staff attitudes, organizational history, personality clashes, local politics – all these and many other factors may work to alter the group’s situation and make a seemingly obvious strategy unworkable.
  • Examine the issue at hand in relation to the particular group, organization, or community you’re working with. Whom does it affect, and how? How do people view it – as vitally important, or as something minor? The answers to these and similar questions will vary with the group and community, and should influence how you approach the issue or shape an initiative or intervention.

You may have a method, a standard process, a particular set of knowledge, etc., that you consider absolute. It’s not, even though it may be accurate or correct. An organization can only do what it is capable of doing. The Community Tool Box, for instance, recommends the use of participatory process wherever possible, on the (we believe correct) assumption that such a process will garner better information, participation, and planning, and, consequently, better results. If an organization is simply not philosophically in tune with participatory process, however, and there’s not time to do the groundwork to get it to that point, then you may have to settle for something less. You may be able to have stakeholders consulted, for instance, but not directly involved in planning. If you push too hard or too fast, either the results will be disappointing, or the group or community will resist and your whole purpose may go out the window.

  • Pay attention to the potential consequences of any advice, action, process, etc. that you propose. Try to think particularly carefully about unintended consequences, especially those that might have a negative effect that offsets their positive results. Unintended consequences can sometimes be glaring. A gang violence prevention program that doesn’t include the proper groundwork or a clear understanding of the social and psychological background of the youth involved can actually lead to an escalation, rather than a reduction, of violence, for instance.

At the same time, unintended consequences may be subtle. A particular action might change the community’s perception of an organization, for example. Even if the change in perception isn’t negative, if it’s inaccurate, it can hurt the organization over the long term. The organization might find itself ignored when a chance to address its major issue comes up, for example, or it may be seen as doing far less than it actually does.

Unintended consequences, while sometimes positive, are harmful about as often. It is a good idea to remove children from seriously abusive homes, for instance; but a system that keeps these children shuttling from one foster home to another throughout their childhood and adolescence can be more emotionally damaging to them than staying in their families might have been.

  • Be flexible. This is actually the lesson to be learned from the previous four considerations. Every situation is different, and you have to respond to the reality of each, rather than to some ideal. A group may not be able to do everything you think is necessary, or may not be ready to use your fantastic method. You can try to move them in that direction, but you also have to realize that you probably won’t be able to move them all the way in the time you have. You have to be flexible, and adapt your consulting to what’s possible and best for those you’re working with.
  • Keep your eye on the long term. You may be asked to consult in the short term, or about something that may seem to have only short-term consequences. The truth is that almost everything has long-term consequences as well, and a good consultant looks for these. If you’re facilitating a hiring process, for example, your job may be done when a director is hired, or even when a process for hiring is developed. The organization doing the hiring will have to live with its consequences, good or bad, for a much longer time – probably long after that director is gone. Always try to look beyond the immediate goals to the effects your work might have on the group or community a long way down the road.
  • Institutionalize your work. The very nature of a consultant relationship is that you will leave, but the organization or community will remain. If you are able to help initiate positive change in an organization or community, it’s also important to institutionalize that change, so that it will continue for the long term. Your work is only done when it is taken over by those for whom you’ve consulted.

For that reason, an important part of your job is doing your best to see that what you have recommended stays in place. A good way to accomplish this end is to recommend and help to implement an organizational structure that does just that. Such a structure can take many forms – a new committee, or new by-laws, or an annual review meeting are all possibilities. Without such a structure, the motivation to sustain the agreed-upon recommendations may erode, or the actual memory of those recommendations may gradually fade.

In other words, part of the consultant’s work is often to ensure the development and continuation of an appropriate institutional structure – to ensure, in other words, that the adopted recommendations are institutionalized.

In Summary

Because of your work in the community – or your reputation outside of it – you may be called upon to serve as a consultant to an organization, a community group, or the community at large. This can be an opportunity to steer a group or the community toward desirable social change, to gain prestige for your organization or cause, to make money to funnel back into your work, or to try out new ideas. It’s also a chance to help the community in a way other than the work you normally do.

Consulting entails getting to know the group you’re working with well enough to be truly helpful, and putting aside your preconceptions about what exactly needs to be done in a given situation. Define what the group or community wants you to do, determine how you’ll relate to them in doing it, start where they are, and look toward long-term benefits for them. If you can’t find common ground, you may want to say no to the offer to consult. If you accept it, your primary goal should be to help the group or community on its own terms, and to do the best job you can to help that group or community achieve its goals.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

The Free Management library 

Interaction Institute for Social Change

The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University. A good example of an academic consulting group, connected to a university (in this case, the LaSalle School of Business Management), and providing consulting services to nonprofits on planning, financial management and administration, fundraising, etc.

Public/Private Ventures  is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the effectiveness of social policies, programs and community initiatives, especially as they affect youth and young adults. In carrying out this mission, P/PV works with philanthropies, the public and business sectors, and nonprofit organizations. (From the P/PV website.)

Print Resources

Bellman, G. (2001). The Consultant’s Calling: Bringing Who You Are to What You Do. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Sherson, H., Ted N., & Paul F. (1997). The Complete Guide to Consulting Success. Chicago: Dearborn Trade Publishers.