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Posts Tagged ‘nonprofit consulting’

The mystery in the online procurement of nonprofit consultants

Posted by David Kassel on December 8, 2009

[Cross-posted from the CharityChannel website]

As a management consultant to nonprofit organizations, I’ve become interested in how managers of those organizations go about the process of searching online for members of my profession.

The more I’ve thought about it and looked into it, the more of a mystery it seems to be.

 On the one hand, many nonprofits need help with strategic planning and other managerial functions; and there are many management consultants out there willing to help them.  Yet,  nonprofits rarely seem to post online advertisements for management consultants– or consultants of any type, for that matter.   Moreover, there seem to be few, if any, websites available, in this country at least, on which nonprofits can post RFPs  for consultants, for instance.

 At the same time, there are many websites available on which nonprofits post advertisements for full-time jobs in their organizations.  That’s the mystery.  If nonprofits need and want management consultants, how do they go about selecting them?  Do they depend primarily on word of mouth or networking?  And, if so, why do nonprofits post online advertisements for full-time personnel? 

You may wonder why it would be a problem for nonprofits to use different methods to look for full-time staff than they do for consultants.  I think it is a problem because, as many observers have noted, nonprofits may well be wasting their money or worse when they hire consultants that are poorly suited to perform the work.  If nonprofits are more careful and systematic in the way they search for full-time staff than for consultants, the potential for problems seems obvious. 

Many experts in nonprofit management have weighed in on the need for care in the selection of consultants.  Todd Cohen writes on the Philanthropy Journal website, for instance, on the importance of “due diligence” in choosing consultants.  Cohen provides advice to nonprofits on the need to examine the past experience and expertise of consultants, on how to interview consultants, and on how to draft contracts for them. 

 Other experts, such as Hildy Gottlieb at The Community-Driven Institute, have taken a critical look at  whether RFPs are helpful in the selection process  and how to develop alternatives to RFPs.  But there has been much less emphasis on how to find consultants in the first place.  If RFPs are not appropriate, for instance, how do you find the consultants to participate in the alternative selection process. 

Cohen writes that nonprofits looking for consultants can go to websites that list consultants or they can check with organizations such as the Association of Fundraising Professionals  to identify consultants with expertise in their fields of interest.  But those organizations generally don’t post specific consulting opportunities.  Thus, while nonprofits can often locate consultants through those sites, they cannot, or don’t, generally post specific consulting opportunities on them. 

In a Listserv discussion I started recently on CharityChannel, Jane Garthson commented that in Canada, nonprofit websites such as Charity Village (at http://www.charityvillage.com/cv/main.asp) and the Association of Cultural Executives (ACE) (at http://www.acecontact.org/) do post RFPs for management consultants. 

I went on the Charity Village  and the ACE sites, which do, indeed, have RFP postings on them.  However, the day I checked, there were not many such postings on either one.  There were only two RFPs posted on the Charity Village site on October 30, when I last checked.  There was only one current RFP posted that day on the ACE site.  That site did have a series of tips for writing an RFP.

 In Ireland, the public procurement site for central and local governments at www.etenders.gov, often has RFPs of interest to nonprofit management consultants, according to John Everett of Smith Everett & Associates in Dublin.  Everett also mentioned a link dedicated to the community and voluntary sector in Ireland — www.activelink.ie.  

But in the U.S., government and private-sector websites do not generally list nonprofit consulting or job opportunities.  At the federal level for instance, Federal Business Opportunities at www.fbo.gov,  is the government’s point of entry for federal government procurement opportunities over $25,000.  There are no nonprofit opportunities posted there. 

A privately run RFP site that caters to both public and private-sector organizations is The Request for Proposals Database at http://www.rfpdb.com/.   This site has a section for RFPs posted by government agencies and a separate section for RFPs for business services.  But that site also does not appear to have any solicitations for nonprofit consulting services.  

As mentioned, there are a myriad of websites that list full-time positions at nonprofit organizations.  Sites such as  www.opportunityknocks.org , www.idealist.org, the Philanthropy Journal (at http://www.philanthropyjournal.org/), and CharityChannel list jobs available at nonprofits around the country.  You can search for contract positions as well on those websites.  But when I did a search on Opportunity Knocks on October 15  for contract positions throughout the U.S., I came up with only five results, and none of them were for management or strategic planning contract services.  One was to undertake a database migration project, another for accouting services, a third to implement a technology training course, another to oversee a preschool pilot program, and the fifth was to manage corporate giving and sponsorship programs for a nonprofit. 

CharityChannel, similarly lists few contract opportunities among its posted nonprofit-sector jobs.  Stephen Nill, founder and director of CharityChannel, acknowleged that “we have a gap.” 

So, what is the reason for that gap?  Why the mystery?  I decided to ask some nonprofits directly how they go about searching for both consultants and full-time staff.  I randomly selected 20 nonprofits in Massachusetts out of a listing of more than 4,000 organizations on Idealist.org.  I only got two responses from my admittedly small sample. 

One of the two that responded– the Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition — advertises infrequently for consultants; and when they do so, they advertise in their own e-newsletter or on their own website.   On the other hand, that same organization places ads on a wide variety of environmental and other websites for full-time staff positions.  I followed up, asking the reason for the difference, but I didn’t get a response from them.

 The other respondant to my survey reported that it never uses consultants. 

I’ll conclude with three recommendations: 

1.  Nonprofits should look for management and other consultants in the same systematic way that they look for full-time staff.  In other words, they should post advertisements for those consultants on the same websites that they use to seek full-time staff. 

2. Websites that post full-time, nonprofit job opportunities should also actively seek postings for consultants. 

3.  Those websites referred to in Recommendation 2 above should also post RFPs or alternative descriptions of consultant services needed by nonprofit organizations. 

My hope is that implementing these recommendations will help standardize the process of selecting both full-time staff and consultants in nonprofit work and thereby improve the quality of the work that gets done.  That may take some of the mystery out of procuring consultants in the nonprofit arena.

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