Common mistakes nonprofits make when hiring technology consultantsWorking with a consultant gives you access to specialized knowledge and new ideas for leveraging technology. The following seven steps can help you avoid two common mistakes in hiring consultants: duplicating internal resources, and trying to hire someone in crisis mode after your systems break down.
1. Create a technology plan
You can save money when the scope of the consultant's work is well defined — and tightly aligned with your organization's mission and vision. This calls for an overall technology plan.
A good plan addresses these questions:
- What technology — hardware, software and networks — do we currently use?
- What data do we need to build better relationships with donors, clients, volunteers and other constituents?
- What data do we need to effectively track our finances, manage our staff and measure outcomes?
- What workflows do we need to collect, maintain and act on the basis of all that data?
- How well do we manage the "back end" — our systems for maintenance, backup and training staff members to use technology?
Write specific goals for eliminating gaps between your current capacity and where you want to be in three to five years. Then rank goals by priority.
2. Determine your internal sources of support
Now look at your top-ranked goals. Can you meet them with current resources instead of hiring a consultant? Those resources might include:
- Equipment warranties
- Documentation that came with your hardware and software
- Technical support from your vendors
- Expertise from staff members and volunteers
- Online searches or communities, such as the Nonprofit Technology Network forums
3. Consider hiring a system administrator instead of a consultant
If your technology goal relates to routine maintenance and technical support, consider hiring a full- or part-time system administrator for this purpose. Relying on a consultant for such ongoing tasks can be expensive.
Consultants are generally a better fit for projects that you don't expect to do on a regular basis. Examples include:
- Installing a complex database
- Setting up a new network
- Creating a full-featured website
- Customizing open source software
An exception to this guideline occurs when consultants do follow-up as part of their contract. For example, your hardware vendor might offer a specific number of site visits and monthly support calls for the first year after your purchase. Or, a consultant who installs a network might maintain it for a monthly fee. Negotiate for competitive rates.
4. Describe your ideal consultant
Consultants come in two basic forms: as individuals, and as firms with teams of professionals. You might get lower rates from individuals. On the other hand, firms might have people with a variety of specialties who can help you with different kinds of projects.
Consultants may be local or distant. A consultant who's located close to you might offer more in-person time and relationship building. When a project calls for specialized skills, however, consider casting a wider net. Find a consultant who's the best fit for the project, no matter where he or she is located.
5. Ask for referrals
If you conclude that hiring a consultant is the best way to reach your technology goals, then your next task is to ask for referrals. Sources include:
- Board members
- Staff members
- Online forums
- Offline networks
- Foundations with lists of trusted consultants and in-house technical support
These folks might have connections that translate into discounted consulting rates.
6. Interview consultants
When you have a list of potential consultants, send each one a brief description of your project. Include the desired outcome, timeline and budget.
After reviewing the replies to your project description, contact at least three consultants for a personal chat. Some important questions to ask are:
- Do you have experience in working with nonprofits? If so, what types?
- Have you worked on projects similar to this one? If so, what were the outcomes?
- What steps would you take to complete this project?
- Do you expect our staff members to play a role in this project? If so, what specifically would they do?
- Do you charge by the project, by the hour or some combination of these rates?
- What changes in the scope of this project would lead to a change in your fee?
- May we contact some of your clients for references and samples of your work?
- Do you carry general liability insurance or insurance for errors and omissions or professional liability?
If you're interviewing a consulting firm, then speak with the people who'll actually do your project.
7. Contract with your top candidate
After choosing the consultant you want to hire, expand your project description into a detailed work agreement. For big projects, tie payments to reaching specific milestones.
Also list the conditions that'll allow you or the consultant to modify the contract. This clause makes it easier to resolve conflict, respond to changing conditions — and build a consulting relationship that lasts.
TechSoup: When to use consultants by Kevin Lo (2012)
TechSoup: How to choose and work with technology consultants by Dan Rivas (2015)
TechSoup: Choosing the right consultant by Becky Wiegand (2012)