Casting Call for Consultants

Nine essentials for hiring

When hiring a consultant, everyone’s time will be wasted if you haven’t done your homework and aren’t prepared to manage the hiring process. Advancement professionals with responsibility for preparing requests for proposals, procuring consulting services, and managing the consulting process will find this list of nine tips useful. Among them: Understand your needs in advance; Make your REP work; Ask the right questions in the interview; and Establish trust.

By Andrea Jarrell

A well-known joke about consultants goes something like this: A consultant borrows your watch to tell you the time. No matter whose watch you're looking at, everyone's time will be wasted if you haven't done your homework and aren't prepared to manage the hiring process.

Here are nine tips to ensure that a consulting relationship adds value to your advancement program.

1. Know what and why. Outside expertise comes in all shapes and sizes, from one-person studios to international firms. Do you need to outsource a project to a skill-specific shop or do you need a full-service consulting agency? Bernice Thieblot, co-founder and creative director of the North Charles Street Design Organization, answers this way: "If you know what needs to be done and how to do it, but you need someone to execute your ideas, seek an individual or firm with that specific capability. If you're looking for fresh insights and ideas as well as the experience and diplomacy to help you sell a program internally, you need a consultant."

Phillips Exeter Academy Director of Communications Julie Quinn turned to a consultant to undertake a comprehensive marketing effort. "We knew that the scope of the job — compiling and analyzing data and creating a flexible, comprehensive plan — was too big for our small office," she says. "We were eager to have an outside assessment of what our core messages were or should be and how we were or were not delivering them. We were also interested in misconceptions — what they were and how we could allay them."

Robert D. Sweeney, senior vice president for development and public affairs at the University of Virginia, says his institution's 27 separately incorporated foundations make it one of the most complex development structures in the United States. "Most consultants won't be able to tell me anything new about the mechanical elements of fund raising, but a good consultant can help me with political issues," he says. "The right consultant adds tremendous value when he or she helps me think through the way to position certain issues with the board or president, giving me insight about national trends I can point to when I try to validate my case."

2. Check the relevancy of a consultant's experience. John Cash, a senior consultant at Marts & Lundy and former chief development officer and campaign director at the University of California, Berkeley, is emphatic on this point. "You want to be sure the person really knows his or her stuff. That is the basis upon which everything else is built," Cash says. Sweeney adds, "For me it doesn't matter that a consultant has had great success with a museum. The consultants that have credibility with me are the ones who have had not only experience, but success at major public research universities at the very highest level."

3. Make your RFP work. The point of a request for proposals is to invite prospective firms to propose approaches and fees for projects. But as Joe Clayton, president and chief operating officer of Widmeyer Communications says, "There's a huge difference from one RFP to another."

Specificity is essential. "The RFP can be shopped around to many constituencies to get early buy-in on what the consultant will be asked to do, to whom he or she will be accountable, and what the benchmarks are for success," says Exeter's Quinn. "An RFP puts everyone — consultant and campus constituencies — on the same page, literally and figuratively, from the beginning," she adds.

A well-written RFP highlights specific areas that need help, Cash says. "People should be candid about whether they're expecting a consultant to assess the readiness of the staff to undertake fund raising or whether the organization needs major-gift counseling or help with prospect development."

He adds that honesty in an RFP about what the institution is willing to spend is helpful, too. "If an organization is really looking at keeping the number low, it's not fair to look at top-level national firms that will expend significant time and effort putting proposals together."

Clayton advises borrowing an RFP if you are writing one for the first time. "Don't be afraid to take advantage of the fact that someone's gone through this process before and to get his or her advice." (For a sample of Julie Quinn's RFPs, e-mail her at

4. Have your cake and RFP, too. "The problem with RFPs," says Tom Sternal, creative director at Jan Krukowski and Co., "is that they attempt to get prospects to bid on the same 'product' but often they haven't determined what that is until they've talked with different consultants. For example, if an institution is interested in growing the size of its applicant pool, it might not yet have figured out how best to communicate with soft inquirers. It would be nearsighted to put out an RFP for developing a new Web site if research determines that the Web is not the most effective source of information for a specific audience." He suggests making a list of the consultants an institution might consider, clearly stating goals and obstacles, and interviewing firms to learn about their approaches and see how they fit with your institution's culture.

Quinn takes advantage of many of the steps Sternal suggests as part of a prescreening process to develop an RFP. "If you screen well, you'll send the RFP only to companies you are pretty sure can do the job."

5. Ask the right questions in the interview. A kind of tension exists in the interview between personality and specificity, Cash says. "I've been on the client side, and now I've been through a number of interviews on the other side of the table," he says. "You want a personality you can feel comfortable with, but you don't want to be snowed by a charming consultant who knows how to be winning." He suggests that consultants describe their daily contact with clients to help reveal how they create a sense of trust over time.

Widmeyer's Clayton adds that an interview should be as much about qualifications and capabilities as it is about a particular firm's proposal. "Just because you haven't hired the firm yet doesn't mean you can't ask them for preliminary thoughts on your situation. If a consulting team can't do that, it's a warning that they either aren't as familiar with your environment as they should be or perhaps they don't have the right staff people in the mix."

Have frank discussions about money and how it relates to the project. "You can foreshadow that in your RFP, but you can also ask for it," Clayton says.

North Charles Street Design Organization's Web site ( offers "Tough Questions To Ask a Consultant." They include specifics about money, deadlines, responsibilities, and ethics: Would you work for our competitors? How often do you review your progress? How often do bills come and how are they itemized? What happens if you make a mistake or miss a deadline? Who owns what? These questions can serve as guidelines in developing the contract, too.

6. Dance with the one who brung you. Make sure that the representatives of the firms you are interviewing are those with whom you will be working. Clayton says some agencies will pitch with two or three senior people who are good at it and assign others to actually do the work. He acknowledges that some firms find it difficult to identify the consultants who will be working on your project for the next several months. Also, he says, "Sometimes people who are involved in other full-time projects might become available and would be perfect for part of a large project."

He advises finding out who will be the lead person on your account, as well as gauging from the outset the firm's mid-level talent. "Try to get a sense of the capabilities of the mid-level staff because they will often serve a day-to-day account management role and you need to be comfortable with them."

7. Find someone you like. After the consultants have left the room, says Marts & Lundy's Cash, you and your colleagues should discuss whether you really want to spend time with these people. "Once you assume that they've got the experience, the deciding factor has got to be whether the consultant is somebody you're comfortable with and whether your donors and volunteers are going to be comfortable talking to them."

8. Get it in writing. Most institutions require a standard-format contract for hiring a consultant. Such contracts should clarify the responsibilities of both parties, describe deliverables, and include a schedule, fees, a billing schedule, a procedure and fee if the project is canceled, and a statement of ownership for creative materials.

9. Establish trust. "The moment counsel is hired, it's absolutely essential that trust be established," Cash says. "If that doesn't happen, the partnership really can't exist."

This article is from the January 2002 CURRENTS.