Russell Dennis

  Russell Dennis


Consultants are everywhere! Their skill levels are as varied as the subject matter areas they cover. A consultant is a person who provides expert advice professionally in a chosen area of expertise. The best consultants are not just technically competent, they are trustworthy. These folks operate from a place of integrity, know what they are capable of accomplishing, and are masters of engagement. They build relationships based on maximum service to their clients.

Effective consultants are active listeners who do not always appear to have all the answers, but they ask the best questions. When you converse with these people about your project, they seem to ask a lot of questions. They record what you are saying or scribble furiously on a notepad. They may even ask the same questions again, or recite things back to you from your responses to those questions.

If this is the case, please be patient. This is what I call active listening. They are working to learn as much as possible about your situation before offering answers you seek. This is often preferable to some, instead of having them recite a long list of accomplishments and qualifications before asking you something more than your name and the name of your organization.

On the other hand, you may want to know more about who you are dealing with before divulging information about your organization. Either is fine, as good consultants will adapt to the preferences of the prospective client or customer. Before talking to a consultant, it’s a good idea to be clear on what it is you want to accomplish and why using an outside expert makes sense, considering your situation.

In their book The Trusted Advisor, authors David H. Maister, Charles H. Green, and Robert M. Galford outline 22 traits that the most effective and trustworthy consultants possess. They also outline the evolution of relationships that take place before mere consultants become trusted advisors. Here are seven questions you should ask to determine if taking the time and effort to build this type of relationship is worthwhile.

1. What am I trying to accomplish that can’t be done with the people and resources I already have on hand?

Nonprofits rely heavily on the skills, talent, and knowledge people serving on the board of directors, advisors, staff, and servant leaders possess to move their missions forward. Assembling the best team available is part of building a solid foundation for operating a high-performance nonprofit. The consultant should fill a gap the core nonprofit team identifies in the initial inventory of human assets. This person must deliver something the organization can’t get without them.

2. Who have you worked with over the last 6 months, three years, and five years?

The key here is to find people who have worked with the consultant both over time and recently. There should be willingness to have these people talk openly about the experience they’ve had working with the consultant.

3. What is the value, in terms of deliverables, impact, and processes we will co-create with your help?

This question will give you a good idea of just how much the consultant knows about what matters to you. By the time they enter your office, they should have done some preliminary research and spent at least 30 to 60 minutes asking questions about your organization and situation. The consultant’s solution should be based on your needs.

4. What special experience, knowledge, skills, and abilities make you the one who can help us meet our challenges?

You should be confident this person has seen and helped others solve problems like those that made you contact them in the first place. The individual you talk to does not have to know everything, if his or her team of collaborative partners can deliver. They are transparent about areas they can and can’t help you. They will not force themselves on you if there is not a fit.

5. What is my investment for your solution?

While this varies greatly based on the experience, knowledge, skill, and ability of the consultant, your needs are the primary driver of what you will spend. More of these attributes directly related to what you hire them for means less time spent getting the results you need. Many will have a basic price structure in mind based on the type of work performed. Investment does not end with money in these cases. You will need to dedicate other resources (time and people) to get things done.

6. What are the typical terms of your agreement?

If you work with numerous independent contractors, you may have created your own agreements. Most consultants like to use their own agreements. I like the starting point outlined in The Book of Agreement: 10 Essential Elements for Getting the Results You Want by Stewart Levine. These elements should be present in every agreement. Customizing yours, based on what you are trying to accomplish, can make them stronger for both parties. As always, your attorney should always review them before you begin! These elements are:

  1. Intent and Vision
  2. Roles
  3. Promises
  4. Time/Value
  5. Measurements of Satisfaction
  6. Concerns and Fears
  7. Renegotiation
  8. Consequences
  9. Conflict Resolution
  10. Agreement

7. Who owns the product or process?

If your project will involve the creation of intellectual property of some sort, it’s critical to find out where the ownership resides. You are likely to invest more if ownership is turned over to your organization, but much depends on how you will use it. This, like the agreement, should be customized to meet your needs and reviewed thoroughly by your attorney. The process of engagement from start to finish is a mutual act of co-creation. You are producing something you need outside assistance for, to get the desired result. The best consultants are good at tapping into the genius within your organization. Ultimately, they will not try to engage you if they are not a proper fit for your organization.

Russell Dennis is CEO of RD Dennis Enterprises, LLC. He is host of the Nonprofit Culture of Success Show and Co-host of SynerVision Leadership Foundation’s Nonprofit Exchange Podcast. He creates customized tools that are easy to access, understand, and use to help social profits raise more funds and attract more support for their missions. You can find him at and at user name RmanRussDen on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. Go to to schedule a complimentary consultation.

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Join Hugh Ballou and Russell Dennis and their guests on our weekly Tuesday afternoon Nonprofit Exchange at 2 pm Eastern time.
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