Three Consulting Commandments

July 14, 2018

As a consultant, defining for myself my personal and business philosophies has been liberating. I get to choose what I stand for / against. I get to define for my business where our boundaries and ethics are drawn in the sand. I want to share my business philosophies; It’s almost like the 10 Commandments:

  1. First, do no harm [to the organization].
  2. Leave the organization better than you found it.
  3. Offer counsel every step of the way, even if they are not yet (or will not be) a client.

Okay, so maybe 3 Commandments. Let me explain:

First, do no harm [to the organization].

I know what it’s like to be at the organization when you look to the bank account and see a 0 or even a negative number, and a payroll is looming. I’ve been at the leadership table when this has happened at both small  “white” institutions and small “POC” institutions (I will continue to use these terms without quotations). The cash flow problem is not necessarily a raced issue, but what happens, and after, necessarily is. From my experience, for the white institution, there is usually someone or someones (plural) who can write a check to provide a cushion to the zero-balance bank account. That person could be on the board, but just hasn’t been engaged enough to know this was coming. That person could be on the staff (true story). That person could be in the orbit of the organization that the leadership can call on to write the check. SURELY getting to that point suggests a different kind of mismanagement (of time, fundraising activities, fundraising priorities, expense priorities, etc), but, it’s resolved rather quickly and payrolls happen! For the POC institution, very rarely do they have someone in their orbit that can mobilize a hefty amount of funds in a short amount of time. So payrolls get missed.

So you can imagine how important literally every penny is for the organizations I want to work with. I know this coming into the engagement, and I am small enough as a business to provide Development Director level support, strategy, and plans for a fraction of the costs.

Twice now in my tenure as a full-time consultant, I have listened to the woes of my client re: payroll and cash flow. Twice, I have offered that perhaps we should re-scope my agreement, put it on pause, or terminate it all together.

Yes, ultimately this means something to my bottom line. I’m not going to lie. Yes, I could hold the client to the original contract and be a stickler (more on this!) about it. But that would be first, doing harm. So I lean almost always on a lesson from my Swahili teacher in college: “If you try to win now, you’ll lose later.” So I take the “loss” and every time that income has been replaced.

Leave the organization better than you found it.

I know one and two look like the same thing, and maybe they are, but I want to separate them.  Let me tell you a story (it is a continuation from number 1): once, I joined an organization who had already contracted (before hiring me) a consultant who professed to be a one-stop-shop (also: lesson! specialize!) for fundraising, especially fundraising events. I fully believe that organizations under $1M should not have anything that is called a “Gala” but I roll with clients, too. Meet them where they are, and such.

Anyways, this consultant charged an astronomical amount JUST FOR THE PLANNING of the event, which meant that we (the client) would pay for subcontractors, vendors, etc etc. This is not unusual. What is unusual is the amount the consultant charged, and the amount the organization agreed to pay, and then hired someone who effectively made the consultant superfluous, and then refused to back out of the consultant contract.

Sensing that I knew how to run events, and because I slashed and burned some of the expensive suggestions for the event to bring the costs down, the consultant effectively turned into a really expensive administrative assistant: performing data entry, scheduling calls. All of the things that they had promised to the organization they would deliver had not been delivered and in my estimation would not be (lesson: don’t promise what is impossible to deliver, even if you think you need to say it to win the client! It’s not worth it. Don’t try to win now!).

After the event, the consultant apologized, as he should, for not delivering on what he promised, and when I suggested that he forego the final installment because continuing to move forward with him even when he knew it was doing harm to the organization put us further into the hole, and he could have stepped away, suggested a change of course, or something. He agreed, apologized. He then insisted we still pay the last payment, and then suggested he would do a future event for free. You can BET I’m not calling nor referring him again!

Another short story: I’ve had the pleasure of being the consultant behind a bigger consulting firm at a few organizations. This firm does a better job of making the client feel good about the investment, and finishes the contract with everyone in smiles and ready to go! Then the organizations summarily slides the strategic plans, the spreadsheets, the meeting agendas, the analysis etc into the file cabinet and reverts back to the organization they were before. You might say: Oh! But they didn’t leave it worse than they found it. But they did! The organization could have used those thousands of dollars to invest in staff. Instead of paper plans, the consultant could have helped the organization move to actionable steps and goals. For example instead of saying “recruit 5 board members by Q3” on a list of goals the organization now supposedly had the “skills” to complete, the consultant could have walked them through it, and helped secure 1-2 board members, and left “recruit 3 more board members”.

Stacks of paper that will be filed away and forgotten or told to the next consultant “we did that already” is not leaving the organization better than you found it.

Offer counsel every step of the way, even if they are not yet (or will not be) a client.

Even as I was transitioning out of the contract with the organizations from #1, I still offered suggestions and counsel as if I were still a contracted consultant. It’s true, working with cultural organizations is truly my heart-work, and I guess you could say I happen to get paid part of the time for it :). It feeds into my #2, leaving the organization better than I found it. And, I just find that if folks listen to the one or two little nuggets, they’ll feel good about me, and maybe we’ll one day work together. Even if not, I’m still trying to make sure they win. We desperately need culture to win more these days, you know?

 

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