From the Jim Joseph Foundation

Best Practices for Selecting the Right Consultants for a Job

– by Jim Joseph Foundation

July 10th, 2023

Retaining consultants with expertise in different areas enables the Jim Joseph Foundation to better support grantee-partners and take a more holistic approach to philanthropy. Whether looking for consultants for evaluation and research, strategic planning, event facilitation or any other specialized area, we crowd-sourced ideas from our team to think about best practices borne from our own experience hiring consultants and from supporting many grantee partners through this process. In the spirit of helping others in the field, here are some important points to keep in mind when undertaking a process to select a consultant:

Utilize Every Step of the Request for Proposal Process as a Way to Gather Information
Providing a Request for Proposal (RFP) helps ensure clarity around the project and is a space to provide information (and expectations) about the timeline, budget, communications, deliverables and more. Share the RFP with plenty of time before the project starts so potential consultants can develop thoughtful proposals that answer each question with as much detail as possible. For each proposal received, look to see if the potential consultant responded to questions with specificity, unique to your project or if they used a template.

Talk with people who have worked with the consultant (or consultants) before on similar projects to learn about the experience. Find out if the consultants’ work proved to be valuable. If you are considering a larger firm, ask for references who have worked with the specific team or individual who would lead your project.

Also be sure to have one-on-one conversations with potential consultants either before or after they submit a proposal. Do the consultants follow up with clarifying questions and show interest in the project? Do they validate your questions and address your concerns? Do they communicate well and in a timely manner? Do they “get” you and what you are trying to accomplish? You can learn a lot both by the knowledge the consultant shares and the ways in which they share it.

Find Out Who is Doing the Work
If the potential consultants are part of a larger firm, ask to know who exactly will be working on your project and communicating with you regularly. A client-consultant relationship should have a high level of comfort, which leads to a more honest and trusting relationship. You want to be able to ask questions throughout the project, and you might at certain points need to address and resolve conflict and have deep (sometimes vulnerable) conversations. Moreover, while the overall reputation of the firm is important, so too is that of the specific individual or team assigned. Over time, firms can grow, evolve or shift strategies. Make sure the firm’s current reputation reflects accurately on the team who will work on your project.

Be Thoughtful About When to Go Outside of the Jewish World & Remember that Expertise Can Take Many Forms
Our experience is that if the consultancy needed is very specific to Jewish content, it often (not always) is best to hire a consultant with a track record in that space. But for areas like diversity, equity and inclusion, strategic visioning or other projects unrelated to Jewish education and engagement directly, it is beneficial to consider all consultants with the requisite expertise. Your consultant should have a basic understanding of the space in which your organization operates; there should not be a steep learning curve to understand your organization and field. Additionally, do not immediately rule out a proposal that might not look as sophisticated as others. That could simply reflect the consultants not having someone in-house with a strong proposal-writing skill set, which may not be so relevant to the project you need them to do. While there is value in working with consultants who are well known in the space, there is also value in identifying a newer consultant who may bring fresh perspectives.

For Funders, Empower Grantee-Partners to Make Their Own Decision
Grantee-partners often ask who we suggest as a consultant for specific projects. In fact, we keep a list of consultants with whom we worked previously. This makes it easy to offer some suggestions to grantees for initial outreach. And while we are happy to offer some suggestions, and share our experience working with each, we make sure that grantees feel empowered to select a consultant entirely on their own. This helps ensure that grantees have full ownership of their engagement with the consultant, positioning both parties for honest, transparent interactions.

Determine the Optimal Number of Proposals to Consider
Reviewing proposals is an important process but should not be an exceedingly lengthy one. For a larger project, we identify at least two, but ideally three or four, potential consultants for the work. Multiple proposals enables us to compare different possible approaches to a project and provides options for the individual(s) ultimately making the hiring decision. There is such a thing as too many proposals. If you only plan to hire a single consultant, we suggest pre-vetting a select group of potential consultants and inviting that limited group to apply, rather than putting out an open RFP. This increases the likelihood that prospective consultants will want to submit and it is more respectful of the consultants’ time and your time.

When Considering Evaluation Consultants
Evaluation is an integral part of our approach to philanthropy and is increasingly changing and evolving. That in mind, when considering an evaluator or evaluation firm, there are numerous best practices to especially consider (many of which align with best practices for retaining a consult for any work):

  •  Read their previous work. Ask yourself: Is this high quality? Am I easily able to understand the evaluation? Is this previous work relevant to my organization’s work?
  • Consider the makeup of the team. Ask yourself: Does the evaluation team bring the diversity of perspectives your project will require? Does the evaluation team bring a background in or the content expertise that your project requires? Does the team have the capacity to do this work in the time frame you need?
  • Gut check the proposal plan. Ask yourself: Does the budget seem reasonable for the quantity and quality of deliverables? Does the methodology seem well-reasoned and strong? Is there built in time for stakeholder input, reflection and meaning making at multiple points in the project?

No matter which side of the funding relationship you are on, having highly skilled, trusted consultants often is critical to both advancing and elevating your work, and for fundraising. The more information you have, the more likely you are to select the consultant most equipped for your project at hand. And as you build relationships with consultants that are the best fit for your organization, you’ll be well positioned to both maximize opportunities and overcome any challenges you encounter throughout a project together.

originally published in eJewish Philanthropy