To deliver the most value to your members, does it feel like you're doing a lot more with a lot less? Every association and chamber of commerce is going through the same thing. With everyone stretched thin, when it comes to strategic planning or major investment decisions you may not have the expertise on staff to make key decisions to help your association grow.
Like good management teams in the for-profit world, association executives sometimes need to engage an outside party for a fresh perspective on the association's business.
For instance, when it's time to develop a strategic plan or tackle vital legislative issues, experienced consultants may be able to guide the organization to success in a more efficient manner. Major initiatives that could shake up the organization, such as a branding campaign, logo redesign or selecting association management software can sometimes benefit from input from an experienced third-party consultant.
Knowing when to engage a consultant can be tricky for sure. Here are a few time-tested tips to help you get the most from a relationship with a consultant.
Decide who to engage
Decide whether you need a consultant or a vendor. Generally, a vendor sells a product or service, while a consultant will help solve your problem regardless of the products used. Granted, it can be hard to tell the difference. And sometimes a vendor can take on a consultative role. Make sure you understand the nature of the company and people you're engaging. A consultant may be more concerned about billable hours rather than offering a real solution to a problem. And a vendor should seek to understand your organization's needs and goals before offering any solutions.
Define the relationship
Be clear about what role you want the consultant to take on in your organization. Will the person present to the board or at the annual conference? Or would you prefer they stay behind the scenes, providing advice and counsel that the staff presents within the organization? A high profile lobbying consultant could energize the membership to become involved in a legislative issue. On the other hand, the consultant may be involved in issues that really matter only to the staff. Be clear on whether the consultant should contact members or board members directly or must go through the staff.
Establish goals and deadlines
Be clear about deliverables and deadlines that the consultant owes the group and vice versa. If there's a meeting where the five-year strategic plan will be presented to the board, make sure everyone knows what's expected of them. If the consultant should have three recommendations for association management software for the next staff meeting, be clear what's needed and when to drive the decision. Include checkpoints along the way to review progress and ensure there's time to recover from a problem.
Be a good client
For the most cost effective engagement, the hiring organization should follow the same guidelines as the consultant. Avoid scope creep, where the project oozes beyond its original boundaries. Assign a point of contact with the organization who can respond to questions and drive the project. The board president or executive director may not be the best person for day-to-day interactions.
Figure out the best way to communicate and ensure confirmation and understanding. There's more to good communication than firing off an email.
Learn to trust
A good relationship is a two-way street. Expect the consultant to keep your business confidential, and do the same for them. Living up to commitments from the beginning is the best way to establish trust. Take time up front to educate the consultant about your organization and its challenges. Also listen to the consultant explain his or her thoughts and process. Going back to defining the relationship, a good consultant knows when to stay out of the limelight or step up to support a decision.
Engaging a consultant is not the right choice for every association, but it can be a savvy strategic move if the organization is ready.
What experiences has your association had when working with a consultant?