How to Find The Right Consultant

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by Molly Penn

Finding the right consultant can be daunting.  Consultants have different styles and approaches.  What is “good” for you may be bad for someone else.  The first step is to identify what feels like the right style for your needs, and to ask the consultants you are evaluating about their approach.  Some projects require insights from data that can be used to inform future decisions.  Some projects require hearing from those you serve and aligning stakeholders around a common vision.  Both are very helpful, just in different situations.  We’ll share some stories (anonymized) of examples of clients who did not assess their needs prior to hiring a consultant and where things went wrong:

Data-Driven Insight

A food pantry came to a consultant for a strategic plan after they had worked with a more corporate, analytical firm on their last strategic plan.  While they felt at the time that it yielded a good plan, in retrospect, they  now felt ready for a different approach. However, their culture kept pulling them back towards data-driven decision-making.  They did not trust their human judgment and felt much more comfortable being able to point the the source of their decision in data.  That was not the consultant’s style of consulting, and while they knew that when they hired them, it was a bumpy ride because they wanted skills the consultant did not bring.  They found them in a board member on the planning committee, so ultimately, the consultant worked together with the board member on those pieces, and in the end, produced a good plan for them.  That was an example of a poor fit – the client didn’t know themselves well enough to articulate what kind of consultant they wanted.

Facilitative Approach

Another organization with a large staff and many clients wanted a massive set of stakeholder conversations as a precursor to a planning process.  They were clear that they wanted to give all of their stakeholders (clients and staff) the opportunity to have their voices heard.  What they were less clear on was what they wanted to do with all of that information.  As a result, the conversations happened, but in some cases, they were venting or wish-list sessions rather than being steered towards questions pertinent to their future plans.  The consultant produced a report that surfaced key themes, but the phase II of the project (the planning part) never happened.  That was an example again of a client that had not articulated their needs clearly enough to know what they were going to do with all the information they collected.  This likely left their stakeholders frustrated at being asked for input only to see no action as a result.

At PENN Creative Strategy, we use tools and facilitation combined as our approach to change and transformation projects.  We are not data scientists and don’t bring the capacity to comb through data and discern insights.  When that is required, we typically outsource that to another consultant in our network who is trained in that science.

How to Find the Right Consultant: The Value of Tools

Tools (or frameworks or any kind of analysis of data) can be very helpful in helping clients understand their situation from a new perspective, in part by visualizing their work in a way that shines light on new ideas or considerations.  We are all visual learners – visuals are a wonderful way of presenting complex information so the “reader” can immediately understand what the visual is saying.  Depending on the situation and the client, we do draw on tools to support our work, such as:

Mission/Money Matrix

The Mission/Money Matrix is a visualization of an organization’s portfolio of programs and activities. Steve Zimmerman and Jeanne Bell, writing in the Nonprofit Quarterly in 2014, outline just why this resource can be so powerful: It is “a visual tool that plots all of the organization’s activities—not just its programs—in a single, compelling image”

MacMillan Matrix

In organizations with a complex variety of programs, it can be useful to utilize a MacMillan Matrix.  According to the MacMillan Matrix, a tool developed by Ian MacMillan at the Wharton School of Business, there are four criteria used to determine whether to grow, stop, or share a program: mission and ability fit, program attractiveness, saturation, and competitive advantage.

SWOT Analysis

A SWOT Analysis is a tool that can help you to analyze what your company does best now, and to devise a successful strategy for the future. SWOT can also uncover areas of the business that are holding you back, are threatened, or that could give others a competitive advantage.  SWOT is a quick way to assess the organization’s current state as a starting point for planning.

Organizational Assessment

To obtain a clear picture of the current state of leadership, learning, oversight, planning, management and resource generation activities in organizations, we use a widely accepted survey called the iCAT (Impact Capacity Assessment Tool).  This gives us clear and detailed readings on the level of these various capacities the organization has built at any point in time so we can build from there.

How to Find The Right Consultant: The Importance of Process

For us, the process is the secret sauce of success when it comes to managing any kind of consulting engagement.  At the end of the day, in the nonprofit sector, we are dealing with people and passion first and foremost.  We don’t believe you can divorce human feelings, biases, and passions from any kind of decision making process.  Just look at any board of directors – you will find some members lean toward sharply analytical data, while others bring their passion and connect to the idea of heart-driven decisions.  Both are important in the nonprofit sector, known for its dual bottom line of profit and mission impact.  Similarly, we believe being well-versed in both approaches is vital to the success of any consulting engagement.  At PENN Creative Strategy, we don’t hire consultants for their analytical ability – tools can be taught – we hire them for their attunement to the human aspects of change work and we train them in facilitation.  In running change and transformation engagements, we draw on the following approaches to the process:

Appreciative Inquiry

Science shows our brains are more effective when flooded with Oxitocin – the horemone associated with empathy, bonding and communication.  Appreciative Inquiry is a process approach that is grounded in emphasizing the most positive aspects of a system and building upon those.  Appreciative Inquiry is an asset-based approach to organizational and social engagement that utilizes questions and dialogue to help participants uncover existing strengths, advantages, or opportunities in their communities, organizations, or teams.  We are trained in Appreciative Inquiry methods and approaches and adept at employing them to help unlock transformation in organizations.

Technology of Participation

Technology of Participation (ToP) is a powerful collection of structured facilitation methods that transform the way groups think, talk and work together.  They enable highly energized, inclusive and meaningful group collaboration that lead to successful outcomes.  ToP Methods support genuine participation, which leads to long term commitment and quality outcomes, as well as more effective teamwork. ToP Methods recognize and honor contributions from all group members, identify commonalities and pool contributions into useful patterns – all while welcoming diversity and minimizing conflict.  We are trained in ToP Methodology and the ToP approach to Strategic Planning and weave these approaches into all of our facilitation work.


Facilitation is about leading meetings, remaining content neutral while focusing on the process the group follows to reach consensus and achieve alignment.  While anyone who is emotionally intelligent can facilitate, trained facilitators know how to handle conflict when it arises so it does not derail the conversation, and know how to guide groups gently through a series of structured exercises to help them make decisions.  It is this art and science blend that makes facilitation a unique skill crucial to running consulting processes.  Our consultants all adopt a facilitative approach to change management and to running crucial transformation projects.  Most important to any change or transformation process is to move the group of diverse people towards alignment.  That takes time, practice, understanding of group dynamics, and training.

How to Find the Right Consultant: Experience!

When selecting a consultant, experience is a great predictor of value.  The more experience a consultant has doing the kind of consulting you are seeking, the greater their mental library of resources.  They have great examples of what works and does not work from other clients they have worked with.  The longer they have been practicing, the more clients they have worked with.  So review their client list and seek out those who have worked with a variety of types and sizes of organizations – they will bring all of that experience to bear in your situation, making them an invaluable resource compared with someone just starting out or who has been with the same organization for years.

Often, in consulting projects, we are required to use both of these skill sets – and over our 25+ years in this business we have honed both approaches.  It is important for us to be clear about when we are wearing the consultant hat (analytical, tool-driven insights to the organization) and when we are wearing the facilitator hat (as in running the process of a meeting, or tending to dissent or conflict that arises).  Often within one meeting, we have to toggle back and forth between these approaches.

Next time you are looking for a consultant, ask them what kind of consulting approach they use.  You will learn a great deal about whether they are the right fit for your needs.  If our description of experience and a facilitative approach resonates with you, give us a call!



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