by Shiree Teng

One day I was in a meeting of consultants, and informal learning group. I was invited to join the group, so I asked to check it out. There were 12, maybe 14 consultants there. We each talked about where we were at with our consulting, places where we’re doing well, places where we felt challenged.

Going around the circle, there was one consultant that said, “I am new to consulting. And I hope that I am not doing harm out there.”

I remember at the moment, when I heard that, my stomach went to the floor. This person has impeccable impressive, progressive credentials. A long-term leader in the work itself, and making the transition to consultant.

I remember hearing that, and feeling so awful. Here she was, she was trying to make this transition. She’s done a lot, knows a lot, but moving into a world of consulting and not knowing what she was doing. She was telling that I don’t know what I’m doing.

I was feeling terrible for her clients. That there are groups out there that she is working with as a paid consultant, and that she might be doing in harm. And in the truest in her authenticity, she was saying that she didn’t know what she was doing.

That was a moment. I had been at the Packard Foundation as PO reading a hundreds of OE capacity building proposals that consultants had written. I had read hundreds of workplans by then. And I was seeing such a huge variation in what people considered – strategic plans, evaluation, fundraising plans.

It was all over the place. It was like walking into a forest and seeing so many different plants.

This industry – has no baselines, not standards, no principles. Very little agreed upon standards of operations, principles, how do people do this? Such a cottage industry! People doing it in their bedrooms, dining rooms. It’s a crazy wild world out there.

I guess at that point, I had been a consultant for 10 years, and I was just starting to understand what I was doing, and building a body of practice and being more clear about what was acceptable or not – to ME.

I would hear a lot of people through their Packard work.

A lot of social sector orgs wanted the Foundations to hand them a list of consultants. They wanted a short list – e.g., if I want to eat Mexican, I’ll go to Yelp, based on that, I would find a place to spend my money. When it comes to social sector consulting, we have nothing that comes close to that.

We have no transparency. We hae no info about what the consumer is experiencing.

From the survey, we found out that there is a huge reticence. People aren’t wiling or ready to do that.

This project is about a step in that direction. To help bring that level of standards. It’s such a frowned upon word.

I’m really talking about the quality of consultants. To raise the quality. To have some accountability measures. I want some level of accountability. I want my clients to review me and say the thigns that they want to say. For me to learn. How do we make more popular? How do we make it more as a norma than an anomaly.

As a consultnat, I realized I have no regular way of getting candid feedback. At best an employee gets an evaluation once a year. So I hired my coach to do a 360 for me. First time was 8 or 9 years ago. So she called 10 of my clients, and got feedback for me, and I found it incredibly helpful. She’s done 3 360s for me already in the last 15 years.

So unless I take the initiative, and I invest in getting that kind of feedback, I won’t get it. If I talk to my consulting colleagues, 98% don’t have that practice. How do you get feedback? How do you know that you’re doing well? How do you know what your blindspots?

I am hoping that this website is one baby step in this direction.

I’m very grateful to the three funding partners. They know because their capacity building model is largely built upon NPOs using consultants. So working upstream with consultants, and raising the quality of consutlatns is a big concern.

And working downstream with NPOs on how to consume consultants. How to hire a childcare provider.

Consulting is more amorphous. It’s not so tangible, it’s largely a relationship between a consultant and an organization. Very few people get to sit in on that relationship.

There’s no third party providing that quality assurance. So it has to be up to that ocnsultant, and that NPO to hold that consultant accountable.

With this site, with these tools and resources, and hopefully starting some dialogue among the folks that come to this site. About what we’re experiencing.

What’s the next step we need to take? Because the ultimate goal is for NPO to be more able to deliver on the promise of their missions so that the entrenched social issues that we care so deeply about can be ameliorated. Hopefully we can make progress on the social issues we care about. That’s the ultimate goal.

So when I put out an idea about a Yelp-like site for consultants. From: Yeah it’s about time! TO: No, how do you guard against libel? How do you guard against things that are true? What is consultant is doing the right thing, but putting pressure on org and may get negative reviews?

Some would not share their deliverables because consultants do not want to be subjected to Yelp. People damage their reputation?

We believe that we are somehow untouchable. People hire you because you have a body of expertise and because people see you as a part of the solution, they give you that kind of reverence.

That has to change. Like walking into the doctor’s office. Hopefully we will be cured. Same sort of attitude has been given to NPO sector consultants, and somehow we have the solution. And some people show up as we are the expert.

I’m totally against that. That’s why we have “No experts.” We may have expertise, but we are not experts. We need to constantly be examining ourselves and evaluating ourselves, just like in any industry.

I was very surprised by those comments. I understood them. Completely. But I was quite surprised by the resistance. That’s a data point about how far we have to go to open up their process for examination and be more transparent about what they’re doing and how they can do it better.

Why are consultants are like that?

I hope that this website will allow us to start that.

Sharing, learning, transparency and accountability for the overall goal of increasing the effectiveness of the nonprofit sector overall.

I want to know what people think.

What are the next steps we need to take to raise the quality of consulting?

What about short lists of consultants? Where do we keep a list of consultants?

– NPO leaders too busy, POs give a list – who keeps and gets on that list?

– What’s the criteria? Who manages that list? Once you have that list, ever consultant wants to be on that list? Then it becomes the white pages and it becomes useless, then that’s a big question?

For new consultants entering the field, how do we bring them up, so that they can do high quality work in the shortest amount of time possible?

I have been in practice for 15 years. Should I pull the drawbridge? What can I do to help them? Or should they learn to walk without shoes? What does this pipeline look like? How do we develop that?

I would love to hear what others think. I am super excited about the Bill of Rights.

It puts down some things that are really important.

What else needs to go in there? Is that the right name? That’s my invitation of continuing this dialogue.

Shiree Teng has worked in the social sector for 35 years as a social and racial justice champion – as a frontline organizer, network facilitator, capacity builder, grantmaker, and evaluator and learning partner. 

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