Organizational Leadership

Working with Technology Consultants

Nonprofits often get by with versatile staff members willing to tackle new challenges and a lot of help from reliable volunteers. But sometimes you need a level of expertise or experience only a consultant can offer. This is especially true when dealing with technology and data systems. 

Consultants can provide a wide range of benefits to your organization if you understand your goals and know exactly how an outsider can help meet them. Whether you're looking to implement a new system, replace an existing one, or customize software for your organization's particular needs, a consultant can help you think through your options, facilitate implementation, and work with your team to make sure everyone is trained and ready to go with your new technology solution.

However, if you've never worked with a consultant before, it can be challenging to know how to communicate with them and understand their role. Learn to navigate this relationship to ensure that your organization gets what it needs, the project runs smoothly from start to finish, you stay on budget, and everyone feels good about the process.

What Does Your Nonprofit Need from a Consultant?

Before you start your search, it's important to define the scope of the work by mapping out the rough outlines of the project. From there, consider what you'll need a consultant's help with and what you can manage yourself. This process of sorting out tasks and responsibilities has numerous benefits. Not only will it help you explain your project to potential consultants, it can also help you focus on the skills you'll need them to bring to the table.

Once you have a solid grasp of the project and the kind of help you'll need, ask yourself a few questions to help you focus on the kind of consultant you want.

  • Should your consultant be local? It may be easier to work with someone face-to-face. Someone who works locally can learn more quickly about your organization and collaborate more directly, if she or he can meet you in person. However, depending on where your offices are located, sticking with someone in town may severely limit your options, especially if you're searching for a specific skill set or have a tight budget.
  • Should you work with an individual or a consulting firm? Working with an individual can significantly lower your costs and ensure that your project gets the focused attention it needs; but it's also somewhat risky. A consulting firm is much less likely to drop your work for a more exciting project or decide to take a month's vacation at a critical time. You can usually count on a firm for the long haul. Firms also have project management support to help you work through the process, and their experience with a wide range of organizations and projects means you're less likely to encounter surprises.
  • Do you need a generalist or a specialist? If you're just starting out with a new technology and need basic support for your implementation, then a generalist may be able to help you get started. If your project is focused on one technology or one aspect of a technology, or you're wanting to develop more specific capabilities, then a specialist might be best for you. However, don't rule out the possibility that you may need multiple consultants for far-reaching or complex projects.

How Do You Find the Right Consultant for the Job?

Now that you know what you want your consultant to do and have put parameters on your search, the next step is to find the best fit for your organization. How do you find consultants qualified to help with your project?

One simple way is through referrals. Reach out to other organizations to find out about their experiences and to ask who they've worked with and how well they liked them. Past clients can provide insight about how well consultants were able to handle projects and can bring up any issues to look out for. Board members and staff may also have useful connections and may be able to help you get a lower rate.

You can also search lists provided by state associations, organizations that support your community, and other directories. If your organization receives funding from foundations, check with them to see if they have in-house technical assistance, retain outside consultants, or can refer you to a trusted consultant. You may find valuable perspectives in one of TechSoup's community forums. TechSoup has also partnered with several nonprofit consulting groups and service providers to offer consulting services through its IT Support and Services program.

Once you have a list of consultants you're interested in, get in touch with them and send a one-page description of your project that includes goals, needed skills, your budget range, and if applicable, your openness to work with multiple consultants.

Next, schedule interviews to learn more about the candidates' backgrounds and skill sets. Make sure that the consultant explains the work in a way that is clear and easy for you to understand. This will help avoid miscommunications in the future and is a good test of how knowledgeable he or she is on the topic. 

Some organizations put out requests for proposals (RFPs). However, many established firms and individual consultants—including those most likely to meet your needs—may not choose to invest the substantial time necessary to answer an RFP when they don't know how likely they are to win your business.

Don't forget to ask for references and follow up with them. You can ask whether the consultant did similar work for the reference, whether the consultant finished on time and on budget, whether the reference was happy with the work, and whether they would hire the consultant again. Hiring a consultant is a lot like hiring staff. You need to make sure this is someone with whom you can build a relationship and work effectively.

Remember that any agreements or contracts the agency engages in must comply with both the Uniform Guidance and Head Start Program Performance Standards, specifically as regards any contracts in excess of $10,000. Additionally, the governing body and its legal expert should review and approve those agreements as well, in keeping with their fiduciary responsibility.

How to Work with Your Consultant

Once you've found a consultant and are ready to get to work, the first step is making sure you have a detailed agreement that outlines the scope of work and estimates timelines and costs. This is necessary to reduce risk for you and your consultant. It can also keep costs lower. If what you're asking for is unclear or the process is murky, your consultant may estimate higher fees because she or he feels the need to build in a buffer to account for unforeseen problems.

Internal project management will also help prevent spiraling costs and unexpected challenges. Assigning someone on your staff to manage the project ensures that your organization owns the process and the results of the project. It can also help the project move faster if someone is in charge of making small decisions and can facilitate discussions for those accountable for bigger decisions. A staff member can also communicate changes and action items to the rest of the staff and help gain agreement on the coming changes. You can expect to spend about 10 percent of the consultant's estimated time on project management, although more complex projects may require a more significant staff investment.

Finally, open and regular communication with your consultant is essential for getting what you need and staying on budget. You and your consultant are in a partnership now, and each of you needs the other to make the project a success. Weekly check-ins may be a good way to keep in touch, but make sure they are more than a briefing. At your check-ins:

  • Ask your consultant whether he or she needs anything from you
  • Take the time to get your consultant's point of view on the progress of your project
  • Make a point to ask about potential risks and talk through ways you can work together to solve them

How Much Will It Cost for the Project?

The costs of hiring consultants vary widely based on your needs, the type of project you're undertaking, and other factors, including the experience level of the individual or firm and your geographic area. Idealware asked a number of consultants in different areas of nonprofit technology about their fees. Below, we've condensed their answers to provide a few cost ranges for projects that typically include consultants.

  • Websites. For $2,000 to $3,000, you may be able to find an independent consultant (most likely a recent graduate) who can build you a 10- to 30-page static site based on a templated graphic design and a very straightforward navigation scheme. For a branded site with custom graphics and a few extra features, you're more likely to pay between $5,000 and $10,000. Incorporating responsive design can add between 10 percent and 30 percent to the cost. A solid, scalable, strategic website can cost $15,000 to $50,000 or more, depending on the level of sophistication you're seeking and the level of interaction you expect with your consultant. A typical website for a large organization, which includes sophisticated web applications and in-depth strategic consulting, can cost $100,000 or more.
  • Software selection. Smaller software selection projects can begin at $2,000–$5,000. For larger projects that may include multiple departments, multiple sites, a lot of features, and a large group of employees, it can range from $10,000 to $15,000 to review and select a system. These services usually come with strategic guidance, but you'll get the most strategic bang for your buck if you select a consultant who has experience working with nonprofits.
  • Data migration. Typically, a consultant will charge around $1,000 per database for migration. This means that regardless of the amount of data, if it's content of one type and it's going to the same location, you can expect to pay the flat fee. If, for example, you need to migrate contacts, plus information about organizations, donations, and registrations, then you would be transferring four databases, so the total would be $4,000. Costs can go up quickly in cases where files need to run through multiple systems or third-party vendors. As a rule, increases in complexity will raise the rate.

Setting Everyone Up for Success

If you start your search process with a clear understanding of the scope of your requirements and how a consultant can help meet them, you're more likely to find someone to provide the skills and experience you need. Remember, though, that working with a consultant constitutes a relationship, and like any relationship, it will suffer if you ignore it. Your active participation and the involvement of staff is an important factor in the success of your project.

Adapted from "How to Choose and Work with Technology Consultants," TechSoup, March 2015.