Act like a consultant

Report to one person, not a committee

Your job is to give objective advice. Your contact should communicate your advice internally, convince their colleagues and build consensus.

Find out who the real client is

Your contact may be a staff member, but they may not be a decision maker.  We ask ourselves, whoever decides on making a donation to MAS, that is our client.

How can you add value?

Do you have the tools and the time to address the issue? What new insight can you bring beyond common sense? Do you have a “proprietary process” to solve the problem (e.g. big consulting firms have their “way”)? If not, stop immediately. There is nothing worse than a volunteer who means well, but is not adding value — it is awkward for a non-profit to fire a volunteer.

Measure client resources

Does the client have the resources to do the work? Does your contact have the time and skill set needed? Are you both available during similar times?

Ask lots of questions

How did the project get started? Talk to all possible decision makers and don’t accept the first answer you get. Learn everything you can about the organization through their website, Google, CRA website, Board memberships and annual report.

Quantify your effort

Price is a signal.  People expect to get what they pay for.  So as a volunteer, how do you replace price? Establish the value (not the cost) of doing the work. Establish the context of your contribution and get it acknowledged. Compare your contribution to commercial rates.  Draw up a project plan and put your hours (and client hours needed) on a calendar, then add slack time.  At the end, quantify your contribution in hours that you have donated.  See the project close form.

Be sensitive

Remember that you may lack the nuanced understanding of what it means to have been brought up with a different set of cultural and social norms. Or to have lived below the poverty line all your life. Or to have a loved one living with a complex medical diagnosis who is in need of constant care. Any analogies you use to explain things, based on our own personal experiences, can often be so far removed from the realities our of clients.

Build rapport

Establish things you have in common – interests, people, places – to build rapport. Find a common language to express the real issue.

Be the project manager

Act as the keeper of the project and its timetable. Hold the client to account. Track your hours. Since you are a valuable resource, you should be treated appropriately.

What to watch out for:

  • do not commit to doing the work just because the client wants it. Do it because its the right thing to do. Ask yourself, if you were billing commercial rates, does this project make sense in terms of potential value?
  • if you don’t have the resources, knowledge or time to commit, admit it and refer to another volunteer.
  • clients who want an official blessing for a decision they have already made
  • clients who want to fire somebody or deliver an unpopular message
  • clients who hire you because you are free
  • clients who want you to do the work because they do not have the personnel or hours to do the work
  • the chemistry is wrong (style is fundamentally different, insufficient mutual respect)


Suggested reading – how to be a consultant:

1. “The Trusted Advisor” by David Maister, Charles Green, Robert Galford, available from libraries.
Clients want you to help them:

think things through
see things with a fresh perspective
understand the implications and traps to avoid
find options
use your knowledge to coach
You have a skill set your non-profit needs, temporarily or part time. But don’t give an aura of complete mastery. If you don’t know something, say so. Over come your need to appear expert. Overcome your fear of not having “the answer”. You don’t have to prove yourself. You and your client are co-equals on a joint journey.
Tread carefully. Suggestions on how to improve always carry the implied critique on current activities and the person hiring you is probably responsible for the current state of affairs.
Clients may be anxious, uncertain and frustrated. Listen and empathize.
Don’t jump to conclusions. Earn the right to give solutions by asking questions and listening.

2. “Getting Naked: a business fable about shedding the three fears that sabotage client loyalty” by Patrick Lencioni, available from libraries.
The three fears of for-profit consultants are fear of losing the business, fear of being embarrassed and the fear of feeling inferior. This book is a fable about two consulting firms: one with “complete transparency; the other focuses on proving its competency and protecting its reputation for intellectual prowess”.
Overcome your need to feel important. Set your ego aside. Don’t act like you know more than your client.

by Graham Boyce and Lelia MacDonald