Consultants, are you actually making the sector worse? Here are some questions to ask yourselves


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Hi everyone. Just a reminder, before we dive into this week’s post, that the pandemic is not over. Some of y’all are acting like it is. Cases are surging. Get your boosters, wear masks, avoid indoor dining when you can, and stop double-dipping when you’re eating with other people lest you want me to smack the chopsticks out of your hand.

A few months ago, a colleague told me that they were writing a grant application. One of the questions was “what is your board’s giving rate? If it’s not 100%, please explain why.” This is a silly and archaic question that all funders need to stop asking. My colleague had written an answer to the effect that her org believed it was inequitable to focus on money as the most prioritized contribution, that they valued time and lived experience, and so they didn’t have 100% board giving nor did they care to measure it, etc. A dose of refreshing honesty so rare in our sector, like decent chairs and retirement savings.

Unfortunately, the development consultant they had hired put the kibosh on it, saying that the answer my colleague had suggested was risky and would freak out the funder. The org listened and changed the answer to some wishy-washy malarkey that the consultant assured wouldn’t cause the grant reviewers to clutch at their pearls and collapse on their fainting couch. This consultant led the organization to miss an opportunity to help change the sector for the better through delivering much needed feedback and a serving of reality to this funder.

All right, fellow consultants, we need to have a talk. (I don’t do a lot of consulting, but I do enough to be considered a consultant, and I have a facilitator’s kit in my car trunk at all times) At our best, consultants help bring in a new perspective and certain skills and tactics that could really help an organization and its important work; plus, we help sustain the growing sticky-dots and easel paper industry and those it employs. At our worst, we consultants get paid a bunch of money to help entrench organizations in survivalism and competition, perpetuate the hunger games, inflame tensions, reinforce white moderate philosophies and practices, quash visionary ideas, and prevent change and progress.

I don’t think many of us got into consultancy to do any of that. Many of us became consultants because we want to advance a more just and equitable world while avoiding having a boss and a regular schedule so we could watch TV and nap in the middle of the day.

If you are a consultant who is trying to make the world better, here are some questions you can ask yourself when you’re working with clients, to gauge whether you are doing that, or whether you’re getting paid and actually just making things worse:

Are you nurturing creative, progressive ideas, or crushing them? There’s been exciting stuff being considered in the sector, as well as people challenging of traditional practices. At an org I was leading, for example, when I left as the ED, the staff wanted to explore a new distributed leadership model. They also wanted to work closely with the board to choose the new leader(s), instead of going the traditional path of having the board make the decision. The consultant we hired, however, instead of helping us think through these exciting ideas, freaked out and called emergency meetings with the board to handle this staff “mutiny.” Thanks in significant part to this consultant, a great opportunity for exploration became weeks of stress and board/staff tension. Luckily we found another consultant who was encouraging, and it worked out, but I could imagine other orgs listening to this consultant and missing the chance to experiment and innovate.

Are you prioritizing the survival of the org over the effectiveness of the sector? Yes, I know it is the org and not the entire sector that hired you and that’s paying for your time, but are you really OK with just helping nonprofits survive in the hunger games, versus working to change systems and thus help bring forth a more equitable world? If the latter, then you must consider how your and your clients’ actions affect the entire field. For instance, you may know from experience that an org saying backward-ass things like “100% of your donations go to programming” will lead to more funding, but you need to consider that this is harmful to other orgs, to the entire sector. Help your client understand the situation and the risks and implications of their decisions. Encourage them to think beyond just their own mission and purview.

Are you helping orgs actualize their vision, or are you conditioning them to be incremental? Many consultants think it’s their job to help nonprofits be pragmatic. There are definitely times that require pragmatism and realism, but we’ve gone way too far in that direction. Many funders and consultants have trained nonprofits over time to think small, to think incrementally, to believe that if they serve 500 people one year and 550 people the next year—an increase of 10%, hallelujah!—that they are succeeding in their mission. Many of us have lost our imagination. We have sacrificed vision at the altar of mission. The world needs us to be more ambitious. Our visions must be as big and bold as the breadth of injustice itself. And you, as a consultant, must determine whether you are encouraging an organization to remember and realize the expansive vision it had set forth, or whether you are shoving it down the safe and boring corridor of incrementalism and complacency.

Are you facilitating thoughtful actions or are you training nonprofits in toxic intellectualizing? Our sector loves reading white papers, forming committees, having meetings, putting sticky dots on walls, researching problems to death, and thinking that these things are the same as, if not better than, taking tangible actions to address issues. And I see many consultants encouraging and condoning this. Yes, I know and agree that the process is just as important as the outcome. But we’ve often become so enamored with process, with thinking, that we’ve over time lost our ability to mobilize, organize, and take bold steps. We already have board members who are very risk-averse, and we have funders—who are the most risk-averse and the greatest toxic intellectualizers of all—reinforcing this sort of behavior. You, the consultant, can help bring balance.

Are you challenging white supremacy, or are you upholding white moderation? Imagine a nonprofit client wants to take a public stance in support of gun reform, or abortion rights, or defunding the police, and it asks you for your opinion. Would you encourage them? Or would you praise their courage, say that you agree completely, and then advise them to wait for a better time, or to take aligned but less controversial actions? If you gravitate toward the latter, then you’re the sort of white moderate Dr. King warned was the biggest barrier toward justice: The well-meaning people who inadvertently stop progress by focusing on civility, non-controversy, and delusional can’t-we-all-get-along sensibilities. And you’re training the nonprofit to think the same way, creating a horrible cycle. I’ve seen both white consultants as well as consultants of color falling into this trap. Our world does not need more white moderates. Don’t be one. Don’t encourage others to be.

Consultants have an outsized influence in the sector. People often listen to you when you say the same stuff that internal staff and board members have been saying for years but no one would listen to them. You need to be thoughtful about how you wield such power. The above questions are a starting point for reflection.

The injustice facing our community has grown in scope and severity. We need nonprofits and foundations to dispense with distractions, risk-aversion, survivalism, isolationism, incrementalism, complacency, toxic intellectualizing, and white moderation. As consultants, you can help nurture nonprofit and foundations’ bold visions, focus, determination, collective actions, and unapologetic stances on equity and justice.

Or at least, if your client has a grand vision and wants to do amazing and creative things, don’t be the well-paid small-thinker standing in the way.

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