Few nonprofits take advantage of free consultant


Do you like mysteries? Let's play the Consultant Mystery Game.

Suppose you were the head of a nonprofit organization, and someone offers to give you the use of consulting help, free, for whatever ails your agency. Or, perhaps nothing ails your agency. Let's say that you want to plan for the changing demographics in your neighborhood. Here's a quality consultant to help you and your board deal with those anticipated changes.

Sounds pretty good so far, right?

Now for the mystery. The above offer of free consulting help is actually being made to any nonprofit in Central Maryland. The mystery is that far too few nonprofit organizations are taking the offer.

Liking mysteries, I decided to investigate. My findings so far are intriguing. But, first some background.

United Way of Central Maryland has something called The Resources Center, which lines up pro bono consultants to work with nonprofits on organizational development, fund-raising, long-range planning, computers, finance and accounting, personnel and marketing. Consultants come from private practice, as well as from Maryland's corporate sector.

Last year the center met all 75 requests for its services, with consultants donating anywhere from a few hours to more than 80 on client projects.

The problem is that the 75 clients are a tiny fraction of eligible agencies (non-United Way agencies are equally eligible). I talked with Carolyn Walker, coordinator of the program, about why nonprofits are so reluctant to take advantage of an obviously good deal.

"With times so difficult, you'd think we'd be getting tons of requests," Ms. Walker mused. "But, we're not." Part of the problem, according to Walker, is that the service is not well known throughout the nonprofit community. But the problem really runs deeper than that.

Judy Lewis is a senior organizational development consultant with Macro International Inc. of Columbia. She has donated her time to several nonprofits through the center. Ms. Lewis has some ideas on what keeps nonprofits from using the service.

"My sense is that the organization feels a sense of ineptitude. They view the need for consulting as a sign of weakness or inability on their part. They see that need as a bad thing, rather than viewing a consultant as a good resource that can help move the organization forward."

Both Ms. Lewis and Ms. Walker believe that local nonprofits are simply unused to bringing in consultants, in marked contrast to agencies in the District of Columbia and other cities. "There is a different mentality toward consultants here," Ms. Walker says. "Nonprofits can't seem to adjust their thinking to see this as an opportunity to complete a project or task, or plan for the future, rather than view the use of a consultant as an admission of failure in some way."

When the Carroll County Association of Retarded Citizens recognized the need for a strategic plan to accommodate the changing needs of its clientele, it turned to The Resources Center for help.

"We had utilized the services of the center before for some simpler tasks, so when we realized what we needed to do it was easy to call them in," says Executive Director Tim Atkinson.

The center paired the association with Jack Justice, a vice president in marketing for Baltimore Life Insurance. After more than 80 hours of pro bono work, the strategic plan was complete.

"The final product focused on the future needs of people with developmental disabilities," reports Mr. Atkinson. "Jack worked so well with the group. That was key for us. The plan will allow us to move forward with our ambitious agenda."

The working relationship between a consultant and the organization is critical, if all parties are to be satisfied with the results. There are other hints that can ease a nonprofit's fear of using a consultant and that can advance its agenda. In next week's column I'll discuss some of those hints.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md, 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad