The old joke is that an expert is someone who is 50 miles or more from home, although in today's age we ought to at least double that mileage.
Either way, as I explained in last week's column, a lot of nonprofit organizations have a difficult time bringing in consultants, even when it is clear they would benefit from the experience. The question is, why should this be so?
The question is even more intriguing when you consider that organizations like The Resources Center of the United Way of Central Maryland offer knowledgeable, experienced consultants free to any nonprofit that requests one. Yet, only 75 requests were filed (and filled) last year. And, you do not have to be a United Way agency to qualify.
So, the question really runs deeper. There must be something more to the issue of nonprofit organizations not seeking outside help.
One barrier, touched on last week, is that nonprofit executives view the need to bring in a consultant as a sign of ineptitude or failure on their part. Contrast that attitude with the view of the for-profit corporate executive, who would happily bring in Fred Flintstone if he thought it would improve the bottom line.
According to Judy Lewis, a senior organizational consultant with Macro International in Columbia, the issue of nonprofits underusing consultant help really boils down to lack of experience with the process. As one of the pro bono consultants that United Way turns to in its program, she is familiar with the dilemma.
She offered some hints to make the selection process easier.
"Finding the right expertise first is critical," she remarked, "not just the right consultant. Too many times the process is reversed, and the results are not satisfactory."
A second, and equally critical, point Ms. Lewis mentioned is to be certain that the consultant shares the same values system as the organization. Pushing a conservative management style on a group that is used to teamwork and problem-solving won't fly.
"It's important for the organization to get a sense of what the long-term results of the consultant's efforts will be," Ms. Lewis continued.
Solving a short-term problem may actually hamper an organization's efforts, if it takes them down a road to a destination they feel is inappropriate.
That brings up another way to make the transition to using consultants to advance an organization's mission. Create stopping points along the consulting route for reassessment with the consultant, an especially helpful hint in organizational development work.
It may even be advantageous to modify a consulting contract midroute to allow for more practice with newfound techniques, prior to moving on.
One of the most frustrating things for a nonprofit to accept is that the results of using a consultant do not appear overnight.
In organizational development consulting, as well as in counsel to boards of directors, consultants have to deal with entrenched subcultures and their attendant norms. Culture-based practices never change easily. The danger of reversion to old, counterproductive practices lurks around every organizational crisis.
Organizations need to sit for a long time with a consultant, perhaps over two or three visits, until they get a perspective on how long the process may take and what situations may change that assessment.
Expecting a consultant to come in and apply preset solutions is asking for trouble. A good consultant should teach an organization how to fish, not provide fish for it. That often requires discipline on the part of both organization and consultant.
(Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md, 21921;  392-3160.)