Finding a great communications consultant can be a challenge. Whether you’re concerned about style, timing, or budget, finding your match means making smart decisions before you’re ready to sign the contract.
Here are 7 guidelines for attracting the very best consultant for your next project.
1. Create Your Dream Team. Make sure you have the right people within your organization leading the project. For a branding or communications effort, this means the most senior staff and volunteers. Show that the project is a priority for your organization and that all your decision-makers are on board. When the consultants see that you have buy-in, they’ll be confident that your project is on the right track and that it will get the support it needs.
2. Write an RFP. A request for proposal should outline the deliverables or outcomes you want from the consultant. We have a helpful RFP template to help you plan your next branding project. In summary, here’s what to include in your RFP:
Timing: Asking that the work be done as soon as possible isn’t as helpful as specifying the date by which you would like the work to be completed. If there is a hard deadline, driven perhaps by a special event, anniversary, or program launch date, be clear about why the deadline is firm. Alternatively, simply give a general idea of your timeline.
Budget: Perhaps you haven’t fully set the budget and you’re hoping the proposals will help you understand how much you’ll need to spend. If that’s the case, there may still be a range that you can afford to invest, and you should include that figure. Being cagey doesn’t help you. When you’re up front with your budget or range, you enable consultants to determine quickly whether they are a fit for your job. This weeding-out process saves you time. It will also allow those firms that do bid on your job to accommodate your budget most efficiently. No nonprofit has as much money as they wish. Your consultant’s job is to figure out how to allocate your budget so you get maximum impact.
Rationale: Be sure to explain why your organization wants to invest in this project now. Go beyond simply explaining your mission. Elaborate on the challenges you hope to overcome through this project, and how you’ll know if you’ve succeeded. Be specific. “We want help with our communications” is not as clear as “We want new messages so that more major donors will know us, choose us, and remain loyal supporters.” Your outlining these details will help you find a consultant who’s excited about your project.
3. Narrow the Field. When you post your RFP on a listserv or otherwise broadcast it widely, it’s likely that many consultants will decline to submit a proposal. Most consultants want to know that you’ve taken the time to learn something about them, and that their particular style or reputation has attracted you to them, just as you would expect a consultant to take the time to learn about you. Getting to know a prospective client and crafting a strong, customized proposal requires a big investment from a consultant, so the seasoned ones are more likely to look for requests addressed to them.
Take the time to ask around and learn about the kind of consultant you want to attract. Then do some research on prospective consultants to narrow your field to no more than six. You can learn a lot by visiting their websites and speaking informally to people who have worked with them in the past. Narrowing the list will show consultants you are serious about their time and serious about them. And fewer proposals will make the review and decision-making processes less time-consuming for you and your colleagues.
4. Set a Collegial Tone. If your RFP or first call to a consultant is cold, formal, and guarded, you may not find consultants who are keen on jumping into the mix. A generic email or “To Whom It May Concern” salutation could send the wrong signal. Anything you can do to show the consultant that you are particularly interested in receiving their proposal will improve your chances of capturing their interest in your project. Be sincere. If you don’t really know them, you can say so. And if you were impressed by their past work, or they come highly recommended by a colleague, mention that. You’re starting a relationship with your consultant, so be sure you set a positive tone from the beginning.
5. Meet Possible Consultants. Set up a time to meet with your top two or three consultants, either in person or via a video conference. Chemistry and fit are as important as the consultants’ experience and technical chops. Ask yourself, “Would we want to be stuck in an airport with these people?” If the answer is no, it may not be a good fit. While you’re not looking to hire a best friend, having an open, easy rapport with your branding or communications consultant will help you get the best finished product for your organization.
It’s also a good idea to talk with possible consultants before they write your proposal. Instead of asking them to rely solely on the content of your RFP, you’re likely to get a stronger proposal if you call or meet them in advance. Avoid answering questions exclusively via email. In today’s tech-centered world, it’s still true that person-to-person conversation is the best way to get an authentic sense of a person, so invite consultants to contact you. Chances are, you’ll learn something during the conversation that will help you make the best choice for your organization.
6. Respond On Time. If you set a deadline by which you wish to receive proposals, stick to it. Don’t allow firms to sneak in after the deadline. Acknowledge receipt of all proposals and make a decision by whatever date you chose. Delays to your decision-making schedule could result in a consultant you value accepting other projects that would preclude their working with you.
7. Be Flexible. You may know exactly what you want your consultant to do, or you may just have a general challenge with no specific vision for how to address it. Either way, allow the expertise of your consultant to guide your process. They may have ideas you hadn’t considered or be able to build onto your ideas. Being too prescriptive about what a consultant will deliver could limit your project’s success. Being clear about what you’ll pay for is absolutely appropriate. After that, being open and flexible throughout the project will allow for the greatest chance of creative and effective outcomes.
Jennie Winton is a Founding Partner of Mission Minded, a 25-year marketing veteran sought for her expertise in branding nonprofit organizations, and a one-on-one impact coach.
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