Consultants are good for nonprofits.

A good consultant brings you breadth and depth of experience that you’d never be able to muster within the organization.  But more important, consultants aren’t wearing your organizational blinders.  They can see things you can’t.  (My opinion on consultants may be less than unbiased; I am one.)

But the quality of consultants varies.  And there’s one type you should never hireThe consultant who knows the answers before you ask the questions.

Maybe you’ve met this guy.  He starts every conversation with his sure-fire winning tactic.  Sometimes it’s a data trick that will squeeze new revenue from your donor file.  Sometimes it’s a creative execution or spiffy format that cuts through the clutter.  Or some hot new media opportunity.

Any of these things might be just the ticket for your organization.  But until a consultant knows your situation well, nobody knows

A consultant has no business telling you what the answers are until he knows the questions.

  • Do you need a large influx of low-end donors?

  • Do you need to trade average gift for response rate (or vice versa)?

  • Do you need a large-scale awareness campaign?

  • Do you need to cut your marketing costs?

No one knows the answer to any of those questions without a thorough look at your donor file and history.

When a consultant has ready-made answers, there are three likely reasons:

  1. He knows only one thing.  To the man with a hammer, every problem is a nail.  He’s going to be hammering your dirty windows and your weedy garden.

  2. It worked somewhere else.  It may or may not work for you.  Not all organizations are the same.  Anyone who doesn’t admit that is a charlatan.

  3. There’s a hidden agenda.  He may need volume for his tactic to pan out.  Maybe he has an agreement with a certain printing press that he needs to keep running.  In other words, he needs you to use his tactic for his sake, not yours.

So next time a consultant comes to you with ready-made answers, don’t return the call.  Delete the email.  Politely look the other way.  Then look for a consultant that’s willing to learn about you and be your partner on the journey.

imageJeff Brooks is creative director at Merkle|Domain, a direct-response agency serving the nonprofit world.  He blogs at the Donor Power Blog.