The consulting industry sees a lot of repeat business where a client organisation or NGO employs a consultant or external support to undertake a variety of services recurringly over a long period of time.
The question to ask here is: after the completion of the first scope of work why is the external consultant needed again? Is it because the consultant is helping an NGO along a journey and offering complementary skills that increase the overall value proposition or offer unique learning opportunities to the NGO? Or is it instead because the consultant has not been able to solve the problem it was employed to solve and is making a business out of trying? If an NGO does not spot the latter then it can risk wasting significant resources again and again on trying, but failing, to overcome a key challenge.
Every NGO needs to make strategic decisions regarding which expertise it procures internally and which services it relies on other organisations to help with. With unrestricted funding budgets being typically a very small portion of an NGO’s income (sadly!), the decision of how best to spend that money is a difficult one.
Do I spend these scarce funds on my staff, on fund raising, on a corpus fund? Do I spend them on getting external support for a limited period in order to enhance my teams’ expertise? Do I spend them on getting an external subconsultant to fix a big stumbling block as quickly as possible? Or do I set up a long-term partnership with an external expert and rely on them to help with a specific aspect of work for a longer period of time?
If you have the luxury of being able to do all four as suits you, brilliant - share your ideas on how as this will help others. But if you don’t, you are likely struggling with what to prioritize and having difficulty understanding whether what you want need is: someone to learn from and work toward developing in house capability, someone that will get rid of a problem quickly and effectively or someone that you want to build a long term complementary partnership with.
So here are five 5 key questions that I ask myself before investing in external support and that NGOs can ask themselves before they take on board a consultant or set up a long-term partnership with another organisation.
The way you set up new collaborations, who you work with and for how long will determine everything. It will determine what expertise your organisation gains, what risks you are exposed too, how independent you are, and what value and transformation you can achieve for your beneficiaries and customers and at what rate. With preparing to build an in-house expert team on one end of the spectrum and setting yourself as being dependent on repeat consulting support for the foreseeable future being the other – there are tons of options and it is paramount that you find the model that serves your goals best.
1. Is this new activity or expertise business critical or just a distraction?
If you are looking for external support, it means you have a problem and are unable or unsure as to how to deliver an element of your services by yourself.
The first thing you will need to understand is how urgently you need support and when you want to solve that specific issue by.
Every day the world, LinkedIn, email newsletters, subscriptions, conferences, your colleagues etc. (and the list can go on) will throw at you possible ideas for new projects, new activities and partnerships which could pursue. The key is to sift through all these opportunities and understand which are the ones that are really worth investing your limited time, resources and effort in. To do that an NGO needs to first decide what is most important to them.
• This problem or idea that you want help with – can you go without it being solved?
• Is it business critical and does the whole effectiveness of your work and effort depend on that being solved?
If it is not critical then you need to honestly ask yourself what time, effort and resources are you willing to sacrifice in order to indulge in exploring it. Time is limited, so time spent on one thing gets taken away from another and every choice you make matters. So, if you find out it is only a distraction then stop looking into it and get back to what is more important. If instead it is critical to your short and long-term organisation’s mission, then seriously invest time in developing a strategic roadmap that shows exactly what steps you are going to take to evaluate your options.
2. Will it enhance or weaken your organisation’s core offering?
Your core offering is the suite of key services and unique value proposition that constitutes your organisation’s reason for existence. Without these skills and services, your organisation would not be able to create the value and change it wants. Your USP could be the unique knowledge you have of a specific issue, your unique way of solving it or your team and their thinking. Whatever your USP is, it must be protected. To do that any new partnerships or collaborations must be evaluated in terms of whether they enhance your organisations’ core offering or not. A new partnership could create opportunities to learn and bring greater transformations to beneficiaries, customers and partners. However, partnerships can also be set up in a way that hinders an organisation from acquiring critical experience and over time could deprive an NGO of insights into their customers’ problems. This would eventually make the NGO less able to deliver its mission.
3. Are you comfortable being dependent on others for a service and if so for how long?
Letting others do a key component of work can improve the quality of change offered to beneficiaries, but it can also bind an organisation to using specific processes. If an organisation recurringly depends on another for specific services, it may lose the ability to deliver the services itself without external support, this creates new dependences and may affect the ability to negotiate advantageous partnership terms. You might want to take on board external help for 3-6-12 months with the intent that through that collaboration you will then transition to doing that work yourself. Alternatively, the externally provided service could be a one-off effort to resolve an urgent problem that you are not capable of solving alone. Or it could be a service that you have no interest in doing (now or in the future) and are comfortable budgeting for and outsourcing for the foreseeable future. In the latter case, external support with complementary services might be the perfect solution.
Either way the decision to outsource work or set up long-term partnerships needs to be a conscious one based on an evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages (short and long term) for the NGO. It should also be a time bound decision that is reviewed regularly.
4. Have you asked your team what they think?
Having a good, passionate, motivated and skilled team is essential to being able to deliver change and impact. Being able to keep that team interested, motivated and doing the things they want to do is therefore also of paramount importance. So before deciding whether an aspect of your services will be outsourced forever – ask your team! Champions might volunteer to develop that expertise and this should be taken into consideration when you develop your strategy.
5. What is the purpose of getting external support?
This might sound obvious, but it is surprising how much time people waste considering options and partnerships that they don’t actually want or need. That time would be better spent working with internal teams to take control of internal problems and invested in solving them.
If a prospective partnership is not business critical, does not enhance your value proposition, does not help you solve an urgent problem, does not strengthen your ability to progress towards your vision quicker, then it is likely a waste of your time.
So, make sure you know what you want to get out a new collaboration. Is it time saved? Expertise and knowledge? Better results for your beneficiaries and customers? Access to more flexible resources? Whatever it is your organisation wants, make sure it is clearly outlined and that your actions are aligned towards achieving it.