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Using Consultants

A guide to good results and value for money

Paul Bullen


1. Why Use consultants?
2. Good Results and Value for Money
3. What do you want the Consultant to do?
4. Finding a Consultant
5. What should be in a Consultant's Proposal?
6. Choosing a Consultant
7. Contracting a Consultant
8. Managing a Consultant
9. Some Common Mistakes and Sticky Situations
10. Consultancy Checklist

Many community organisations have used consultants. Sometimes consultants make very positive contributions to community organisations and their services. Sometimes they don't.What do you need to do to get good results and value for money?

This paper was first published by the Local Community Services Association in NSW, Australia. It has been updated from time to time.

1. Why use consultants

You could contract consultants if:

  • Your organisation does not have the expertise required to do the job. e.g. mediation, training.
  • There is a need for someone outside the organisation to facilitate a process or project. e.g. evaluation.
  • Existing staff may be fully committed and unable to take on the work. e.g. needs analysis.
  • Running community organisations is becoming more complex. It is now more common to use consultants.

Consultants or Project Staff?

Consultants are not the same as paid staff. You contract consultants but employ staff. What's the difference?

Usually consultants have specialist expertise, require minimal supervision and direction (once the project proposal has been agreed), have their own equipment and stationary such as computer, fax, etc. Consultants or the companies they work for are responsible for their own insurance, superannuation, and tax. They will often have their own office and be a registered business or company.

Consultants can have others working for them; choose their own working times, and plan their own work; do more than one job at the same time; determine how they will do the jobs themselves.

Project staff are employees of your organisation. They use your organisation's resources, are fully accountable to someone in your organisation and directly supervised. Your insurance covers them (e.g. Workcover). You are responsible for their superannuation and you deduct tax from their wages.

You pay employees; control their work; decide their duties; set their times and hours; and; provide job descriptions, ie, how to do the job

2. Good Results and Value for Money

Many community organisations have used consultants.

Sometimes consultants make very positive contributions to community organisations and their services. Sometimes they don't.

What do you need to do to get good results and value for money? This guide takes you though the steps of working with consultants.

What have consultants done for Community Organisations?

Many Community Organisations have used consultants.

Consultants have:

  • Trained staff where staff gained the skills they needed.
  • Introduced computer systems that increased the efficiency of the organisation.
  • Facilitated strategic planning days that developed a consensus on future directions.
  • Developed useful resource materials, policies, submissions, manuals.
  • Evaluated organisations or projects where changes were carried out that improved the results for service users.

Consultants have also:

  • Run training programs pitched at the wrong level for staff who then went away very frustrated.
  • Produced great evaluation reports but no real change in the organisation.
  • Facilitated strategic planning days that ended in chaos and an unworkable plan.
  • Produced glossy resource materials that were useless because the content was not appropriate.

3. What do you want the consultant to do?

To contract a consultant you need a written description that describes what you want done, often referred to as a "Brief". A good brief usually answers the following questions:

1. What is the background to the Project or work that you want? I.e. how did the Project come about?
2. What is your organisation on about? I.e. What is your purpose?
3. What is the purpose of the project?
4. What is the scope of the project - often referred to as the terms of reference. For example, does the project include all the services you provide or only a selection? Does the project need to address all the issues that service uses will raise or only those that your organisation can do something about?
5. What is to be achieved? What results or outcomes do you want?

6. What tasks or steps need to be carried out.

7. What are the deliverables? Reports, etc that the consultant has to provide during the course of the project.

8. What is the timetable for the project? When does it need to begin? When does it need to be finished? Are there other key dates?

9. What resources are available for the project? What will your organisation contribute? What is the maximum amount you are prepared to pay for the consultancy?
10. Who owns the copyright of any materials produced?
11. What criteria will you use to select the consultant? E.g. specialist skills and experience, understanding of community organisations; knowledge of community management issues; commitment to community empowerment or community development; relative cost.

If you don't know what you want done you may need to get a consultant to help you prepare the brief

4. Finding a Consultant

Finding the right consultant can be a big difficulty. There is no one central register of consultants. Some starting points are:

  • Peak organisations like NCOSS and the Local Community Services Association
  • Centre for Community Welfare Training Calendar - contact people who are training in the area you need
  • Resources Guide - a Management Resources for Community and Nonprofit Organisations (CACOM)
  • Government department Central or regional offices
  • Other Community Organisations who have used consultants.

It will be very important to talk to someone for whom the consultant has worked. Have you heard first hand accounts of the consultant's work?

5. What should be in a Consultant's Proposal?

You will need to get a written proposal from the consultant in response to your consultancy brief. A good proposal from a consultant will usually answer the following questions:
a. What are the aims of the project?
b. What are the major issues that need to be considered in this project and the way that it is carried out ?
c. What steps can be taken to carry out the project?
d. What is a realistic timetable?
e. What is a budget for the project?

f. Who will carry out the project and what are their skills and experience?


6. Choosing a Consultant

Once you have a brief you need to find some consultants and select an appropriate one. Some of the steps you would probably take in selecting a consultant would be:

For a small job identify several possible consultants and ask them to provide a written response to your brief.

Use the selection criteria that you have identified (in the brief) to make a preliminary choice of consultant.

Speak to organisations for whom the consultant has worked, prior to making your final decision.

Notify the consultant of your choice and set up a meeting to negotiate the details. Often the consultant's proposal may help you see the project in a new light which will then require some negotiation.

Draw up a contract or letter of understanding.

For a larger consultancy place advertisements in relevant newspapers and mail them to a select group of consultants.

7. Contracting a Consultant

Once your have chosen your consultant you need a written contract or letter of understanding. The degree of formality in the contract can be related to the size of the job. The bigger the job the more formal the contract needs to be. A good contract or letter of understanding is likely to answer the following questions:

a. What is the job to be done? - attach the Brief as an appendix.
b. What is the consultant's proposal? - attach the Proposal as an appendix.
c. When will the project begin? When will the project end?
d. How can the project be varied?
e. What is the schedule of payments? Sometimes a proportion of the fees are paid to the consultant upfront. Sometimes fees are paid monthly on the basis of work done. A proportion is always held over until the work is satisfactorily completed.
f. Make sure the consultant has their own insurance, e.g. professional indemnity, accident/injury.
g. What happens if there is a conflict of interest? For example, what if the consultant were working for another client preparing a tender for funding the services you are currently providing. Ask your consultant to declare any conflicts of interest.
h.How can the contract be terminated? For example, what happens if work is unsatisfactory.
i. To whom is the consultant accountable?

j. What happens if the work is not completed? Or is not completed on time?

8. Managing a Consultant

Even good consultants need to be managed well. To make sure you get the best possible job:

Have a written brief, written proposal and written letter of understanding or contract that covers all the points above.

Clearly state the person or committee to whom the Consultant is responsible for the project as a whole. This could be a project steering committee.

Clearly state the person with whom the Consultant deals on a day to day basis. This could be a staff person in the Centre, e.g. Coordinator/Manager.

Agree in advance a timetable for meetings of the steering committee and the major focus of each meeting (e.g. "the first meeting will finalise the design of the project; the second meeting will review the responses from the service users; the third meeting will.... " and so on.)

Agree on a procedure for dealing with unsatisfactory performance - on either side. What happens if the consultant is not getting the job done? What happens of the Centre's staff person is being less than helpful?

9. Some Common Mistakes and Sticky Situations

Some very common mistakes are:

The community organisation is not clear what is required to be done.

There are not written guidelines or agreed processes in place.

The community organisation is unaware of market rates for consultants and expects too much for too little.

The community organisation pays too much for too little because multiple quotes were not obtained.

No one in the community organisation has spoken to previous clients of the consultant.

Some sticky situations are:

When a funding body wants a consultant to be appointed to do an evaluation. Be very clear on who is contracting the consultant? Who is paying for the consultant? And whose values and philosophy will underpin the work of the consultant?

When the consultant is being contracted by the funding body insist on your right to be on the selection committee (and have a power of veto over the choice of the consultant). Set up a steering committee that includes representatives from all stakeholders to oversight the work of the consultant.

When the job is not getting done to a satisfactory standard - Is there a disputes resolution procedure in the contract? Does the schedule of payments allow for a proportion of the fees to be paid on completion of satisfactory work? Do you still have some negotiating power?


10. Consultancy Checklist

You need to score 12 out of 12 on the following! (Each Yes gets you 1 point).


1. Do you know why you want a consultant? (Why isn't someone within your organisation doing the work?)------YES------NO-------

2. Have you clearly identified the purpose of the consultancy and the work you want done?

3. Do you have a written brief? ------YES------NO-------

4. Does the brief include answers to all the questions in Section 3 above?------YES------NO-------

Selecting and Appointing

5. Do you have written criteria for selecting the consultant? ------YES------NO-------

6. Have you got quotes or proposals from at least three consultants? ------YES------NO-------

7. Have you set steering committee meeting dates in advance and identified a purpose for each steering committee meeting? ------YES------NO-------

Contracting a Consultant

8. Have you a written contract that covers all the points mentioned in Section 7 above?

Working with a Consultant

9. Is it clear to everyone to whom the Consultant is responsible for the project?

10. Is it clear with whom the consultant deals on a day to day basis? ------YES------NO-------

11. Do you have an agreed procedure for dealing with unsatisfactory performance?


12. Are you clear enough about what you want so you will know whether or not the job has been well done? ------YES------NO-------