Getting the Most Out of Your Consulting Partnerships

So you’re thinking about hiring a consultant. How can you make sure the resources you’re investing in the relationship are well-spent?

First question to ask yourself: should you be hiring a consultant at all?

  • If you need the expertise all the time, and it’s a key skill of your members, use volunteers.
  • If you need the expertise all the time, and it’s something that is a staff core competency, hire or train for it.
  • If you need the expertise all the time, and it’s not something you consider a staff core competency, outsource.
  • If you only need the expertise periodically, that’s the time to look for a consultant. Other key indicators? You need a neutral/objective third party, and/or you need some fresh ideas. Consultants get to see a lot of different associations and get exposed to lots of ways of doing things.

Once you’ve made the decision that you need a consultant, remember that it’s a relationship, not a transaction, so you want to treat it as such.

What does that mean?

As I’ve  written before, don’t be afraid to talk to a few consultants before you start gathering proposals. Our expertise will help you get a better idea of what you need. And the more we know, the better job we’ll do of putting together a project plan, outline, schedule, and budget that will actually accomplish what you’re after.

Also, don’t be shy about sharing your ballpark budget information. We’re not asking so we can make sure to spend every single dime you have available. Knowing where you’re thinking of playing helps us scale our proposals appropriately. For instance, most projects involve research, which can mean anything from an hour on Google to flying around the country to conduct one-on-one interviews face to face with all your key stakeholders, and a nearly infinite number of options in between. As you might expect, those have very different price tags attached.

The association world is blessed with many excellent consultants, most of whom have years of direct association experience as well. You will be able to find several people (at a minimum) who will do good work for you, no matter what you’re looking for. Of course you’ll consider price, but you should also be choosing based on cultural fit (in line with the most current advice in hiring staff).

Once you’ve made your choice and you’re working together, be honest with your consultant: tell us what you’re really thinking. We’re like priests or therapists, 100% dedicated to helping you solve your problems, but you have to be honest with us about what they are in order for us to be able to do our best work for you.

Don’t be afraid to ask us questions and challenge us. Consultants – or at least good ones – don’t just want you to passively accept everything we offer. You have good ideas and experience, too, and the best solutions will come out of the alchemy created by mixing our best with your best.

Be open to new ideas and suggestions, which ideally, is what you’re going to hear. Don’t just hire us to provide political cover. We can do that, but most of us hate it, and when you do, you’re missing out on the best of what we can offer.

Finally, just like in a restaurant, if you aren’t happy with something, speak up so we can fix it while it still matters.

Association consultants and execs who’ve worked with consultants: what other advice would you add?

Next-Gen Membership

I recently had the opportunity to be interviewed by the nice folks at Naylor for Association Adviser TV. One of the questions they asked me to address was: What are the top three things that an association can do maintain the value proposition for the next generation of membership?

  1. You must understand the difference between life stage characteristics and generational  characteristics. Are Millennials slow to join and participate in associations for generational reasons, or because the oldest of them are in their late 20’s and they’re just figuring out the whole job/career thing. There are lots of “generational experts” out there who will say they can answer that question for you. To my way of thinking, the gold standard is the Lifecourse Associates work of William Strauss and Neil Howe, and the answer, likely, is, “don’t freak out – this is a life stage issue.”
  2. That said, there is a generational problem on the horizon – the hourglass issue. I’ve written about this before, but the short version is that, while a much larger Millennial generation is coming, associations are going to have to figure out how to bridge the Gen-X gap between the large Boomer and Millennial generations. One way to do that is by keeping retiring members involved through mentoring, teaching, and fundraising.
  3. Finally, check your assumptions. Even the best generational cohort research consists of generalizations. To really know what’s going on in your industry or profession, you have to actually talk to your members and other audiences about their lives, experiences, needs, and preferences. Associations must shift from the mindset that we have to be 100% right and 100% perfect all the time to the start up mindset of “launch in beta, experiment, actively solicit feedback, learn, and iterate.” Regardless of generation, your members will cut you slack if you let them know what’s going on. Really they will.

What do you think associations need to focus on to remain vital resources for the next generation of members and other audiences coming up?