Nonprofit consultants, beware of window shoppers

I’m no fan of nonprofit consultants, despite being one myself. But nonprofit consultants are people too, although we’re not always treated as such by the organizations we serve.

As knowledge workers, what we know is what we sell. Yet the courting process for securing work (multiple meetings, requests for proposal, etc), requires that we disclose methodologies to potential customers.

I get that outlining approaches to potential customers is a necessary part of the process. It allows both parties to determine whether the consultant is a good fit. But every consultant has stories of laying out a methodology, entertaining a number of questions from excited sounding staff and board members, all to have those same ideas implemented by another vendor or the organization’s staff.

No hire, no attribution, nothing.

This is a pretty messed up approach, and if you are a non-profit consultant looky-loo (you know who you are), please stop.

I’m not perfect at avoiding nonprofit consulting window-shoppers, but with some experience under my belt I’ve certainly gotten better at avoiding these organizations. Here are a few tips to avoid being a victim of thought theft.

  1. Qualify customers – Before filling out a request for proposal (RFP) or agreeing to meetings, look up an organization’s 990 on Guidestar and check out their annual revenue. If revenue is tight and the proposed scope looks to be outside their budget, you might have a window shopper on your hands.
  2. Be wary of unsolicited requests for proposals – Organizations are typically required to get more than one bid for a project, even if they have a preferred vendor in mind. I’ve certainly had some luck with organizations sending me RFPs out of the blue, but I’m generally wary of these “opportunities”, as they tend to be fishing expeditions for pre-selected vendors.
  3. Be judicious with your time – Window shoppers have a nasty habit of setting up multiple meetings, wasting your time while sucking you dry of your hard fought good ideas. Value your time. If you don’t, they won’t. And if a nonprofit is asking for too much face time without any commitment, it might be time to walk.
  4. Ask around – Ask other consultants about nonprofits you are thinking of working with. I’ve avoided some bad contracts by tapping my network.

My tendency, like other (good) nonprofit consultants is to be helpful. I love geeking out on all things social sector. While the nonprofit sector is accustomed to receiving pro-bono help, manipulating nonprofit consultants looking for work into offering up their ideas for nothing is contrary to the principles of our do-gooding industry.