Re-Evaluating the Consultant’s Role in Social Change

Leah Reisman

Consultants have long played a critical role in the work of nonprofits and foundations, helping to facilitate strategy, guide leaders, and serve as outsourced staff. In the future, consultants will continue to play these important roles – likely their importance may only grow in the coming years, as organizations plan their way out of the pandemic.

However, beyond the pandemic, the movement for racial equity – catalyzed by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in early summer 2020 – has also led to broad change in the nonprofit sector. Prominent funders have announced that they will prioritize racial equity and social justice in their grantmaking, and many nonprofits have conducted internal reviews with similar goals. Both the murder of Black Americans by police and the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color have served as stark reminders of the structural racism and inequality that shapes life in the United States.

In this context, consultants, too, have pledged to prioritize equity and combat inequality in their work, and many have embarked on their own initiatives to examine and reform their firms. After years of research on strategy consultants to nonprofits, combined with experience in community-based nonprofit work, I’m able to offer some insight to inform these efforts. I argue that the current practices of consultants in regard to nonprofits can perpetuate existing hierarchies – and that we must both critically reflect on our work and radically re-envision nonprofit strategy if we want to deploy the tools of consulting toward social change. My aim is to help consultants – and nonprofits – best meet the challenges of the day, to make real progress toward dismantling systems of inequality in the sector and the nation as a whole.

How consulting perpetuates hierarchies (but it doesn’t have to)

In my research, I found that while consultants were largely committed to progressive causes and many named social change as a goal of their work, in the course of strategic planning, consultants perpetuated existing hierarchies in the nonprofit sector. The unequal power between consultants, funders, and nonprofits meant that consultants served as conduits of funder ideas into nonprofit plans, by equating fundability with feasibility and framing strategic plans as fundraising tools for clients. Through these mechanisms, consultants perpetuated funders’ power over nonprofits. In pursuit of buy-in for their clients’ ideas, consultants also prioritized the opinions of people with power over nonprofits – funders, partners, and executive-level staff – over the opinions of lower-level staff and clients or communities.

These findings lead to important lessons for consultants. In my research, consultants often viewed helping their clients manage within the existing hierarchies and power dynamics of nonprofit work as the best and most practical way to support them. As such, a key question for all consultants is the degree to which they want to pursue structural change versus focusing on helping organizations succeed within the current system.

For those firms that make the conscious decision that they do want to advance structural change through their work, they might take pandemic recovery as a unique opportunity – to rebuild and recover not in pursuit of business as usual, but, as many others have argued, to a better, more thoughtful nonprofit practice.

Challenging the consulting model

In order to do this, consultants need to take a hard look at their own practice and the ways in which the consulting model makes it difficult to look outside the box. The fact that both consultants and their clients often depend on funders for survival can make it difficult to challenge funder ideas. How might consultants check funders’ influence on nonprofit work and instead prioritize the voices of constituents and communities of color? Leading with clear communication around this intention could help set funder and client expectations while laying the groundwork for honest collaboration.

Similarly, it can be risky for consultants to push clients beyond their comfort zones – after all, consultants are usually hired by nonprofits and therefore leery of alienating them. For example, what should a consultant do if a client doesn’t want to include an important community stakeholder in discussions about the organization’s strategic direction? Pushing back on client assumptions and identifying practices in need of reform is risky for consultants’ livelihoods and business model, yet essential to structural change. To thread this needle, consultants might identify allies within client organizations (which might be frontline staff rather than executive leadership) who can help push for hard, necessary conversations.

Looking in the mirror – reflecting on consulting

Consultants should also reflect on their own power and privilege in the nonprofit sector, as brokers of funding and purveyors of expert advice that is unequally distributed. How might consultants work to make their services more accessible to organizations led by people of color, which tend to win less grant money than white-led organizations? This might require lowering fees, conducting proactive outreach, or assisting with fundraising.

The field of consulting to nonprofits is also predominantly white, though firms led and staffed by people of color are important players. How might consulting firms re-examine hiring practices and the demographic composition of their own teams such that the people who are facilitating strategic plans for nonprofits resemble the communities these plans affect? How might consultants examine the assumptions behind their ideas and processes – how might they diversify their sources of structure and suggestion to include both the usual suspects (e.g. the Harvard Business Review and Stanford Social Innovation Review) and thinkers, leaders, and organizations of color who might be less-represented in these forums?

Radically re-envisioning consultants’ work

More broadly, how might consultants radically re-envision nonprofit strategy to prioritize the needs and voices of everyday people in communities of color, rather than viewing these opinions as ingredients in strategic plans run by nonprofits’ executive teams? In my experience in community-based work, this requires rethinking timelines, relinquishing control, embracing non-linear processes, and prioritizing listening above all else. While difficult in a sector that’s strapped for resources and time, this approach may present a pathway by which consultants can help foster positive social change through their work.

This work requires courage to use our networks and power to open doors for people who are often excluded from decision-making, and to advocate for what access means in practice. What must we do so that people feel comfortable and valued, not just included? Who is the right interpreter to provide language support? Should we compensate people for their time? Adjust schedules to suit the rhythms of their lives? Only by deferring to and arranging our work – and our organizations’ strategies – around the lived experiences of communities of color (rather than asking them to fit into others’ preferences), can we truly make progress on a more just reality for everyone.

Leah Reisman is a sociologist and grassroots nonprofit practitioner, and currently serves as Director of Health & Wellness at Puentes de Salud in Philadelphia. Learn more and contact her at leahreisman.com.

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