Returning to Relationships: Effective Consulting Partnerships (and Beyond)

The funder-grantee relationship is one of the major thematic areas covered by CEP’s grantee survey, which asks about interactions — staff responsiveness, the foundation’s approachability, and grantee perceptions of being treated fairly — as well as the clarity and consistency of communications between the funder and the grantee. Similarly, our donor perception report looks at the relationships between donors and the community foundations to which they give. Why? Because relationships are important. In our grantee survey, we see correlation between grantee ratings of their relationships with their funders and measures of impact. Quality of relationships between donors and community foundations is related to donor satisfaction, too. We say this all the time to foundation staff and board members: relationships matter.

So, it’s interesting to think about these learnings from CEP’s expansive research in light of an article I co-authored with Ellen Irie and colleagues at Informing Change in a recent edition of The Foundation Review dedicated to philanthropy consulting.

So what’s the connection between philanthropy consulting and CEP’s research on relationships between funders and grantees and donors and community foundations?

There’s more and more talk of collaboration in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector — collaboration across sectors, collaboration among funders, collaboration among nonprofits. And there is more research on these types of collaborations, too. Yet at the same time, and despite more occurrences of multiple consultants partnering on a project for a single foundation client, there isn’t much documentation of the conditions under which they provide the most value to the sector. There is not enough consideration of the importance of the relationship between consultants, not enough thought to building a shared understanding of goals and strategy — the same things I think about here at CEP when I partner with foundations using our assessment tools.

So we decided to write about it, in the hopes that it would spark both conversation and, ultimately, better practice in service of doing good work better.

What’s a philanthropy consulting partnership anyway, you might ask? In the article, we conceptualize by structure — whether the relationship with the client is primarily horizontal or vertical in nature. In a vertical structure, a client hires a consultant, who in turn subcontracts to one or more other consultants. Horizontal consulting partnerships occur when two or more consultants partner on a client project.

We also discuss how consulting partnerships can add value to consultants themselves, foundations, and the sector overall — whether by making the work more affordable, adding capacity, or contributing deep content knowledge. And we explore how consulting partnerships can amplify and accelerate good, important work. An example in the article illustrates how a partnership between a lead consultant and a highly specialized content expert added crucial nuance and depth to an evaluation design, which enhanced client learning that, in turn, improved the project.

But like most tools in the philanthropy toolbox, consulting partnerships are neither inherently good nor bad — their value is a function of how they’re used. Half of the article, in fact, shares their pitfalls, ingredients for success, and key pieces of guidance for both foundations and consultants considering utilizing philanthropy consulting partnerships.

It strikes me that so much of our guidance is nothing new — common sense, even. We call for clarity of roles, shared purpose, mutual respect, open communication, and appropriate resourcing. Similar themes come up in other articles in this same TFR issue, such as Barbara Kibbe’s insightful piece, “Both Sides of the Equation,” which calls for effective foundation-consultant engagements characterized by clear roles and expectations, appropriate timing, earned trust, and mutual partnership.

But too often foundations push consultants into “forced marriages” without consideration as to whether they will work together effectively in service of a project. I’ve seen the results of an ill-fitted foundation-initiated consulting partnership — it was a difficult process and resulted in a compromised product. Let’s be honest, how could it not? Too often foundations fail to allocate the appropriate time, resources, and flexibility needed for an engagement to have a chance at success. And too often consultants and foundations jump at a partnership opportunity rather than consider whether it is an appropriate or the best option, as though philanthropy consulting partnerships are the new panacea.

I can’t help but wonder how much stronger philanthropy consulting partnerships — and the entire philanthropic and nonprofit sector, in fact — would be were we all a bit more attentive to how our structures, systems, and cultures facilitate or hinder the development of shared understandings, open communication, and mutual respect. How much better would our work be — and how many more lives could we improve — if we were just a bit more attentive to the relationships that undergird all that we do?

Naomi Orensten is a manager, assessment tools, at CEP. Follow her on Twitter at @naomiorensten.

You can read her article in The Foundation Review, entitled “Effective Consulting Partnerships to Philanthropy,” here.

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