Choosing and briefing a consultant or trainer
This step-by-step guide explains how to choose a management consultant or trainer for a voluntary or community organisation. We hope it contributes to many contracts successfully carried out to the satisfaction of the organisation and of the consultant or trainer. It includes:
Step 1: Write the initial brief
Before trying to identify a suitable consultant or trainer, it is important to draw up an initial brief for the work. This could be anything from a short outline of the problem you want to address, to a more elaborate description of the proposed work, complete with provisional costings and timetable.
If possible this brief should include:
- a summary description of your organisation: its purpose and values, what it does, its size and structure (paid staff, volunteers, management committee/board, members of the organisation, and users/clients), and its finances;
- the need or problem that has led you to consider using an external consultant or trainer,and why you think this need or problem exists;
- what you want the consultancy or training to achieve;
- how you see the outside person’s role (a trainer helping people learn, a facilitator helping people communicate more openly and effectively with one another, a consultant helping people address particular tasks or problems, a mentor or coach helping an individual reflect on her or his experience, and/or any other role you think might be appropriate);
- the person or persons responsible for commissioning the work and for managing the contract;
- when you want the work to start, and if appropriate when you expect or require it to finish;
- if appropriate, a provisional budget for the work (some organisations give a set figure or a maximum figure and ask the consultant or trainer what can be provided within that amount; others describe the work and expectations in detail, and ask the consultant or trainer to say what they would charge for that work);
- whether the provisional budget is inclusive or exclusive of VAT (a consultant or trainer who is registered for VAT will have to charge VAT on most or all of the work they do for you);
- a description of the kind of person(s) you want to engage: their values, experience, knowledge, skills and personal perspectives (this person specification will assist you to apply equal opportunities principles in selection);
- how and when reviews will occur;
- a deadline for submission of proposals.
The brief should be checked out with others in the organisation to ensure there is broad agreement about what the work is expected to achieve and what sort of person is sought.
Step 2: Identify people with relevant experience
If you want to contact a large number of MDN members — all of whom specialise in management, governance and/or organisational consultancy and training with voluntary organisations — you can submit a short summary of your brief to MDN at Submit a work opportunity. This will be checked, then posted on the MDN website and notified to MDN members by email. Alternatively, you can email it to firstname.lastname@example.org – see Criteria for work opportunities for what it should include.
Members who are interested will contact you direct.
If you want to maintain more control over who you contact, the directory of MDN members enables you to search against more than thirty management specialisms relevant to voluntary sector management (for example evaluation of services, board/management committee roles, managing change), and more than a dozen approaches or methods of working (for example work with new managers, organisational reviews, policy development). This list should help you clarify the nature of the work you want done, and you can search for MDN members who specialise in that type of work. If nothing on the list is quite right, choose the headings which are closest to what you want.
MDN members are accustomed to working with a very wide range of not-for-profit organisations, and can quickly grasp the issues that are likely to be relevant to an organisation like yours. But for some types of management training or consultancy, it may be important to look for someone with specific experience in organisations undertaking work similar to yours. The directory of members lets you search by more than forty sector specialisms (for example disability, arts, economic regeneration), to find MDN members who have particular expertise with each type of organisation.
Most MDN members travel throughout the UK. But you may want to try to find someone who is based near you, so you can search by region or nation to see if there is someone suitable nearby.
Most MDN members do a range of management, governance and organisational training and/or consultancy. To avoid having lists which are so long as to be meaningless, members are asked to identify eight main management specialisms and six sector specialisms for directory searches. For detailed information about individual members you will need to contact them, but first go to their profile in the directory, where most members describe their experience and specialisms in some detail.
You may also want to use sources other than the MDN listings to locate suitable individuals or firms. Such sources might include your local council for voluntary service or rural community council, an umbrella or support organisation for your type of work, and/or Skills Platform at www.skillsplatform.org. You might also want to advertise in voluntary sector, local or national media.
You should look at the person’s website, if they have one, and may also want to look for them on LinkedIn and do a Google search.
Step 3: Draw up a shortlist
From the trainers or consultants you have identified from the MDN directory, the work opportunity you have submitted to the MDN website or other sources, choose three to five people who meet most of the criteria on your person specification.
Step 4: Make initial contact and ask for information
There are two main options for making contact:
- Write to the people you have shortlisted explaining how you heard of them, enclosing your full brief and describing the next steps you will be taking to choose a consultant or trainer; or
- Start with an exploratory email or telephone call and then send the brief if the person is interested and available and you are still interested.
The purpose of this stage is to explore in some depth your needs and their suitability.
For large tenders, some organisations do two stages to avoid a large number of consultants putting a lot of time into preparing tenders, which only one will win. In the first stage, up to ten interested people are asked to send in a short amount of information under given headings. The organisation then selects a shortlist of three or so. These are invited to go on to the second stage which involves doing a full tender document, with a different, more detailed set of headings. Some or all of these people may then be invited for interview.
For shorter pieces of work, written proposals, email correspondence and or telephone interviews may be used to gain more information about the person and the general approach they might take.
The kinds of questions you might ask for work of any size or type include:
- Would you be interested in taking on this work [or, Would you be interested in submitting a tender for the work based on the written brief]?
- Are you available on the dates or in the timescale required?
- What kind of work have you done before that is relevant to this training or consultancy?
- What kind of approach do you take in general, and what approach would you take to this work?
- What relevant skills or expertise do you have?
- What values or principles underpin your work?
- How do you demonstrate your commitment to equality of opportunity?
- Would you be directly involved in doing the work, or would you pass it on to someone else? If the latter, how would the person be chosen?
- If you would do the work yourself, would you do it on your own or with others? If the latter, how will your associates be chosen?
- What are your systems for quality assurance? How do you review and evaluate your work?
- What are your fees for work of this type? Will VAT be charged? What additional costs would you anticipate as expenses?
- If we want to have a pre-meeting with you before deciding whether to hire you, do you charge for this meeting and/or for travel costs?
- Can you provide further written information about yourself?
- Can you provide referees for similar work you have done?
If the work involves the consultant providing information or advice on financial or legal matters, you should also confirm that they have appropriate professional indemnity insurance. If the work involves the trainer or consultant doing anything that could lead to property damage or personal injury (for example computer training, where equipment could be damaged, or team building exercises involving physical games) you should confirm that they have appropriate public liability insurance.
The consultant or trainer will ask questions about your organisation, to seek further clarity about the brief and to discuss the background to it.
What happens next will depend on the time and money involved in the contract, and on how you want to involve other people in your organisation in the process. You may be ready to decide which person to engage or you may want to meet the person, on your own or with others who will be involved in the consultancy or training.
Step 5: Meet the person
For very straightforward off-the-shelf training, it may not be necessary to meet the trainer before making a decision about whom to use. But for most consultancy and in-house training it is important for you and other relevant people in your organisation to meet the person before making a final decision. The number of consultants/trainers you meet will depend on:
- the time and money involved in the work;
- the time and money involved in pre-meetings;
- how many of those shortlisted meet your essential criteria;
- your preferred process for deciding whom to hire. One option is to meet several people and then decide. Another option is to start with the person who seems best suited, from the information you have received, and then meet your second choice only if the first turns out to be unsuitable and so on.
The meeting should not be seen as a “recruitment” interview. Rather, it is a two-way process that is the start of the potential contract between you and the consultant or trainer. Make sure the appropriate people from your organisation are present, and be clear beforehand about how the decision will be made about which person to hire. Also confirm that the person you are meeting will be doing your work, rather than a colleague who may be less experienced.
When arranging meetings be clear whether the person charges for time and/or expenses. If they do not charge, you may want to offer to pay travelling expenses and possibly a small fee in recognition of the time they are giving you. Be aware of the costs to yourselves and the consultant in having repeated meetings before a contract is even agreed.
The meeting should be well planned. If you are meeting several people, you may want to ask them to make a presentation about how they would tackle the work and what they see as the key issues.
If you are meeting only your first choice you might also want to ask for a presentation but then both parties decide whether to proceed. The discussion could then move on to the negotiation of the contract for the work.
These meetings are the opportunity for a discussion and negotiation of your needs, the details of how they might be addressed, the skills required, the costs, timetables and so on. They are also an opportunity for you to assess the person’s suitability: their general approach, values, skills, experience and integrity. The way the consultant behaves and the quality of the presentation and written materials are useful indicators of how the consultancy itself is likely to proceed.
Step 6: Make the decision
Your original brief and person specification give the basis for assessing whom you should hire.
Evidence for choosing who to work with will come from your personal contact through emails, phone calls, meetings or previous contact; written information such as brochures, CVs and tenders; and references or recommendations from other people.
Step 7: Agree the contract
Once you have made a decision, the agreements arrived at should be incorporated into a written contract. This might be drawn up by you, or by the consultant/trainer, or jointly. The contract covers both the work which will be done and the conditions under which it will be done.
As a starting point, the contract should include information under the following headings:
- the work to be done;
- the person(s) who will be delivering the work;
- the person or post-holder who is the lead contact in the organisation;
- the timescale and deadlines for the stages, if relevant;
- the fees to be paid;
- what expenses will be charged for, and at what rate;
- whether the trainer/consultant is registered for VAT, and if so whether VAT is included in the fees and expenses or will be added;
- when invoices will be presented and when payment is due;
- any required insurances;
- the work to be done by the organisation e.g. arranging meetings, printing;
- copyright of written and other creative materials (note that unless agreed otherwise, copyright belongs to the creator of the work, i.e. to the consultant/trainer), and the extent of any licence to use copyright work;
- compliance with the organisation’s equal opportunities, data protection, confidentiality, health and safety and other relevant policies and procedures;
- how and when the work will be reviewed and what will happen if either party is dissatisfied;
- arrangements for postponement or termination by the organisation (proportion of fees and timescales);
- arrangements for postponement or termination by the consultant (through illness, emergencies or other reasons).
Large contracts for which the person submitted a successful tender will refer to the tender and/or the brief for more conditions that must be met. Some consultants have contracting documents themselves which spell out aspects of the agreement such as when dates are deemed to be confirmed, the detailed tasks for the organisation in running training events and the copyright of materials.
Both parties should keep signed copies of the contract.
Step 8: Monitoring and evaluating the work
In all consultancies there are at least three aspects that you can evaluate:
- The outputs. This might be the action points agreed at a team development event, the final draft of a business plan, the new structure document or the final report on the work.
- The process. These are the tasks or activities undertaken in order to achieve the desired outcomes and the way they are carried out. These can be reviewed while they are happening in order to change them. Reviews at the end will assist in deciding whether to do it that way again in future.
- The outcomes. Evaluating what happens as a result of the work falls into two categories: evaluation of changes to what you do after the work, and evaluation of the results of those changes.
Evaluating outcomes is best done over time and will involve reviews months, and sometimes even years, after the work was done.
If the stages described in the steps above are followed then the framework for this monitoring and evaluation of the work should be in place. This would include clarity as to:
- what is to be achieved and success criteria;
- stages in the process;
- products of the work;
- agreed ground rules (e.g. confidentiality both internally and externally to the organisation, to raise concerns as soon as they occur);
- how and when reviews of the work will happen (e.g. at the end of each session, in the middle and at the end of the contract, and at specified times after completion of the work);
- agreements on how any concerns will be dealt with. This is likely to be by the lead contact person and those involved in management and review of the work.
If you are dissatisfied
Even the best-planned consultancies can go wrong. The following actions may help to resolve concerns before they become a major issue:
- raise concerns early and obtain the views of relevant colleagues in the organisation and of the consultant;
- refer back to the contract and the brief;
- be clear what you need to remedy the problem;
- use the monitoring and review processes you have set up;
- convene a special meeting of the group managing the contract (you will probably have to pay for the time of the consultant in dealing with the concerns, unless you agreed otherwise in the contract);
- consider whether this type of dissatisfaction is a pattern for you in your work with consultants, and if so, what causes it;
- if the dissatisfaction is becoming intractable, seek third party advice or consider using an external mediator.
The keys to a successful arrangement with a consultant or trainer are clarity on the part of the organisation and the consultant/trainer about what is expected, and willingness to discuss and resolve problems or issues before they become too serious.