Benefits and Challenges of Consulting Partnerships

Foundations and nonprofits often work in partnership with one another, but what about the consultants that support their work? Little has been written about the ways in which different consultants can (and are) working together to serve funders, but in a recent edition of the Foundation Review, Ellen Irie, Kim Ammann Howard, and Ria Sengupta Bhatt of Informing Change, along with Naomi Orensten, Center for Effective Philanthropy, explore the various types of consulting partnerships, as well as the pros and cons these partnerships can bring to consultants, foundations and the broader field.

“In our 16 years as strategic consultants to philanthropy, we – along with many other consultants – draw on a variety of tools to help our clients learn, improve, and enhance their impact,” they write in “Effective Consulting Partnerships to Philanthropy.” “One such tool is partnerships…Not all philanthropy-consulting partnerships are successful, and they are by no means always necessary. When done well, however, consulting partnerships can provide foundations with better services, guidance, and products by augmenting expertise and capacity, deepening the legitimacy of work and improving affordability.”

The authors describe the benefits to consultants, foundations and the field as follows (edited from original text):

Consultant Benefits It is not uncommon for consultants to proactively reach out to one another to compose a more competitive bid. Consultants also report deep satisfaction from partnerships that are based on trust and shared values. These partnerships can provide effective opportunities for shared learning, ultimately making both more effective consultants. As one consultant [interviewed for this article] observed, “The collaborative process makes the work better. Different parties bring different knowledge bases, and I find that really rich for the work and on a personal level.”

Foundation Benefits The integrated skills, expertise, knowledge, and perspectives offered in consulting partnerships can provide funders with higher-quality, more nuanced and perceptive processes and products than they could “buy” from a single consultant. A foundation can benefit from the best and brightest thinking in a border-crossing consulting partnership.

At their best, consulting partnerships compound the individual value of each consultant to the funders…This is not always the case, though; sometimes funders relate to consultants more as grantees. However, the very nature of consulting partnerships – providing multiple minds and perspectives – uniquely positions the consultants as strategic resources and thought partners to foundations that can enhance learning and effectiveness.

Field-Level Benefits When done well, consulting partnerships are an opportunity for philanthropy to strengthen consultants’ field-level contributions. By their very nature, consulting partnerships facilitate connections and bring people together. They can also create knowledge and better practices that go beyond a single foundation and can help to enhance impact in the philanthropic sector and various nonprofit fields (e.g., arts, health, education). Multiple minds that cross experience, communities, age, gender, race and/or ethnicity, and other factors can spur insights with broad application and the potential to bring about important change.

In addition to the benefits of consulting partnerships, there are some unique challenges that consultants and foundations should be aware of as they consider and engage in these partnerships. A few of these challenges are specific to the practice of philanthropy itself, while many others relate to consulting partnerships for any type of client, including philanthropy.

The Funder/Grantee Relationship Grantees may see consultants as an arm of the funder, or even confuse the consultant with the funder. At times this is appropriate – but it must not be assumed that each consultant in the partnership has this same level of authority.

Consultants may also have preexisting relationships with particular grantees, or they may have more experience working with funders or with nonprofits. Existing relationships can affect how consultants operate with grantees, whether explicitly or implicitly.

In addition, the nature of the consultancy may put the team more clearly working on behalf of the funder (e.g., supporting the grantmaking process) or as an intermediary between funders and their grantees (e.g., convening a learning community). In either case, though, the consultants are ultimately accountable to their client: the funder.

In all of these situations, the key is to clearly articulate roles and relationships across all parties. It is important not to assume that the consultant team is one and the same entity. It is important to take into account the nature of the funder/grantee relationship and to reflect the foundation’s intentions.

The Field-Level View of Philanthropy One of the unique opportunities afforded to philanthropy is an expansive, field-level view of complex social issues. Therefore, funders sometimes initiate consulting partnerships because they see each partner as providing a particular understanding of that broad landscape. Together, the partnership helps the funder piece together a picture that cannot be seen from any one vantage point. It is important for each consultant in this type of partnership, therefore, to understand how the funder sees their role and how it complements the perspectives of others, so that they can better deliver on their unique contribution to the work.

Differing Styles and Structures Consulting teams may differ on how often and through which medium to communicate with the client, the formality of reporting, product design, and more. To navigate these differences, consulting partnerships require additional time for project coordination across two or more entities, a greater level of communication over the course of the project, and more attention to involving and supporting each other (e.g., internal planning meetings, multiple consultants on client calls).

“As with any consultancy, there ought to be very good reasons to form a partnership – reasons that outweigh the potential challenges,” say the authors. To learn more about consulting partnerships, read the full article.


This post was adapted from “Effective Consulting Partnerships to Philanthropy,” written by Ellen Irie, M.P.H., Kim Ammann Howard, Ph.D., and Ria Sengupta Bhatt, M.P.P. of Informing Change, and Naomi Orensten, Ed.M. of the Center for Effective Philanthropy. This article appeared in first-ever edition of The Foundation Review dedicated to philanthropy consulting (vol. 7, Iss. 1). Click here for this article and other open access articles from this edition.

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