Key Questions for Choosing Family Foundation Consultants

Finding the right consultant for a family foundation may seem intimidating at first. How do you know what to look for? How do you find the person or firm with the right skills, expertise and personality for your family foundation? Fortunately, there is a guide available, based on where your family foundation is in its life cycle.

In their Foundation Review article, “The Family Foundation Life Cycle and the Role of Consultants,” Melissa L. Nemon, Ph.D. and Claudia J. Jacobs, M.S.W. of the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy, and Mary Phillips, M.S. and Judy Sneath, M.B.A., of GMA Foundations explain six stages of development for a family foundation: Starting up; Growing; Maturing; Stationary; Renewing; and Ending. For family foundations at each stage, there are universal questions of timing, fit and clarity that can help secure a productive consulting relationship.

The authors recommend that family foundations consider the following:

Life-Cycle Stage: Where the foundation is in its life cycle has a great deal to do with the kind of help it needs and the skills required from a consultant. This is particularly true during transitions from one phase to the next.

Questions to ask:

  • What is our life-cycle stage?
  • What milestones are on the horizon?
  • What are the main concerns of our leadership and board?
  • Do we know where we want to be in one, five, or 10 years?

Foundation’s Needs: Understanding what you wish to achieve and ensuring that key leaders understand current and upcoming needs helps identify the consulting skills and expertise required. For example, a foundation in the start-up phase may need help bringing family board members together around a common vision or workplan, while a more seasoned foundation may want content expertise for a new initiative or help with a leadership transition.

Questions to ask:

  • What do we need?
  • Do the foundation board and staff agree on how to answer that question?
  • What would make the consulting engagement a success?
  • What is our timing and budget? When do we need it? How much will we pay for it?

The Right “Fit”: Consultants offer a wide range of skill sets, experiences and personalities from which to choose — and as the authors state, “a bad fit can doom a consulting engagement.” Consultants may not need to be family foundation experts, but will need to have the right mix of characteristics and competencies to understand the foundation.

Questions to ask:

  • Does our board respond better to a commanding presence or a collaborative approach?
  • Does the consultant need extraordinary amounts of patience and persistence, or perhaps the ability to engage with differing personalities?
  • Is cultural competency a concern?
  • Do we need a facilitator, a process consultant, a content expert, a strategic planner?

Clear Goals: Clear and specific goals for the engagement, preferably spelled out in a contract or other written agreement, are essential. If this consulting engagement is step one of a longer plan, consider including recommendations and next steps as one of those goals.

Questions to ask:

  • What resources are necessary for the consultant to do the job well?
  • What is the agreed upon implementation plan, timeline, and budget?
  • Is there anything off the table that should be addressed up front?
  • How will the consultant report results to the staff or board?
  • What will happen at the end of the engagement?

These four key elements are mapped out in a one-page Family Foundation/Consultant Guide, available within the article text. By using this tool and asking key questions, family foundations can plan for, select and leverage the best of philanthropy consulting to further their missions and impact.


This post was adapted from “The Family Foundation Life Cycle and the Role of Consultants,” written by Melissa L. Nemon, Ph.D. and Claudia J. Jacobs, M.S.W. of the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy, and Mary Phillips, M.S. and Judy Sneath, M.B.A., of GMA Foundations. 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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