Investing in the Art of Consulting


Consultants are key players in the Fund’s model of building capacity at our local nonprofits. The grantees depend on the expertise of consultants to guide and assist their staff or boards through planning, board development, marketing, fundraising, etc. And we as funders rely on the grantees to develop their organizations into more effective investment opportunities.

Milwaukee’s consultant talent pool has always been relatively shallow.  Around 2000, it became clear that the Fund needed to act to improve the skills of local nonprofit consultants.  Certainly, we had some depth in marketing or technology, but according to several sources, including Fund evaluation reports, we had gaps in board development and corporate structure, as well as in organizational analysis and planning.

To address this concern, the Nonprofit Management Fund sponsored three multi-year professional development institutes.

  • Board Development 2001-2003

  • Diagnostic Clinic Assessments 2004-2009

  • Board Development 2008-2010

While we developed the knowledge base and consulting skill sets of 22 consultants, we deepened the talent pool by only a relatively small measure.

In 1997 and again in 2014, I queried a group of consultants on how they hone their consulting skills or in which professional development activities they participate. Both times, I received the same response. The first minute after the question was posed—SILENCE. Then one or two of the consultants begin to enumerate a list of conferences they attend or journals they read. Over the next few days, I receive two or three more responses that note conferences, journals, or something they’ve written. Overall, however, the responses are underwhelming.

Although the Fund identified 70 leadership development programs in Milwaukee, none are aimed at increasing the knowledge of consultants or enhancing their skills in consultation. Over the years, I proposed that the Fund organize more modest activities for consultants, such as the following.

  • Professional development breakfast series 4-6 times a year featuring a provocative and/or educational speaker on topics of interest to the group.

  • Week-long immersion course on “The Art of Consulting”, designed to be a tuition-based intensive with a one-day pre-session on “Contracts & Work plans”; a week-long series on “Building Your Consulting Skills”; and, a one-day post-session on “Report Presentation”.

  • A one-year institute on “Planning”.

Although the funding partners seriously considered, and sometimes debated these ideas, their final decision was to say no. Why? Their investments in the three previous institutes approximated $200,000. While a vocal minority of funding partners stated that we needed to continue investing in our local talent, the majority noted it was time for the consultants to invest in their own development. 


 I think we need more skilled consultants, but not more individuals to hang out a shingle. Milwaukee needs depth, not breadth. We need talented professionals in their 40s and 50s who are willing to learn how to consult—not more boomers looking for a part-time gig!

My 40 year consulting practice has been my career—not just something I did between jobs. I can now see the time horizon at which I will depart from this very difficult, yet significantly rewarding practice of strengthening nonprofits.  It is not easy to be a good nonprofit consultant. As much as one may know about a particular aspect of nonprofit organizations, it is not enough to just share; more importantly you must teach/enable/guide/coach and coax your client to their next level of development.


Who is willing to lead?  Who is ready to follow?  How will you learn the art of consulting?





1 comment | Add a New Comment
1. Brenda Perpterson | May 15, 2014 at 08:05 AM EDT

The beauty of vison space, the time needed to strategize and focus on the future of our communities is becoming a lost art in addressing our community's social issues.

Time set aside for community leaders to recognize other community members who have the potential to become great leaders. We all know that having trained professional consultants can help direct, educate or inspire our good leaders to become great leaders. How do we identify and then connect our future leaders with these educators. Organizations like NonProfit Management Fund are needed more than ever to help provide the vision space and education in the Greater Milwaukee Area.

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