When we think of the term “consulting,” the image conjured in our minds is often one of businesspeople centered around a table collaborating together to implement organizational change. That change, and the avenues through which it may happen, is dependent on a number of factors, but the end goal more often than not is to improve the quality or functionality of a company, its employees, or its practices. Perhaps a business brings aboard a consultant to help implement or drive DEI initiatives within their company, or hires a consultancy firm to facilitate a new operational supply chain strategy.
Rarely, however, do we hear the term “consulting” used in tandem with that of “philanthropy.” But as Alexandra McGroarty of McGroarty & Co. Consulting (MGC) tells us, the two practices are more aligned than we tend to think.
“Consultants have historically played a role in helping nonprofits and charitable organizations reach their goals,” McGroarty tells us. “Without expert consultants to help guide them, those organizations are limited in their ability to enact change.”
As McGroarty explains, the role of consultants and consultancy as a practice regarding philanthropy isn’t only to help nonprofits and charities implement internal change, but to help them implement the broader changes they wish to see in society. In this way, consulting is a vital component of a charitable organization’s or nonprofit’s success through its philanthropic initiatives.
Consultants have the ability to disrupt traditional hierarchies
At its core, philanthropy exists as an avenue for the disruption of societal norms. For example, philanthropic efforts that seek to improve the quality of life for marginalized or disadvantaged communities disrupt institutional barriers often rooted in systematic racism. Additionally, philanthropic work that serves to provide those communities with greater access to personal and/or professional development tools acts as a disruptor to similar barriers to equitable employment opportunities.
“When a consultant is hired to work with a charity or nonprofit organization,” McGroarty says, “they must understand that even though they and their work remain accountable to that organization’s leadership, it is ultimately tied to the overarching mission of that organization. In this way, consultants operating in the nonprofit sector have to determine whether the work they are doing will have the broadest and deepest impact on those the organization aims to serve, or simply on the organization itself.”
As McGroarty explains, consultants operating in this way must not only question the traditional structure of the charities or nonprofits they consult for, but also those of traditional consulting models. For example, if a nonprofit organization hires a consultant or consultancy agency to help implement a new strategy for positive social change, but finds that the work they were hired to perform will better serve the organization or its funders — rather than the constituents it aims to serve — the consultant will be presented with a choice as to whether or not they will continue collaborating with the organization in an attempt to rework that strategy.
“Part of operating as a consultant is possessing the ability to push a client out of their comfort zone without bumping shoulders,” McGroarty adds. “This is particularly difficult in the nonprofit sector, but also a sector where this is most necessary. If a nonprofit’s hierarchy of leadership truly wishes to meet their goals and enact the change they wish to, the role of a consultant is to help navigate them through this process. It requires being diligent and amicable to all stakeholders at the client’s organization, but also remaining focused on the ultimate goal.”
Consultancy as advocacy in the world of philanthropy
When it comes to the world of philanthropy, the role of consultancy evolves from one as a professional guide or navigator into one of a strategic visionary. This is especially true when consulting for charities, nonprofits, or other organizations seeking to spearhead wider positive social change, as it requires strong networking capabilities to bridge gaps and open doors for those affected by the client’s own decision-making process.
“In recent years, more companies and organizations than ever before have sought the professional assistance of consultants to help them implement strategies aligning with their internal DEI initiatives,” says McGroarty. “In order to help those organizations formulate and enact the most effective and meaningful initiatives possible, consultants must not only hold a deep understanding of what DEI is, but how it impacts the client, their team members, and their goals.”
Without that base of knowledge, McGroarty explains, the role (and impact) a consultant or consultancy firm will have on an organization, its initiatives, and its goals will be minimal—as will the ultimate result of those initiatives and goals on the part of the client. By understanding this, the role of a consultant operating within the realm of philanthropy becomes one of advocacy as much as it remains one of professional guidance.
“When a consultant is able to fully buy-in to the philanthropic vision of a charitable or nonprofit client,” McGroarty concludes, “the quality of work they perform becomes exponentially more valuable. This is because they are no longer merely working to serve the client themselves, but also those whom the client aims to serve. With that vision as the consultant’s proverbial North Star, the path towards mutual success becomes much more clear, and its potential impact far broader in the long run.”
Indeed, as McGroarty explains, the place where the line between “consultant” and “advocate” becomes blurred is perhaps one of the clearest ways forward for successful consultancy work in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. By helping organizations drive meaningful change as a consultant, that consultant is inherently limited in their ability to offer professional guidance. But when the consultant is able to also act as an advocate for their client — as well as its vision and those that vision aims to serve — the ultimate goal becomes all the easier to reach.