By Kris Putnam-Walkerly
The CEO of a prestigious family foundation once told me that one of the main reasons she retained me as a consultant was that when I walked in the door, all her staff – from the receptionist to the tech guys to the program staff – were happy to see me. I easily fit in to her team and their culture, she explained.
Another client frequently came to my house for daylong brainstorming and planning sessions. I lived in a tranquil, wooded setting. He felt relaxed, I’d make lunch, and by the end of the day easel paper filled with ideas, clarity, and next steps filled my living room.
When I worked at Stanford University evaluating youth violence prevention programs, a new colleague observed me at a conference talking with all the community organizations we were evaluating. Shocked, he said “I can’t believe everyone gave you hugs! Most people don’t hug their evaluator.”
All of these stories remind me that the single most important factor of a successful consultant-foundation relationship is trust. Yes your consultant needs to be qualified to help you, bringing the right experience and skills to the table that will further your efforts and add value. But that value is greatly lessened, or even damaged, if trust is not present.
Trust can be defined as simply maintaining confidentiality or shared respect, but it really goes much deeper. Most of the time, the work that needs to be done in a consulting engagement requires some sort of change, whether it’s simply getting used to a new face on the team or making a small tweak in an existing process, to creating a wholesale shift in strategy or launching something completely new and different. No matter what kind of change is involved, our human nature demands that we trust those suggesting or working through change with us. If we don’t feel that trust, we will find ways to resist.
As a consultant, how do you establish trust?
- Be yourself. Authenticity is far more important than having an MBA from Harvard, a long list of prestigious clients or any other flag consultants want to wave in front of their clients. You must let people see who you are before they can form a trusting relationship with you.
- Turn down business that is not congruent with your values, expertise and skills. We all need to pay the mortgage, but not at the expense of learning on the foundation’s dime or worse, working with someone we don’t like or don’t believe in. You can’t establish trust when you aren’t qualified for the job or it causes you undo stress.
- Spend time intentionally building the relationship. When I am talking to a potential client I will gladly get on a plane at my own expense to meet with them. That is how important the relationship is to me and to the success of the engagement. My clients need to decide if I am the right fit for them, and I need to know that they are the right fit for me.
As a funder, how do you know if you can trust your consultant?
- Trust your instinct. A consultant can be “good on paper” with all the right degrees, experience, and board affiliations. But suspend all of that, and for a moment focus on what your gut tells you. The consultant might be the right fit for someone else, but not for you.
- Don’t confuse trust with someone who tells you what you want to hear. A consultant who simply re-affirms what you want to do so as not to rock the boat may not actually be trustworthy and may not truly respect you. A good consultant brings wisdom and perspective, and should be willing to push back, challenge your assumptions, and ask “Why?” It shouldn’t be painful, but occasional discomfort can be a good sign of a healthy consultant-client relationship.
- Do your due diligence. Call the consultant’s past clients and ask questions to determine if he or she is trustworthy. These questions might include: Did you feel you could share sensitive information with this consultant? Did he keep confidential matters confidential? Did she represent you and your foundation well in external meetings? Did you enjoy working with her? What was your staff’s experience working with him?
Foundations use consultants for a number of reasons – and those engagements can be highly satisfactory when mutual trust exists. Parties on both sides of the equation owe it to one another — and to themselves — to ensure that trust is a cornerstone of any consulting relationship.
Kris Putnam-Walkerly is the president of Putnam Consulting Group. She is a recognized expert and leader in philanthropic strategy development, implementation, evaluation, and communication. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.