The rise and rise of consultants

Kate and I were having a coffee the other day (well term of expression – she was drinking herbal tea and I had a fruit juice). Anyway, she said that she has a concern about the rising trend of organisations engaging consultants to develop a volunteering strategy. It raised questions for me – do I agree with her or not? (Bearing in mind that as a consultant this is one of the things that I do?)

There is a part of me that says of course consultants should not be brought in to an organsiation that already has paid employees with a remit and expertise in volunteering. A paid external consultant would probably make similar recommendations to the exisiting staff member(s) and while it is true that the external consultant may have more perceived credibility because they are external, isn't that one of the driving forces of AVM – to ensure that managers of volunteers have respect and credibility within their organisations?

And then I thought… there is more going on here. Why, if an organisation has money to spare to throw at a consultant, and they recognise the need for someone with the skills, knowledge and experience to develop a volunteering strategy, why don't they look at their exisiting volunteer managers and just pay them more to do the additional, more complex work??

I am not sure that I approve of people on low salaries and lower down the hierarchy in any organsiation taking on senior responsibilities without proper reward (and am certain this was not what Kate was implying). But the truth is that many organisations bring in consultants that have little or no operational experience of managing volunteers to develop strategies that may be unworkable or unfeasible, and as a community of professionals perhaps we should be saying soemthing about that.

What do you think?

8 thoughts on “The rise and rise of consultants

  1. My experience of “consultants” across many fields, i.e. industry, voluntary sector, retail, is that they are more often than not, no more knowledgeable, skilled or otherwise than staff that already exist within organisations.

    It is often the case, however, that organisations are not prepared to admit that people lower down the food chain are better, more skilled, knowledgeable, adapt than they are; and so feel the need to bring in “consultants” so that their self esteem and self worth are left intact within their respective peer groups and/or in the public eye.

    Once appointed, “consultants” then often breeze into organisations wearing rose coloured spectacles, carrying text book ideologies and a copy of the 1 Minute Manager, not to mention the obligatory cuddly toy staff ice breaker, and whooping guide, for talking at and patronising the minions.

    Then once they have stated the obvious (which has probably been said by staff ad infinitum ad nauseum) as sure as eggs are eggs, they will collect their fee and move on to the next organisation, and once the novelty has worn off, leave organisations and staff worse off than before.

    This is not to mention the further dis-empowerment of staff, who often demonstrably have the knowledge, skills, expertise and intrapersonal skills to make things work at ground level and who with good/aware management and support should have been consulted, advanced, promoted in the first place, rather than bringing in an external “consultant”!

    Are there good consultants out there?

    Yes of course there are!

    The question is, do organisations NEED to use them, or should they be more aware of and accepting that the staff they have already can and will make things happen if allowed to do so and are given the credit/recognition and remuneration to go with it.

    One final thought:

    A friend of mine and owner/manager of a very successful, company once said to me of consultants:

    “The real reason they are consultants, is that no one is prepared to give them a regular job!”

  2. I see the rise of “consultants” as a very worrying development, almost like rising damp. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very experienced and talented consultants out there, and it’s not as easy as it sometimes looks (when done properly) to work in a way that involves constantly adapting, processing complex information quickly and accurately, and constantly having to hit the ground running. And I do believe there is a place for consultants. But it seems every Tom, Dick and Sally who’s worked in the voluntary sector for 5 minutes is setting up as an “independent consultant” (often, it seems, when short-term contracts end, for which I do have some sympathy). There are times when I have to wrestle with the duality of finding the situation both laughable and infuritating, especially when the usual suspects hove into view billed as “experts” in a field.

    I had a job interview a couple of years ago for an organisation which, on the face of it, was very professional and well-organised. So I was very surprised to find the initial (group) interview conducted not only by the 2 senior managers on the panel (at a guess they must have been on circa £40,000 pa each) but also an “independent consultant”. After half a day of frankly facile role playing I wasn’t invited back for a second interview. When the “consultant” gave me feedback the main problem seemed to be that I had indicated that, in the event of a very serious complaint being made I would copy the Chief Executive in on my responses for his/her reference. Super-consultant seemed to think this was most inappropriate. Having been the equivalent of Chief Executive before, I knew it was simply good practice. I realised I was being judged by the Emperor’s new consultant- someone with no real practical knowledge of the role she was judging me for.

    In the Kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed person is King. And maybe we need to realise we’re not blind, but perhaps just have our eyes shut.

  3. I’m a consultant! Have been for a year, after twenty – er -something years in the sector.
    I do find myself in sympathy with many of the comments so far – I’ve worked with many freelance trainers and consultants over the years, good, poor, some crazily priced, some happy to give discounts…. An organisation thinking about utilising an external person should have solid reasons for doing so – that’s not always solely about buying in expertise, it may be a time/resource issue. Then there should be a transparent process for selection.
    My attitude is that I’m there to help, to be a reliable, creative adjunct to the team, not a burden, to contribute that fresh perspective, complete on time – and, if possible, leave positive things in place for the future. I try to be all the things that I wanted from a consultant just a short time ago!
    If your management is looking for a consultant, and you really believe the work can be done in house, then make your case eg “I would love to get my teeth into this work, but would need x hours of temp admin help to free me up.”* Otherwise, try and get involved in writing the brief and selecting the person – then use them fully!
    *Re cost – sadly, the logic that money spent on consultants should be spent on staffing isn’t always persuasive for management. In employment terms, consultants are low risk; they’re not potentially with you forever, you’re not liable for pay rises, pensions, training costs, sick pay, holiday pay, employment tribunal cases etc.

  4. Peter you make some great points, we have offered AVM to act as consultants when organisations have been recruiting Head/Director of Volunteering posts to no avail – and unsurprisingly many of those organisations have gone on to 2 or 3 recruitment cycles, mainly because the recruitment panels have consisited of people with no experience and very little knowledge of volunteer management.For me one of the key roles of AVM is to build and promote the managament of volunteers as a distinct profession, and one way of doing this is recognising (and utilising) the experience of our professional colleagues. I look forward to seeing you all at the AGM on 23rd September to discuss other ways of doing this.Debbie Usiskin

  5. You bring up some good points about the internal validation of this profession by others in organisations. However, I would say a decent consultant would value the VMs expertise, ensure that their knowledge of the opreations of the internal systems are reflected in the work. Any strategy, in my opinion is not a paperwork exercise, it is an opportunity to elicit views from others, who may not be sought by blinkered (perhaps) internal staff, and in the process to get by-in for a strategy. I'm not disagreeing that internal staff won't have the expertise, but that a consultant can be above and see through internal politics, organisational culture and prove to be a critical friend to the volunteer manager – especially if that VM knows how to work to get them on board for the volunteering needs that they have identified for the organisation. I think consultants have there place (and I hope you are pleased I think that Debbie) but like any one they need to have a clear brief, access to all the information and resources and be influenced by the internal experts!

  6. I write this as a volunteer manager (in paid and unpaid roles) of now almost 25 years (eek!) and a consultant for three so I am possibly a little biased!

    I do not believe the sector should be frightened to involve consultants. To get all we need to get done in the sector we need to draw on the skills and knowledge of people who are both internal and external to our organisations. There is already too much to do hence why we already involve both volunteers and employees in our work. We need to note that some consultants charge fees for their work and some provide all or some consulting services for free.

    There will be poorly performing consultants (as noted in a couple of the replies already) just as there are internal employees who perform poorly and (dare I say it?) volunteers who perform poorly. Not all people who call themselves consultants are able to bring the amount of external knowledge required and combine it with the properly gathered existing local knowledge. I have seen this done well and also done shabbily. As a company we decided this year, to set the bar high and we now list on our website, the scores given by our clients for our training and consulting services. This is both a challenge to us to get our work right and a challenge to the sector to reach for the best and to make sure that we are aiming high.

    Martin J Cowling
    People First -Total Solutions
    Effective People, Better Organisations, Stronger Society

    United Kingdom: 020 8133 7991

    Views expressed in this message are those of Martin J Cowling except where the sender specifies them to be the views of People First -Total Solutions

  7. Having been in the position of “internal consultant” for 7 years, I found the experience frustrating, demanding and mostly enjoyable. Enjoyable because I loved the role, demanding – well you will all know why- and very frustrating as the majority of my colleagues (and even some of my peers) didn’t understabd the role, the difference from staff HR specialist roles and did not acknowledge the role as a profession. In fact some thought it was more important to look in the direction of CIPD to become qualified and be viewed as a “professional”. It took me a few years to establish my team throughout Scotland and Northern Irleand and I am proud of the fact that the role of Volunteering Adviser is now seen as integral to the area staff teams.
    However my post was made redundant earlier this year after an internal review and having embarked on the trail to seek a new post has been amusing at times but very eye-opening. (My peers have been subjected to a variation of internal and external reviews and await the outcome of these).

    Most employers either recruit in-house and go for an internal applicant who may have the occupational competence i.e fundraising/service related/admin/HR etc, but no volunteering experience, rather than employ a volunteering specialist. I have also lost count of the number of interviewers who have asked me when I was last in a paid role (I worked as a volunteer manager for over 15 years)in spite of this been clearly stated on my CV and relevant details on all applications. When they see the word volunteer/ volunteering they have little understanding of what this is.
    I’ve had two interviews where it was very clear that the funding they had successfully applied for was to recruit a volunteer manager, but they wanted a fundraiser with all the relevant experience in this field as they valued this more – I wonder what the funder would say if I decide to report this? And why dot hey advertise for a volunteering manager along with all the relevant competencies?

    I’ve also been told I was the best candidate for the job, because of my experience, however they went for the internal candidate as they could “hit the ground running as they knew the organisation (they had an admin background) and it wouldn’t take them long to pick up the volunteering side to the role”.
    Unfortunately I feel that this reflects a “pushing down” of the value of the role. For many years it was on the rise and then flattened out. Sadly the roles around appear to be based within another field and managed by the activity rather than be a stand alone role and this means that there is little room for movement upwards in the field, especially if you are not London based.

    I wonder if the same emplyers would do the same with an HR or Learning and Development Manager role?

    Maybe it is time for us to make Volunteer Management truly a profession recognised by a professional body and all that this entails. Then those who have achieved the level of accreditation can be acknowledged and recognised as equal to peers who hold qualifications in these specialist field e.g. HR, Fundraising, Training etc. and not have to do additional qualifications to be accepted as a professional.

    What do others think?

    Sheila McPherson
    Vice Chair
    The Miscarriage Association
    c/o Clayton Hospital

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