It Ain’t Cheap: 

Making the Most of the Consultancy Relationship



By Mary E. Costello © April 2007

Independent Consultant

Grant Writing & Program Development

Creative Edge Consulting



Entering into a consultancy arrangement is a big decision that carries with it a large price tag.  Since the vast majority of new and even more established non-profits struggle with balancing the bottom line, it is critical that you get the biggest bang for your buck.


I am often saddened by hearing nightmare stories shared by my new customers where they, before, paid large sums of money for “grant mills” and other so-called consultants who led them astray, filled them with false hope, and eagerly took their limited financial resources.  These new non-profit leaders were typically no further along one year later than when they first started, and, they had nothing to show for it in either appropriate organizational materials or additional sources of funding support.


Let’s start with the basics…


Anyone who guarantees a grant award for your organization, with limited exceptions, such as knowing the funder personally, is out-right lying to you.  Point blank.  Because of this, it serves you well to do your homework—such as reading articles like mine.  You will find many other resources on the web that will tell you the same thing, if, that is, you can determine the truth from fallacies.  This isn’t always so easy to do considering how many sharks are out there claiming that funding for individuals, new businesses, and non-profits is readily available….just WAITING for you to claim your piece of the pie.  As they say, …if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.


Likewise, this doesn’t end with just finding a grant writer or fundraiser.  You also need to choose other consultants and professionals carefully.  Accountants and attorneys have their areas of expertise as well, and one that is new to non-profit law or accounting is not your best bet.  You will pay extra for their learning curve.


Let’s focus only on grant writing for now, though.  We’ll deal with your other outsourcing needs in a later document.


Depending on your own skill level, your organization may require more or less involvement with a consultant.  If you are completely new to the non-profit world, you will likely need someone like me who specializes in developing new programs in addition to creating grant proposals and other marketing tools.   In fact, if you ARE new to this and have never set up a program before, it behooves you to choose a consultant who can lead you from point A-Z.


Perhaps this is my bias in some ways, but I would never hire someone to help me who hasn’t worked as an administrator in a non-profit setting.  Simply being a good writer is not enough, since you need someone who can find the “holes” in your idea and implementation plan—someone who can ask the right questions because they understand what it takes to run an organization efficiently.  This encompasses everything from your budget to staffing plans, personnel and program policies and procedures, and exploring your full vision for the future.


On the other hand, if you are a seasoned pro, you might only need a talented wordsmith, someone who can locate appropriate grant opportunities and accurately interpret funding guidelines.  Still, I have worked with many brilliant people who think they can do more on their own than they actually can.  They may even be good writers who think they pegged a grant application until I did a final edit review for them to find they didn’t answer questions fully, if at all, and missed the boat on what the grantmaker wanted.  So, honest self-evaluation of your capabilities is pretty important here.  There most certainly is an art and craft to successful applications beyond the no-brainer of completely following the specified instructions.


Determining priorities is of great importance when starting a relationship with a hired gun.  With that, I would encourage you to ask them to develop a funding and, if applicable, program development plan.  This usually cannot be effectively prepared until the consultant fully reviews your materials and does some grant funding prospect research for you.  It also involves some phone or in-person consults in order for that professional to fully digest what you need to do and who you are.  So, typically, you should expect to pay for a period of evaluation before you get into full swing.


Even though grant writing consultant fees can range anywhere from $35 to hundreds of dollars per hour, the old adage of “you get what you pay for” applies.   You will end up paying more for the consultants with greater experience and expertise in certain areas.


This doesn’t mean that you might not benefit from hiring someone who charges on the lower level of the spectrum.  But, do the math.  If the average rate in the United States is $60 per hour for a grant writer, is it the demand in your specific geographic region that keeps this person’s rates lower or is it that he or she is new to the biz?  Like always, think that through before you make a choice.


As I said before, choosing someone with a degree in English or communications might work well for you. Yet, as a Social Worker, I personally offer an understanding of community programs, including all the interconnected components of psychology and interpersonal dynamics, mental health and human development theories, advocacy, casemanagement, impact of political policy, and overall systems-oriented approaches.  With that comes a natural draw to human services jargon and universally accepted non-profit terminology, which matter in proposals and verbal communications.  It adds to credibility for your organization.  This is just some food for thought when you determine your requirements regarding you who hire as your consultant, based on your particular needs and abilities.


I admit that Social Workers are notoriously elitist when it comes to our background and training.  But, if I didn’t have that as my foundation, I wouldn’t be the successful consultant that I am today.  My writing ability is only the icing on the cake, not the reason for my work to have the impact it does for many organizations.  In order for an agency to do well, it is the PROGRAM that matters, not necessarily the wording, when it comes to written materials that garner support of any kind.


So, when choosing your consultant and beginning work, here are some things to keep in mind:


  1. A consultant will charge you for phone consults, any reports you request, and, even for repeating information to your other managers and organizational leaders.   Because of this, it is in your best interest to choose ONE person to communicate with this consultant.  You (or the designated representative), in turn, should bring information to the others involved and then discuss feedback with the consultant in a 1:1 forum.


I have worked with groups where an entire Board of Directors gets into the act.  It is unproductive and is also feeding ground for confusion and misunderstandings.


  1. Never go into an agreement with a consultant without a written contract.  The contract should specify the parameters of the relationship, billing practices, and a termination clause.


  1. Always check references and ask to see writing samples.  If you are not moved by what they have written in the past…move on.  You will get the same and you NEED compelling materials that balance heart with facts.


  1. If possible, see if there have ever been any complaints against the consultant or firm, such as the Better Business Bureau.


  1. While a good consultant will create templates (or referred by others as boilerplates) for use in more than one grant application, there is no “one size fits all.”  If a consultant gives you one copy of a proposal to submit to many sources, it is a major red flag.  All grants must be customized to the particular grantmaker’s guidelines.


  1. Pay attention to responsiveness.   Any consultant who is hard to get a hold of, under normal circumstances, is probably not your best choice of professionals.


  1. If your consultant never challenges you on programmatic items, it may be an indication of lack of professional expertise or low personal investment in your success.  This ties into honesty.  A good consultant will be able to tell you when they think you are making a mistake in your choices.  This is their JOB.  The last thing you need is a “yes” person that doesn’t push you to be the best you can be.


  1. “Success rates” are deceiving.  Most grants are turned down.  Anyone who claims 80% success...well, be careful.  Since 9 out of every 10 applications are rejected, who are they working with?  Or, are they reporting everything?  That’s all I’ll say on that matter.  You are bright enough to run some probability stats on this.


  1. If a consultant consistently misses deadlines, (that are/were within their control), you need to find someone else.  This field is deadline driven with most work.  You need someone you can count on to juggle their workload and prioritize your group (and others) accordingly.


  1. In my personal opinion, being “local” is irrelevant. With today’s technology, I successfully work with groups across the country.  Of course, this is an issue of personal preference and the comfort zone of your organization.  Sometimes finding a national consultant is your better choice, depending on the candidate pool your local community might offer and what you hope to achieve. There is great talent available from places that don’t resemble your own backyard.


Beyond the guidelines I specified above, many of which are common sense, you need to identify the consultant that “fits” you.  Personalities need to mesh and it really serves you best to work with someone who feels strongly about your mission.  It will shine through, or not, in their written materials.


Positive energy is contagious and forward movement creates, if continuous, tremendous momentum.  Those waves need to be surfed for as far as they will take you.  Once the tide recedes, you need to regroup in order to create that again. It is the natural ebb and flow with this type of work.


Find the person that believes in you, has time for you, and is devoted to your cause and your success.  Make time for “check-ins” by phone or email, and be ready to modify plans according to opportunities that can crop up suddenly.


Even though it can be tough at times to knock heads with your consultant if they are trying to push you in a certain direction, try to hear what they are saying.  More often than not, this is not because of their personal choices in your programmatic structure, but, rather, what will yield greater results through ingenuity, non-duplication of services, effective implementation, increased creativity and “thinking outside the box,” altered “pitch,” and overall presentation of materials.


Know when to “surrender” and when to hold your ground.  If something isn’t “working,” you most likely need to switch gears in some way.  Stay open to possibilities and the input around you, including your consultant—who you are paying good money to for, hopefully, increased activity of some kind.


Expect results…and, on your end, move quickly to provide materials and answers to your hired gun.  This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship….





About the Author: Mary E. Costello holds a BA degree in Social Work from The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.  She is a former Social Work Administrator who specialized in the management of complex human services programs and leading new projects creation.  Forming Creative Edge Consulting in February of 2005, she now is the “resident expert” on grant writing and non-profit program development issues on the Boys Project website, a sponsored project of the University of Alaska/Fairbanks.  She serves clients throughout the United States, including both community based programs and those of national scope.   Programmatic and grant related questions or inquiries regarding her professional line of services may be directed to  Mary will attempt to answer all general questions from the public but cannot guarantee a personal response, dependent on volume of requests at any given time. 


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