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It’s Not You, It’s Not me…It’s Both of Us

Guest Post: Minna Jung, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Vice Chair, Communications Network

Joined by co-conspirators Kristen Grimm of Spitfire Strategies, and Patrick McCabe of GYMR LLC, I helped lead a session at the recent Network annual conference in Boston about how foundations and communications consultants/firms can work together more successfully.  The session involved storytelling (with incriminating evidence omitted) and then the foundation folks sat on one side, the consultants/firms on the other, to come up with “Rules of the Road” for how to help the relationship be as successful as possible from the get-go.  And then we shared.  It was kind of a blast, and I was completely unwilling to remove my devil’s tail for the rest of the day.  (The horns gave me a bit of a headache.)

The two groups came up with some pretty great ideas, so I’m going to post them here, and these are not so much rules, as they are things each side wanted the other to consider, and respect, before moving forward in the foundation/consultant relationship:

From the clients TO consultants:

  1. Take the time to learn and understand who your client is—their mission, identity, values, processes
  2. Bring your expertise and your innovation to the table—we want your best thinking, not just worker bees, although we acknowledge that sometimes we just need the worker bees.
  3. We really want candor and honesty in your dealings with us. Don’t tell us you’ll hit a deadline when you haven’t a prayer of doing so.
  4. We want you to build in flexibility into the engagement.
  5. We want to stop the pitching “arms race.”  Most of us don’t respond well to it.
  6. Don’t “bait-and-switch,” i.e., have the senior person do all the upfront pitching and promising, and then substitute in junior staff to do the work.  Be transparent from the get-go about who’s going to work on the team.
  7. Don’t be “yes men.”  We hired you because you’re smart and strategic, so feel free to push on us a bit, although we also like it when you know when to back off.
  8. Defend your ideas, but don’t be defensive about your ideas.
  9. Understand the principles of good project management.  Try for good practices, like regularly scheduled check-ins, that don’t make us feel like you’re constantly bugging us.
  10. Well-written quality product is the cost of entry.  We don’t expect you to capture all the nuances of a particular issue, but sound sentence structure is a must.
From consultants TO clients:

  1. Help us achieve mutual clarity on outcomes and deliverables.
  2. View us as a partner in setting strategy.  Maybe, if you don’t know exactly what you want to do, invest in an exploratory phrase to set the strategy.
  3. Tell us, exactly, who the people are who need to deliver on the strategy from your side.  Sometimes we realize that the “client” isn’t the person who needs to actually deliver from the foundation side.
  4. Help us stay on the same page with you about scope and desired outcome from the work.
  5. Help us establish a check-in protocol, and let us know about specific triggers/milestones that are particularly critical for you (like Board meetings, grantee meetings, etc.)
  6. “Don’t smoke crack before you write your RFP,” in other words, give us a real sense of what you have to spend.
  7. Please, please remember why you hired us in the first place.
  8. Please care about outcomes above and beyond media impressions.
  9. If you have issues with people on our team, be proactive about giving us feedback, so we can be part of the solution.
  10. Before you hire us, get comfortable with our business model.  Billing, invoicing—it’s what we have to do to stay afloat.
  11. If you’re a bad person, that’s non-negotiable for us.  Consultants do fire clients, very rarely, but it happens.
  12. Be clear about decision-making and lines of communication from the get-go.
  13. Think about who else needs to have a clear understanding of what the consultant is doing, like grantees.
  14. Have a very clear exit plan and strategy if the relationship doesn’t work.
  15. If there are potentially difficult intellectual property issues, let’s sort those out early.  Credit for our work is always nice, and appreciated, even though many of us do our jobs on a work-for-hire basis.

And that’s it.  It seemed like a fairly even number of both foundation reps and consultants showed up to the session, so interesting to see that the consultants had more tips for the foundations.  Please feel free to share, augment, or amend in the comments.  Thanks to everyone who came!

Photo courtesy of Jessica Keyes, Prairie Sky Design.


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