Is “Consultant” almost a swear word for non-profits in South Africa?

by Gabrielle Ritchie

service provider | consultant | advisor : 13th August 2015

A certain cool descends on a NPO meeting when the word “consultant” is raised. The word gets prodded like a smelly fish, or turned over for closer inspection. NPO staff don’t generally love a consultant, or consultancies, or people brought in to do project-focused, short-term pieces of organisational work. Consultants are spoken of (and I know this, having contracted numerous consultants across a huge variety of projects in my role as an NPO director of programmes) as anything from expensive, time-wasting, never fully apprised of “the work”, limited, don’t get the depth of the work etc …all the way to bloodsuckers, leeches, scavengers, a rip-off, just out to make the bucks, and so on.

In short, “consultant” is like a swear word, and consultants must generally get in, get out and move on. The relationship between consultants and their client can be fractious, and tenuous. There is generally a deep distrust in organisations of consultants, and those organisations doing the contracting tend not to trust that a consultant will deliver timeously and excellently on the work required.

Then there is a range of little complexities and potential trip-falls.  For example, who sets the terms of engagement – does the consultant indicate their fee, or does the client indicate what they are willing to pay? Perhaps in the non-profit world, because some of the more old-style players still insist on “paying is bad, free is good”, the very notion of having to pay for a service or for work done, by someone other than an employee, is simply irksome.

So I am now a “consultant”. Or am I a service provider?  Does “consultant” just sound more expensive and costly for the same work? Are they the same?  In fact, most “consultants” who work in the non-profit space can more accurately be described as service providers. This might sound like just a bit of old semantics, but I stand by my firm belief in the approach that “words really do matter”. I have a personal preference for being as accurate as possible (along with using liberal sprinklings of a few choice bits of slang along the way!), so I do prefer calling a provider of services a “service provider”.

As a service provider, I consult to organisations around specific aspects of their work and what they need to deliver on, and I provide a range of services. In other words, as a service provider, I do aspects of the work that client organisations need to deliver on. Most times, service providers and consultants are contracted because organisations simply don’t have the capacity to do the work. Perhaps the skill is too specialist and costly to have someone in a staff post. Perhaps the project deadline is looming and work needs to be delivered, so extra capacity is brought on board. Perhaps a one-off project needs a particular skill that is not core to the organisation’s work, and so a consultant is brought on board. Or perhaps a project was conceived, and budgeted, as one for which external providers would be contracted. Organisations have myriad reasons for contracting in expertise in certain areas, and there are myriad specialists out there to fill these organisational needs.

Here is the kicker, though – and it brings us back to the swear-word nature of the word “consultant” in the NPO sector. The thing about service providers, advisors and consultants to the NPO sector, and working in the non-profit space, is that there is really very little difference between those who provide services to NPOs and NPO employees (ie. people employed by, and paid a regular income to work for, a NPO). Almost every service provider I have worked with in the NPO sector are driven by the same kinds of values and objectives as those they serve and to whom they deliver specialist services. As service providers they are choosing to work with non-profit organisations, in support of their organisational missions, and to work with them towards achieving their client’s goals.

As a service provider – ie. being paid by a funder or a non-profit to deliver pieces of work – I am working hard at understanding the difference between how I work now (freelance/ consultant/ service provider) and how I worked before as an organisational employee (and contractor of consultants!). Some of the questions I have posed to myself, as I make my morning coffee and prepare for a day of service providing, include:

  1. What is different about how I work?
  2. What has changed in the scope, quality and characteristics of the things I care about – the issues, the people, the areas of endeavour, the change-driven agendas?
  3. How has becoming a service provider changed my values?

The conclusion is, apart from a few extremely critical differences in my work day and in what administrative issues I need to concern myself with, there is very little difference. Very little has changed. Nothing has changed in fact, with regard to the things I care about, my ethics and values, my sense of social justice and rights-driven change agendas. The only thing that has changed is that I don’t work in an organisation any longer, and I no longer have a set income that I earn monthly, performance and delivery depending.

This new life is a very different kind of work life. Many say it can be really lonely; it can be exhausting worrying about where the next piece of work will come from; it is challenging constantly working with different clients; and so on. I will no doubt experience the full range of conflicts and joys of working on my own, but what I do know for sure is that I am as committed as I ever was to strengthening South African civil society and the funders and organisations which comprise this space. So are most of the consultants and service providers who work with non-profit organisations! In fact, non-profits themselves are increasingly developing products and services through which to generate income. In other words, they too are becoming consultants and service providers.

Generally speaking, and based on my still-fresh and new perspective as a service provider, us consultants and service providers are a good lot! Perhaps my previous scepticism of all things consultant was simply an ill-disguised envy for those who could engage with the best of the actual work, without having to navigate the intricacies of being an organisational staffer 🙂

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4 thoughts on “Is “Consultant” almost a swear word for non-profits in South Africa?

  1. Hi Gabrielle
    I like the twist in your observations at the end about non profits becoming service providers. I wish funders and corporates would see the world that way too that they are service providers to society broadly and that they should adopt a more “civil society mentality”.

    Like

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