Stella Smith: It's time for charity managers to use consultation properly

Effective consultation will save charities money and time, says our guest online commentator

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

As we steer our way through this recession, we keep hearing charities must be "more businesslike" and "competitive". Many in the sector see a real tension between these demands and retaining our values. So what can we do to be more businesslike while staying true to our charity values? 

Well, if there is one practice that needs considering in this context, it is the time-honoured tradition of consultation: of asking staff, volunteers, service users, trustees, funders and commissioners for their views on a whole range of issues affecting an organisation. This practice really does distinguish the voluntary sector from commercial business and there is an assumption that widespread consultation is intrinsically a good thing, core to protecting our values. But is it really?

There are, of course, decisions that affect an organisation on which we must consult because of legal requirements or simply management good practice. There are times we must find out from affected stakeholders how a proposed course of action affects them. Managers can then make decisions with this essential knowledge. 

However, the reality of consultation in the voluntary sector is rarely this clear-cut. Too often it is tokenistic, more about making people feel valued and getting buy-in rather than a real interest in the views expressed. Consultation exercises come from the fear that if we don’t consult then people might sabotage the resulting game plan. The act of consultation is like a ‘get out of jail free’ card. No matter how ill-conceived the final decision is or how poorly executed the plan, the fact that we consulted widely on it makes it okay. Consultation becomes not about collecting valuable information and ideas, but about keeping people on board and defusing potential conflict. 

Of course, if it is a fairly harmless exercise and keeps the peace, why worry about it? But it isn’t. Consultation is hugely expensive in terms of time, financial expenditure and opportunity costs. It can also sap staff and volunteer motivation. There is nothing worse than being asked what you think and then seeing a decision or proposal six months later that bears little, if any, resemblance to anything you said. Nor does it help if you are unable to get on with your work until everybody has been consulted about what to do. For many people, being consulted on issues that they have little knowledge of or interest in is not a priority. What many want is a clear, unambiguous decision and direction so they can get on with the jobs they were hired to do.

So can a charity carry out effective consultation whilst remaining competitive? I believe it can, but we need to rethink how we approach consultation and make it a more effective, focused practice. Here are some basics.

  • Limited ownership and a clear focus. Consultation activities that are developed and owned by committees are inevitably unfocused as they try to incorporate too many different issues and concerns. Any consultation activity needs to have an unambiguous focus, with responsibility delegated to one or two individuals.
  • Prepare. Every consultation should be grounded in research that already exists and must learn from previous consultation activities. There must be clarity from the outset about the purpose of the consultation, why it is taking place, which stakeholders need to be involved and what will happen as a result of the exercise.
  • Frame the consultation strategically. Consultation needs to be developed bearing in mind the implications of potential responses. Stakeholders will respond according to their interests, not necessarily in the interests of other stakeholders and the wider organisation. Never consult on anything that you would not or cannot change.
  • Value stakeholders’ time. Appreciate the opportunity costs of getting involved in the consultation and carry out consultation with minimum impact on people’s everyday routines.
  • Involve a range of people. Just because one particular stakeholder or group of stakeholders always seems to get involved in consultation, this does not mean that they are representative of the wider group. Limit the number of times you consult one individual or group.
  • Make the decision. Having completed the consultation activity, consider the responses and take a clear decision, communicate it, support its implementation and then move on. If managers are having problems getting buy-in, look into strengthening communication and influencing skills.

Of course we must consult because it is important to involve. But let’s be open and honest about what we are asking and why and how we will use the resulting information. Let’s not pretend to be interested when clearly we just want people’s support. It’s time for charity managers to use consultation properly and, in doing so, to save money and time to focus on delivering excellence for our service users – that, after all, must be any charity’s true core value.

Stella Smith is a strategy consultant working with not for profit organisations in the areas of governance, strategy and change management

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