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The Ethical Consultant

I got into a discussion with a client recently about ethical consulting.  I’ve had this discussion with colleagues, co-workers, friends and mentors through the years, but I wanted to take a moment to outline what I believe to be some fundamental premises of the Ethical Consultant and ethical consulting in general within the realm of Salesforce for nonprofits.

To me, a consulting project is not a marriage – at best, it’s a long-term relationship built on respect, trust, growth and mutual engagement.  Of course, the flip-side to this is that at worst, a consulting project can be a one-night stand that leaves at least one participant feeling used and abused.  I’ve seen some ugly things – clients who have come to my doorstep absolutely convinced they couldn’t create more than a fixed number of custom fields in Salesforce because their implementation partner told them this is all that’s possible, data that should have been mapped to Salesforce standard fields imported into custom fields with the same function because it was easier for the import, incompletely thought-through client business processes that result in bad data or difficult reporting, and the application of code solutions that a client has never been told exist or are “part of nonprofit Salesforce.”

I’m not the best or worst consultant in the world, I don’t have all the answers, I’ve made mistakes. But in the clients that I’ve worked with, I’ve tried very hard to be ethical in my treatment of them and honest and forthright about what are my capabilities, what are the capabilities of Salesforce, and what is possible within the scope and budget of a project.  To me, violations of ethical consulting can happen in any of these areas.

So who is the Ethical Consultant, and what constitutes ethical consulting?  These are some of my own thoughts, as well as those of my current co-workers. Cloud for Good, like any good Salesforce implementation partner, also leads with its own ethics such as honest advice, continual improvement and collaboration with its clients.

Confidently say “No” and “I don’t know.” Generally, this is much harder than it sounds.  When we were implementing Salesforce at my former nonprofit, I wanted my implementation partner to do everything, but we didn’t have the money to pay for it.  Our consultant was able to really explain why, in the terms of real project time and our own capacity to manage the changes using Salesforce was bringing to my organization, my requests couldn’t be met.  He was also really good about “getting back to us,” which is consultant-speak for “I’m writing all of this down, but I don’t have an immediate answer for you.”

As compared to bringing forward an incomplete solution that rests on an unsteady foundation of undiscovered processes or strategies that work for the purpose of completing the consulting job, but won’t scale for a client over time, sometimes “no” really is the best answer in the interest of best practice, giving clients a real solution to a problem, making a client’s data scalable over time, and understanding client needs.

Convey capability, but keep on target. Nothing gets me angrier when clients who have worked with other consultants or implementation partners aren’t aware of the capabilities of Salesforce because they were told that these things weren’t possible by their consultants in order to keep the project on-budget.  This could simply be a failure of communication, but it has happened too often to me to believe that it’s simply this.  It’s not nice, so cut it out. There’s a lot of things that Salesforce *can* do for nonprofits, but if your client doesn’t have the internal capacity to manage the show after the consultants leave, an ethical consultant asks whether or not the client *should* be doing these things, and presents both real implementation solutions and their long-term maintenance requirements.

Nonprofits adopt Salesforce because it has many capabilities, even if they’re not all presently in use for them.  The Ethical Consultant helps these clients navigate these waters, but doesn’t let them get in over their heads.  This is different from letting them know they exist at all.  Start small, dream big – that’s the promise of Salesforce and the power of a well-managed implementation.

The Ethical Consultant is Responsive: they do what they say they’re going to do in a timely fashion, and is clear about their financial interests in referrals, partners, and other organizations relationships to them.

And lastly, the Ethical Consultant encourages and helps with self-sufficiency. I firmly believe that any consultant worth their salt, and any consulting firm worth its marketing budget, helps clients develop their own capacity with Salesforce that doesn’t require consulting time.  This is a different definition for every client, but it’s what I’ve framed as the $2000 question: If a nonprofit is coming to a consultant with a $2000 project for instance administration and maintenance, wouldn’t that be money better spent on building their own internal capacity to do the same?  It’s also our job to make sure that by the end of the project, a client not only knows what they’re doing, but *why* they’re doing it – because the “why” for an organization can change over time, and this directly informs the “what” that happens within Salesforce.

Sometimes, this means I have to be willing to tell a client, “Yes, I can do this work, but truthfully, wouldn’t you rather spend this money on training someone on your staff to do it now and again in the future?”  Because for $2000 or less, a staff member can be trained through Salesforce on Administration, and become a resource for ongoing use within an organization.  That money would get between 10-15 hours of consultant time, but give someone training and experience that will not only stay with the organization after the consultants leave, but with that person when they move on.  So not only is an organization’s capacity built, but a person’s career can be enhanced and grown.

Incidentally, the principles of the Ethical Consultant also apply to the Ethical Vendor – and then some.  Nonprofits are not a Beta testing ground that will be grateful for half-delivered functionality, poor support, products that run contrary to the best practice of Salesforce use and administration, or lock-ins to expensive or unnecessary add-on services simply because they’re nonprofits.  These organizations are the engine of change in our world, and deserve the same respect and support that Salesforce corporate clients receive from product vendors – I’m speaking here explicitly to vendors who are developing products designed for the nonprofit sector and sold to them: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen these created by folks who have never worked in the nonprofit sector, don’t know nonprofit best practices, and who doesn’t take the time to study their applicability to a Salesforce application.  I encourage every nonprofit looking at Salesforce Applications being sold to them for nonprofit business processes needs to ask their vendor how deep their experience is, who on staff has worked in the sector and for how long, and how that experience has translated to the product being sold.  I do want to give a shout out of thanks to the many vendors of products designed for the corporate sector who make their Salesforce Applications free, discounted, or otherwise within reach of nonprofits, and those developers who offer free Applications that meet nonprofit needs – your contributions are valued more than you may realize, because they also make consulting for nonprofits easier: we don’t have to develop these solutions for ourselves, so they keep saving NPOs money over time.

Consultants can be part of the answer, but they can also be part of the problem – at some point, I really do ask clients what they feel they’re capable of and who is going to take over for me when I back out of a project.  I don’t want the same client to have to come back with the same needs if I can help it – I want our relationship to grow, like all good relationships do. I want to know I did everything I could to encourage the internal management and administration of a client’s Salesforce instance that respects every client’s capacity for this work.