One-shot Consulting Often Not Enough


June 27, 1994|By LESTER A. PICKER

Richard Cook and Jean Gerding were in my office, just back from training nonprofit organizations in Eastern Europe. They were talking about their experience as part of The Third Sector Project of the Johns Hopkins Institute of Policy Studies.

We were each lamenting that, too often, consultants are called upon to "parachute in" and save the organization. This often takes the form of a one-shot workshop or an intense, but short, consulting stint. In many cases, that is not enough. What may be needed are periodic checkups, to see if milestones are being met and to plan the next steps.

What prompted our observation were experiences that my two guests had on their most recent trip abroad, this time to Bulgaria and Slovenia. The Bulgaria visit was a follow-up to some intense training that the three of us had conducted some months before.

Surprisingly, the two found that in the intervening time, the nonprofit sector in Bulgaria had made significant advances, despite odds that would have discouraged most groups.

The follow-up workshop enabled the two to help the groups deal with emerging issues, plan to overcome other barriers to implementation, and to chart future direction.

"What we try to do," says Cook, "is cultivate strategic thinking, rather than a strategic plan. The plan is only a piece of paper. It's a benchmark in a continuing process."

"Follow-up sessions provide periodic checkpoints," echoed Gerding. "It changes the notion of planning to one of continuous strategic thinking, with a small 's.' "

The most recent European jaunt gave Cook an opportunity to reflect further on his notions of training. What emerged was a series of factors which he feels are critical to insure that "a retreat results in an advance." As a consultant to grass-roots organizations in our region, I find Cook's comments worth sharing.

The first critical factor is that participants must want the information or skills. They need to see the training as an opportunity to solve problems they face.

This suggests the desirability of a pre-workshop, careful needs assessment. The best retreats "come out of the expressed needs of the participants," Cook suggests.

Next, participants should come prepared, if the workshop is to be as effective as it can be.

That takes the form of preliminary work related to retreat goals, which must be distributed well in advance, with clear guidelines and expectations.

Another one of Cook's critical factors is that the event should be held away from the work site, and far enough so that participants cannot go home at night. This minimizes disruptions and encourages interpersonal communications, the bedrock of successful nonprofit operations. And, in today's high-tech environment, that means leaving cellular phones at work.

Every retreat should offer opportunities for socializing, group problem solving, teamwork and cooperation, according to Cook. informal style also helps, so people don't feel constrained in dress or thought.

Cook also believes that retreats should offer an opportunity for participants to renew their commitment to the work of the organization. Cook often structures creative, artistic activities to bring out the depth of individual participants' commitment to the cause.

Finally, a good retreat breaks with the norm, one of the strongest characteristics of an event planned by Cook. I know that firsthand, having been housed in a room next to his during one of our workshops in Bulgaria. Cook encourages lateral thinking, uses humor, has participants play games, or utilize other creative devices to break the mold that is the hallmark of everyday work.

In next week's column we'll examine other devices that Cook feels are essential for successful retreats.

Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202; (410) 783-5100

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