Ethical Consulting for Nonprofit Tech

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Facilitator: Michelle Murrain, MetaCentric Consulting
Notes: Josh Senyak, Quicksilver Consulting

There are contracts (and other legal agreements) that cover the consulting agreement. But does “ethical consulting” mean more than that?

It’s important for consultant & client to have their goals in alignment. Example of NOT being in alignment: With a “time and materials” contract, it’s actually in consultant’s financial interest if the client has a big problem.

Is it always ethical to do exactly what the client asks? Clients may ask for things that aren’t actually in their own best interests.

What are situations where the client has not treated us ethically? (Some examples of clients complaining about paying for over-budget projects... but surprisingly little)

There’s also the question of ethics within the consulting group itself – “how do we pay ourselves enough, how do we ensure benefits.” This often creates a tension with nonprofit consulting, since NPOs don’t have much money and technology projects are expensive!

Ethical approaches to bidding?
- “ We do as much preliminary discovery as we can afford to do for free, so we can give them a responsible bid”
- “It’s scary to give the client an accurate estimate – it looks like so much money! But we know what it takes to do a good job, and that’s what we should quote.”
- “A too-low bid is just as unethical as a too-high bid”
- Sliding scale hourly rate based on client’s annual budget; informal sliding scale (quote a higher rate to rich foundations than to poor streel-level service agencies)
- “We figure out how many hours the job should take, put in a little padding in case of emergencies, and make that a ceiling/maximum. If we can do the job faster – we only bill for the hours we did. If the job takes longer – the nonprofit still shouldn’t have to pay more than the ceiling, unless the scope changed.”
- “The only way I know to avoid scope creep: a) be relentless about defining the project in detail & in writing, b) have enough experience to anticipate problems long in advance, c) communication.”

Interesting to consider “gift economy” rather than “cash economy.” In some cases the consultant does the work, tells the client how much time it took, and lets the client decide what to pay. (Requires a lot of trust b/w client and consultant; most common where clients have experience with Buddhism?) Some consultancies ( give a “market rate” invoice and let clients adjust the invoice based on the perceived value. “Our skills and abilities came to us as a gift. We give it to our clients as a gift. Sure, there has to be a cash aspect, because that’s the world we live in – but the more we focus on the gift aspect, the more satisfying it is for everyone.” See: The Gift by Lewis Hyde, Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein.

Employees for consulting firms can find it disturbing to know the huge rates the firm is charging to clients for their work.

“Is it OK to charge a lot to rich clients in order to subsidize poor clients?”

What’s an ethical way to end a consultation?
- Even when the consultation is dysfunctional, we can feel guilty about leaving the client without a solution.
- Giving the client a referral to another consultant can help: “I did everything I could for you”