As an independent consultant to foundations and nonprofits, I do not have employer-sponsored health coverage, a 401(k) match, vision, or even dental. However, every once in a while, a prospective client will take me out to lunch. The last time this happened, we didn’t know each other — we’d never met before — but were introduced by a mutual friend and had messaged each other on LinkedIn. She worked at a foundation whose work I’d admired, so I made sure to wear a clean shirt and comb my hair.
Over unsweetened iced tea, truffle fries, and juicy, grass-fed burgers, we made small talk about the former colleagues we knew in common, the pros and cons of a full-time job vs. consulting for a living, and of course, the rising cost of living in the Bay Area. Then something happened that had rarely happened during my ten years as a nonprofit consultant. Instead of me pitching her a project, she pitched me. Suddenly, my belt felt too tight from stuffing myself yet I still managed to lean forward in my seat so I could catch every word.
“I think given your experience in epidemiology and technology, you’d be perfect to lead it.”
I don’t have a background in technology, but I am Asian-American, younger-presenting than many of my consulting colleagues, and live in San Francisco, so this assumption felt very familiar*.
“This project is very high profile and a top priority of the Board,” she added.
I nodded, while she explained that they needed a consultant to project manage the development of a new grants database that would track both “the impact” and “learning” from not only every grant but both across grants at the program level and eventually across all of the portfolios at the foundation.
“We want this new software to spit out reports that will tell us which organizations are performing beyond expectations and which ones aren’t.”
From the look on my face, she could tell she was losing me and started talking faster and with more verve. “The company we’ve hired is using new technology that will revolutionize evaluation. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for someone like you to help automate the field.”
I took a deep breath and rearranged my face. “From my experience,” I said, “technology in the social sector is at best a tool and never the solution.”
“This is different. We’re using AI.”
“Thank you for thinking of me, really, I’m flattered,” making sure to smile to soften the blow. “I just tend to be skeptical of silver bullets.”
We wrapped up lunch quickly afterward. I reached for the bill, but she snatched it away. Their endowment had just peaked at over a billion dollars, so it made sense to let her pay.
Besides the occasional free lunch, the other perk of being an independent nonprofit consultant is the power to say “no” to projects that aren’t a good fit or in alignment with my values.
The following day, I sent a thank you email, asking her to keep me in mind for other strategy and evaluation projects — specifically those that required narrative methods. I also explained that foundations typically suffered from too much data at their fingertips and not enough collective meaning-making. In a seemingly neverending ocean of information, no technology or automated report can help an organization’s leadership to accurately differentiate between “the signal,” the most important and necessary information, from “the noise,” ancillary information that can sometimes obfuscate meaning and cloud decision-making.
“From my experience, narrative evaluation (scroll to the end of the article to view a sample methodology) and other data-driven storytelling techniques are far more effective tools for helping leaders glean the insights they need to make informed decisions,” I wrote.
She emailed back, thanking me for my candor. “The Board wants to move away from labor-intensive processes, which is why they are moving in this new direction.”
Of course, it is both natural and prudent for foundation and nonprofit Boards and leadership to seek innovative solutions that maximize efficiency and cut costs. But we must also acknowledge that the problems the social sector wants to solve are far too complex, and the environment that nonprofits are operating in is too fast-changing to successfully automate evaluation and strategic learning efforts.
We — nonprofits, foundations, and consultants alike — must “do the work.” There is no getting around this. As dauntingly labor-intensive as it may seem, we need to collectively ask the right questions, assemble the right data, and make meaning through analysis, narrative, and storytelling — all in service to better decision-making. Which leads me to the biggest perk of being a nonprofit consultant: my job isn’t going to be automated anytime soon.
*This was before I founded Interactive Impact Labs with my co-founder, Ramzi, who is our resident technologist, GIS guru, interaction designer, and web developer.