What white-led organizations wanting to diversify the consultants they work with need to consider

When I launched my business, I was very intentional about my ‘why’ as a racialized woman. 

In the email I sent to various people in my network to announce my launch, I wrote: “As someone who has hired my share of consultants, I’ve noticed over the years that like too many occupations there are too few racialized folks in the consulting field. Especially when it comes to strategy consulting.” 

I also shared this call to action: “Can you forward this email / my website to a few folks in your network who you think might be interested in involving me in their work? Referrals are especially helpful to me as a BIPOC* business owner. Despite my track record of over fifteen years of health and social sector leadership, I’m not always the image that comes to mind when people ask themselves ‘Who do I want to bring in on my next project?’ If you can be a connector for me and help me to soar over that hurdle, I’d really appreciate it.”

In the years since I sent that email, I’ve been grateful for the number of folks who have mentioned my name for consulting, facilitation, coaching, and speaking opportunities, and the clients who have decided to work with me. 

I have also learned some things that I want to share with white-led / white majority organizations. Especially nonprofits with a diversity, equity, and inclusion commitment.

This is not a comprehensive step-by-step process for you to follow if you want to diversify the consultants with whom you work. However, if you do these two things before asking a BIPOC consultant for a proposal the chances of your act of diversity being anti-racist, or at least less harmful, will greatly increase: 

#1 Communicate your budget. 

#2 Check your intentions.

#1 Communicate your budget

I have been on the client side of trying to find a consultant for a project where we weren’t sure about the cost. Or, we had a hunch what it might cost and were afraid we couldn’t afford it. I have seen this dynamic play out at large public sector organizations and foundations with significant overall budgets but too small of an allocation for the services being procured. I’ve also experienced it at small nonprofits barely able to adequately pay their own staff. 

I understand the thinking behind not communicating a budget. The fear is that if you set a maximum or provide a range, then every proposal will come in at the top end of it. Even if the amount is higher than what the business usually charges. 

You’re not wrong. This is a risk.

However, to look at it another way, if an experienced consultant charges significantly less than their counterparts they are undercharging. There may be reasons for this that are not on you to take into account. If you are white-led organization committed to working with a BIPOC-owned business, though, you should be aware of how systemic racism might impact pricing. 

Disrupt pay inequity before asking a BIPOC consultant for a proposal

As a racialized woman I experienced overt pay inequity for the first time when I was in university. I applied for a summer job and the hiring manager offered me $0.50 less an hour than someone else who recently started the same role with less experience than me. In the more than 20 years since then, I’ve learned about white counterparts with the same or less experience making more than me for similar work several times. 

Many (if not most) Black, Indigenous, and racialized people will be underestimated and undervalued throughout our careers. Especially those who live at the intersection of racialized and other discriminated against identities. The evidence behind the #ShowTheSalary movement has demonstrated that not only do we often get offered less money for the same work, we are also less likely to try (and less likely to be well received in our attempts) to negotiate higher compensation. 

In the nonprofit sector, advocates such as Vu Le (who wrote the article linked above) and others like those who signed this FoodShare-led open letter have very effectively normalized a collective refusal to apply to (or help spread the word for) a job listing that doesn’t include the salary.

I believe it’s time for the same collective action around requests for proposals (RFPs.) I believe we need to do this for both formal RFPs that include clear selection criteria as well as informal proposal requests. 

Before asking a BIPOC consultant for a proposal (or anyone, really), take the time to do some research on the typical cost of the service you are procuring. Look it up online. Ask your peers. Or, pay a consultant for a few hours of work to do the research for you. Then, take into consideration your financial position and the deliverables and timelines you may or may not expect to get if you can only afford the low end of the range.

Communicate the budget and a reasonable set of deliverables when you ask for a proposal. This can be as simple as a few sentences in an email or being ready to share these details during your first phone call. 

If you end up paying a BIPOC business owner slightly more than they would have proposed without that information consider this a win for pay equity.  

A racialized woman sits in front of a laptop working.

#2 Check your intentions

Once you communicate a budget, the second thing I recommend you do before asking a BIPOC consultant for a proposal is to take some time to check your intentions. Are you excited to work with them? Are you asking for a proposal to help you and the BIPOC consultant work through the project approach before moving to a contract? 

Or, are you asking them for a proposal to “check a box,” or “give them a chance” knowing that you are still likely to hire the white consultants you are used to working with?

Many consultants, white and non-white, rarely apply to formal requests for proposals that clients post publicly. Yes, even formal RFPs that communicate a budget. The work involved in preparing a submission relative to the low likelihood of being selected often does not add up. Especially for small businesses and solopreneurs who do not have the dedicated proposal writing staff often found in medium-sized and larger consultancies. 

We understand our chances should increase if we are part of an informal or targeted RFP where an organization has asked only us, or us and one or two other businesses, to submit a proposal. However, we also know that even in an informal or targeted proposal opportunity our efforts are often wasted when client decision making is disorganized. Or, even worse, biased. 

Divest from disorganized or biased decision making before asking a BIPOC consultant for a proposal

Here are some things I’ve heard after asking for feedback around why I was not selected for some large consulting projects I was invited to submit a proposal for:

  • Decided to work with another consultant that provided a different service than mine. The client only realized they were interested in this service after they spoke with me in detail about what they wanted, agreed on a budget range, and expressed their excitement for my proposal. They never reached out to share their change in direction. 
  • Decided to work with the consultants who submitted the only other proposal submitted. The client indicated the submissions were both strong and very similar. Their deciding factor? They had worked with the other consultants previously and already felt comfortable with them. 
  • Decided they wanted a consultant with expertise in an area I did not have. The client only identified this criteria after they had solicited proposals from and held interviews with all the consultants invited to apply. 

As a former health and social sector executive, I have overseen the selection of a number of consultants. I completely understand that some (mostly large dollar value) contracts require a formal public RFP with clear selection criteria. And, that there are other situations where a more informal or targeted approach makes sense and can create opportunities for smaller businesses. 

However, I also remember fighting hard on several occasions to not seek multiple proposals for smaller budget contexts where we already knew the consultant with whom we wanted to work. Or, to hold off on issuing a formal or informal RFP until we were more clear on what we wanted instead of hoping the proposals would make it clear for us. 

While it depends on the consultant and what information the client asks for in the proposal, it can take anywhere from a half a day to several full days of work to prepare a proposal. 

Demonstrate respect for everyone’s time before asking a BIPOC consultant for a proposal

Before you ask a BIPOC consultant for hours of uncompensated work, ask yourself why you are inviting them to submit a proposal.

If you are genuinely open to working with them but want to compare their submission with several others, make sure you are clear on your budget, the services and deliverables you want, and how you’ll assess alignment before you ask for a proposal. Just like every other consultant, if they see a potential match, the BIPOC consultant will not hesitate to spend some time to propose their business as the partner you need for your project.

If you are open to working with the BIPOC consultant but haven’t taken the time to really think about what you want, you have two options: 

  • Take more time to figure it out. If you don’t have the time, or the project context is particularly complicated, this could involve paying a different consultant to help you scope out your project requirements. 
  • Or, if you know a BIPOC consultant you want to work with, acknowledge (in writing) this project scoping work as a deliverable to be included in their proposal. Make sure it is communicated that you will still pay them for this work if for any reason the full project does not go ahead. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting you pay a consultant to talk to you, listen to your needs and budget, match this with their offerings, and provide you with a price. That’s the process of developing a proposal for a client who has a clear sense of their needs.)  

When you check your intentions before asking a BIPOC consultant for a proposal, you better respect everyone’s time. And, you greatly reduce the chances of asking them for uncompensated work on a proposal that you end up rejecting for criteria that were never communicated in the first place. 

Do these two things before asking a BIPOC consultant for a proposal

Communicate a budget. Check your intentions. For white-led organizations looking to diversify the consultants with whom you work, I urge you to integrate these two steps into your process. Not only can they reduce the harm you might be perpetuating, they may also help you soar past the hurdle of defaulting to white consultants.

It is mid-summer as I write this article. I am already in discussion with several clients about fall strategic planning, theory of change, and a variety of other consulting and facilitation projects. I anticipate more proposal requests once everyone starts to spot the signs of fall sometime in August. To align my intake process with these two steps, I’ve added some new questions for clients to answer when you book your free consultation with me.

Overall, I have had mainly positive experiences with clients who have asked me for proposals as a BIPOC consultant. However, as I become more established in my business I am ready to bring attention to the harm my negative experiences have caused. And, to invite white-led / white majority organizations to join me in engaging in less oppressive processes.

*BIPOC: Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour. This acronym has been criticized for lacking nuance given the diversity of experiences it attempts to group together. In addition, some object to the wording “of colour” as being colonizer language. Lately, the acronym BIR (Black, Indigenous, and racialized) has become more common. So has the term ‘people of the global majority’ in recognition of the fact that globally there are more racialized people than there are white people. As a racialized woman who has a mix of Indigenous, Black, and white settler roots, I have chosen to use BIPOC in this article as a well understood term that felt the most relevant. However, I hold and support space for dialogue around differing perspectives.

Sign up for Valery’s Monthly Newsletter

Valery’s free, monthly newsletter provides a quick mix of updates on what she is up to and content you can use. Look for it in your inbox on the third Thursday of each month!

Valery catalyzes people and organizations dedicated to social change to make better decisions, have greater impact, and co-create deeper connection.

Click here to learn more about Valery’s consulting, facilitation, speaking, and coaching services.