22 February 2011

Nonprofit executives should always give vendors and consultants a chance. . .to lie

Not all consultants and vendors that serve the nonprofit sector are well-meaning zealots. Some of them are very noble souls, and others are liars. By the latter, I mean "people who lie in situations where I wouldn't" or "people who lie in ways that are detrimental to my interests." That's what we all mean, I take it.

In general, I think that lying is a bad idea, whether your perspective is deontological or teleological. We should all try to minimize the number of deliberate untruths we tell, and if possible limit them to phatic utterances such as "I'm pleased to meet you" and "I wish you all the best."

When it comes to initial conversations with vendors or consultants, I've seen any number of them make extravagant promises in an effort to tell their prospective customers from nonprofit organizations what they want to hear. Haven't these people heard about expectation management?

I'd like to celebrate a noble soul, a consultant, who met with a prospective client last year. He was a nonprofit executive interviewing her on behalf of his organization. They had a formidable wish list. He gave her every opportunity to lie, and she was apologetic but firm. She even went so far as to say, "I'd like to tell you we can do it within the time line you propose, but I can't say that. There's no way to know, until I devote some serious time to going over the details, and getting my hands dirty."

Please note that there is extra merit in not only refusing to lie, but in admitting that you just don't know. Think of Socrates, using that admission as the foundation of a great philosophical tradition!

In this case, the nonprofit executive had ample experience with smarmy consultants and projects that turned into disasters. He was tremendously impressed with this consultant, and with the backing of the chief financial officer allocated funding to pay her to do a very thorough needs assessment. She went over all the details, submitted a report that included an action plan, and was then retained to carry it out.

These days, this nonprofit executive speaks about the consultant as an oracle of wisdom and precise knowledge. At long last, this organization (which has been bamboozled in the past by consultants in her field) has found someone reliable, someone who will speak the truth even if it means confessing ignorance!

Let the record show that her admissions of ignorance would not be nearly so impressive if she didn't also turn out to have great technical skills and a tendency to be correct when she brings herself to make a declarative statement. As for the executive director, perhaps he was not deliberately laying a trap in their initial conversation - but he was smart enough to scrutinize more than her resume, to recognize her integrity, and to value it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's better to give people a chance to lie before you hire them and about things that are easy to vet, rather than waiting until after you've hired them and given them responsibility for tasks that are difficult to track.