Painkillers and Vitamins: Rethinking the Scope of Education Consulting Projects

Start-ups are often encouraged to reflect on whether their products are painkillers or vitamins. A painkiller makes a specific problem go away. Vitamins compensate for deficiencies and are good for growth and long-term health.

This analogy can apply to project-based work as well. When education organizations reach out to us at Catalyst:ED and ask to be connected to an expert consultant, they are usually looking for a painkiller. Perhaps a dysfunctional Board needs to be re-aligned and re-energized. Or a grant proposal needs to be written urgently to meet a deadline. Or a bloated transportation budget needs to be brought under control. In each of these cases, there is a clearly identified pain-point and a clear vision for what success looks like. Less often, organizations will ask for a vitamin – someone who can build organizational strength and capacity. Examples include coaching for senior leadership or setting up a mentoring program for novice teachers. Like vitamins, these are good for an organization’s health, but can also seem like a “nice-to-have” rather than a “must-have” for a cash-strapped school or nonprofit.

What if all consultants were coaches? 

A recent conversation I had with Jimmy Henderson, CEO at EdFuel, brought up an interesting perspective. Jimmy suggested that short-term engagements in the social sector should not just be about doing the work, but also about building organizational capacity by exposing it to new ideas and helping develop staff expertise to carry the work forward. In terms of our analogy, social sector consulting engagements need to be set up so that they are not just painkillers, but also vitamins.

That’s an argument that’s hard to refute for those of us who have signed up to do purposeful and high-impact work. Indeed, some of the most successful consultants in our network see themselves as coaches, not just telling organizations what to do, but also teaching them how to do it. Yet, despite our stated commitment in the sector to teaching people to fish rather than just giving them fish, we don’t necessarily think in the same way when it comes to organizations. As a result, most projects are not explicitly set up with the understanding that organizations will learn alongside the consultant.

Teaching an organization to fish

Why don’t most projects include the vitamins in addition to the painkillers?

For starters, organizations are typically focused on solving the problem at hand, and it doesn’t occur to most of them – especially the ones that are less experienced at using short-term talent – to leverage their consultant talent in this way. Additionally, organization leaders often turn to consultants because their team doesn’t have the time and capacity to do the work – understandably, dedicating staff time to learning with the client can seem like a luxury they cannot afford [1]. A third issue revolves around money: Who should bear the cost for the added time invested by the consultant in training the staff? Given organizations’ limited budgets, anything that seems more oriented to long-term benefits rather than addressing the immediate challenge at hand is often the first to be left out of the project scope. A final concern is around consultant capacity. Not all consultants have the mindsets and skillsets required to be a trainer and coach.

What might be some solutions to these challenges? Taking a cue from behavioral economics, we are nudging organizations by including a coaching component as a default option in every project that we scope out (although the decision on whether to keep it in there or remove it will continue to rest with the organization). Additionally, influential stakeholders (e.g., board members, funders, nonprofit incubators, etc.) can stress to organizations the importance of investing time and resources into learning from consultants and not just outsourcing to them. While organizations should ideally be willing to invest in building their capacities, funders might also want to take a more active role by showing a willingness to underwrite some of the costs.

There are also creative ways in which organizations can ensure that learning happens despite time constraints. A junior member of the team could be asked to work closely with the consultant, learning the ropes along the way. Weekly calls could be used as an opportunity to not just check in on the project’s progress, but also ask questions about how an analysis was conducted. Organizational leadership could ask to review notes from interviews and focus group discussions, so they can learn about what their constituents think more broadly rather than just relying on the sound bites that make it to the presentation deck.

Consultants also need to see themselves as coaches and build their coaching muscles. After all, people take painkillers only when there is pain, but they take their vitamins on an ongoing basis. More broadly, as consultants, we have the privilege of learning from every project that we work on – even when we are the experts. From that perspective, ensuring that organizations similarly learn from us is not just the smart thing to do, but also the right thing to do.



[1] If organizations had the time to dedicate to learning then couldn’t they just do the work themselves? Perhaps, but it would undoubtedly take them a lot longer to learn it without expert help. The benefit of working with an expert is that they can show you the right path quicker and get you to the desired destination more efficiently and with fewer false turns down the road.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *