What is ethical consulting?

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Facilitated by Michelle Murrain

This is designed to be a discussion and sharing of what people consider to be the elements of working ethically with nonprofit clients. This can include (but is not limited to) issues of rate setting, communication, project evaluation, and what to do when a relationship with a client goes south.

  • Quick go-round
    • Michelle Murrain
      • Interested how to do what I do
    • Bob, Very interested in this topic
    • Katie, Project Manager
    • Noah, Marketing Manager for Nonprofits
    • Ben from Quilted
    • Seth, New consultant
    • X, Developer
    • Rachel, Freelance web development
    • Austin, Media consultant for nonprofits
    • Ross, Freelance designer/developer mainly front-end. Want to be more concrete about ethics and business practices, and relationships with clients
    • X, Freelance Drupal development
    • Erik, Quilted, spend a lot of time thinking about how our values affect our policies
  • Michelle: It's amazing how many times I've come across clients had to ditch a vendor and feel totally burned. Having that happen over and over again, I wonder what's going on with that, and how can I ensure those things don't happen. I used to be an educator, how do I empower the people I work with.
  • Tom: One thing that happens is that we're very invested in the cause of our client, and so we don't want to screw them. And so, coming from that perspective, we ensure that our billing processes are correct, our communication is clear, but it's we're finding it hard to formalize this process.
  • Katie: Initial engagement. Well I have many deliverables, work process, talk about comportment. We also have a client and Picnet responsibilities document that defines expectations. I talk about my personal life, my background, what my passions are. I allow that to be a seedling of me representing picnet.
  • Ben: Definitely just communicate that sense of commitment and motivation. Also, having a personal relationship with a client provides a good check for whether something you're doing is ethical.
  • Erik: It's also about what you give them and the quality of that. You give them something shitty, you show how important the project is to you.
  • Bob: Don't try to hire everybody. Carefully select who you're going to work with. Use your AHDM (asshole detection meter). If they're going to suck, charge them more. If it's going very poorly, fire the client -- it doesn't benefit anybody.
  • Noah: How do you deal with clients that ask for things you can't provide? How do you manage them if they're not helpful?
  • Michelle: Just tell them. Just really level. Being honest is the best.
  • Bob: Develop a menu of what you're going to do. If it's not on the menu, it's custom. Tell them what you can do, so you're not seen as somebody who can do everything.
  • Ross: How do you cultivate personal relationships with clients, especially if they aren't local?
  • Jim: We have a mix of both local and virtual clients. The local clients get the face-to-face interactions. No matter how you try, the face-to-face is better.
  • Tom: A way to work with a remote client, mention stuff out of project at hand. You usually have common ground. If you see something cool that they did, let them know.
  • X: Working with clients you're passionate about really helps rapport.
  • Jim: Do you split up the "schmoozer" and other people?
  • Ross: Not really all that much.
  • Jim: If you can go to the pub with them in the afternoon, it makes a huge difference.
  • Colin: Make a commitment at the end of the business you're conducting to ask how they're doing.
  • Erik: Meet the client in person if it is at all possible in the beginning stage of the process. Fly to see them. It's worth it.
  • Seth: I have a question about when to run the clock, when not to, etc.
  • Jim: That's a huge question. Right now we bill hourly. If you're checking slashdot while working on something to you stop the clock?
  • Bob: Billing hourly can sometimes really freeze communication because a client doesn't call because they worry the clock is running or waiting for an emergency. One way to solve this is to do a retainer or bill for the entire year.
  • Michelle: I feel like the culture is hourly. For myself, I try to compartmentalize and really work on a task for the hour I'm going to bill. Learning is another problem. I judge it case-by-case.
  • Erik: Another metric we think about, "did we estimate it?" If we go over our estimate, we bring it to the client.
  • Jim: We are up front about gambles, we try to be clear about if we're learning something new, we will work for 15 hours.
  • Noah: Do you do finders fees?
  • Jim: It was hard to do a percentage.
  • Colin and Ben: We just try to be fair, we bid projects at the same rate with our partners.
  • Michelle: How do you evaluate your projects?
  • Jim: We don't do formal things.
  • Erik: We do project reviews. We have a client review, and an internal review for each project. We talk about budget/timeline. Do a process summary.
  • Michelle: I do project reviews. For long term clients, I do them every six months. I find them very helpful because things that were important to the client come out in what they said went right.

Take aways

  • Be good to yourself and others
  • Don't worry about how to say things, just say it
  • No hard and fast rule for billing for learning, but to the extent you can estimate it, do.
  • Chicago Tech will begin a formal evaluation process


  • Ben Mauer will post a project review meeting template, and possibly an example.