Many nonprofit staffers dream about going to “the other side,” as a nonprofit consultant. There are many real challenges in making that leap, and even once you do, the career choice entails continuous learning around both the content of your consulting as well as business acumen. The idea of running a business is quite foreign to many of us who come out of the nonprofit sector. Last year, I was privileged to edit The Nonprofit Consulting Playbook: Winning Strategies from 25 Leaders in the Field, with Linda Lysakowski, ACFRE. The 25 contributors to the book, as well as hundreds of other consultants I have met since the book’s publication, have helped me winnow down a few of the key practices that typify successful consultants in our field.
Seek the Support of Your Peers
Yes, we are technically competitors, but this is one of the most generous groups of colleagues around. I’d like to think that this generosity is a result of our roots in the nonprofit sector. If you are a new or aspiring consultant, ask a respected colleague to serve as a mentor, and you are likely to get an enthusiastic “yes.” Plenty of veterans still consider themselves green enough to hold onto an early advisor. Many more seek the ongoing guidance of peers over time. After all, consultants juggle business development; client relations; and the latest developments in grants, campaigns, technology, and the development field generally. We need all the insights we can get.
Let Your Values Guide You
Your content knowledge plays only a partial role in your consulting success. The way you make that first impression, negotiate the contract, and regularly communicate with a client carries just as much weight—and there is no magic formula to perfect any of these things. Solid ethics are the thread that runs through them all. If you are honest, reliable, and a good listener, you build trust. Trust is a consultant’s number one asset.
Follow Your Path to Success as a Nonprofit Consultant
What I loved most about compiling The Nonprofit Consulting Playbook was affirming the success of consultants with all sorts of business models. I have met successful specialists and generalists, those who work locally and nationally, those with staff and those who are sole proprietors. All are successful in their own right. If someone gives you a prescription for their success, infuse it with your own goals and values before moving forward. If I had a dollar for every push I’ve gotten to move heavily into social media, I could take a nice vacation. But my emphasis on targeted, rather than mass, networking and writing has resulted in a steady flow of clients. Of course, others’ businesses thrive on social media.
Even if you are just beginning to explore consulting, consider using these principles to lay the groundwork for your business plan. As with most things in life, solid advice—infused with a heavy dose of intuition—makes for the strongest foundation.