Susan Schaefer, CFRE
How to Maintain Your Mojo as a Nonprofit Consultant
I’ve been consulting for a long time now, but I still wake up excited about what each workday will bring. It would be easy to slip into monotony, even the doldrums. After all, I work from home, alone, with one regular subcontractor who lives a thousand miles away. Some days I see clients, but there are many days when hours of computer work awaits. Is it a challenge to keep up my enthusiasm? Not at all.
Work in our field is what you make of it. I like to work for nonprofits with missions that are new to me, so the subject matter is fresh. And I’ve learned that it’s good to be picky about the people I work with, too. Good people make good clients. And I love the work itself. The work, the people, and their organizations—that’s more than half the battle right there. So I’ve been selective. I’ve figured out my preferences. I’ve made job interviews a two-way street.
But sometimes I need more than the work itself to keep myself going. I bet you’re no different. Here’s how to infuse your workday with something inspiring and out of the ordinary.
Mix things up a bit.
Once we’ve been at this consulting thing for a while, we default to nurturing our businesses. Most of us spend ample time marketing, acquiring human and other resources, and cultivating clients. What about ourselves? What activities induce new thinking, promote strong relationships and foster your best self? After all, we are our businesses’ best assets.
Broaden Your Scope
Most consultants are naturally inquisitive. That’s good, because it’s so important for us to be conversant across a range of subjects. We’re at such an advantage if we can walk into a client interview with some basic knowledge about Alzheimer’s disease, constitutional law, or whatever else a nonprofit’s mission might deliver.
I’ve decided that expanding my knowledge base is so beneficial that it’s worth my while to spend some of my work week learning more—about almost anything.
I belong to a group of about 150 women that brings speakers to a local church each week. Recent topics have ranged from easy weeknight cooking to writing as trauma therapy. Wouldn’t you know it? The latter was directly related to the mission of a new client of mine. I invited the executive director to attend the session. We both learned something and got to know each other better.
You can also learn so much from those in your everyday life. Unlike the early days in my home office, my neighborhood is now bustling with other remote workers. On occasion, I invite one of them for a walk to learn more about mutual interests. Last week I walked with a woman who works for a publishing house. It was perfect timing, as I was putting the finishing touches on this book. That’s my kind of multitasking: exercise for the heart and the brain.
Those outside of the nonprofit sector can provide some of the best insights into your work. Take an architect to lunch and delve into the world of design and construction; your capital campaign clients will thank you. An estate-planning attorney friend and I are putting together a workshop about current fundraising trends. He will talk about individual giving, and I’ll tackle institutional giving. The options are endless. Get to know those in your community, and good things can come from most any new relationship.
I meet quarterly with a peer of mine. These aren’t consultant meetings of the mentor or mentee sort. In this case, I meet someone who is a peer in age, stage (of our businesses), and consulting type. What a treat it is!
We keep each other updated about new projects and challenges. Mostly, we support each other. I’ve noticed that we have complementary skill sets, which helps. My colleague has great business sense, so if I’m about to configure a contract poorly, she gives me sound advice. I’m more the bookworm, so I might know of a research study that backs up a point she’s making to a client.
But mostly, we go back and forth about the next stages in our businesses’ development. We’re often encountering the same opportunities and challenges at about the same time. So when one of us talks about the struggles of taking on a few new clients at once, for instance, the other can relate to what that’s like for a similarly-sized business and offer insights. She encouraged me to hire my first subcontractor, and I talked her into attending a recent cross-country conference, where she made some great new contacts. And so it goes.
The Next Big Thing
I also like to keep people in my life who are big thinkers. We push each other to take the next big leap. I have a longtime friend and colleague who serves this purpose. I met him years ago, when he served as executive director of a local nonprofit and I was his board chair. Yes, we’re still talking to each other!
If you can find someone who will listen to and pragmatically encourage your next reinvention, hold on to that person. It’s great to have someone to dream with…and bring you back down to earth when you’ve gone too far.
As your consulting career steadies, don’t lose sight of ambitious goal-setting. This friend and I have thrown out many career trial balloons over the years. I’ve brought home many ideas from our meetings, including the seed for this book. At that point in the process, my husband Rob patiently nods and says, “Go for it.” It helps to have a life partner who’s a big thinker too.
Most of us agree that volunteerism is a given in our field, but it’s worth being strategic about where you spend your limited time. While personal passions often drive volunteer service, it’s good to ensure that the endeavors we choose provide balance and new insights. I don’t want to serve on any two boards that are remotely similar. The redundancy would make that volunteer work feel too much like work. It’s quite a perk when we can learn extensively from our volunteerism.
I’m serving on two boards right now, and they couldn’t be more different. One is a $16 million regional agency that strengthens the lives of children and families. Meetings take place in a designated boardroom where trustees wear their business suits late into the night. There I’ve honed my knowledge of multi-state child welfare laws, complex real estate deals, and quality assurance procedures. The organization has grown quickly during my tenure, so conversations about scope and scale are frequent.
My other board raises tens of thousands of dollars annually for a local school’s capital needs. Our meetings take place in jeans and T-shirts around board members’ kitchen tables. The topics there keep me grounded in grassroots issues and the workings of our large local school system. There is no staff, so we’re constantly in the weeds, a good reminder of the issues my smallest clients face daily.
A range of other committees, award panels, and grant-review boards can take on added relevance to our work. On a committee that crowned our region’s best nonprofit leader, I got to philosophize about leadership with local nonprofit standouts and then interview some incredible executives. When my small neighborhood raised money for a legal fund to battle an encroaching hospital, I went door-to-door and was reminded of grassroots fundraising in its most basic form.
Then there are the more formal vehicles for continuing education. The options are endless these days.
When friends ask what I’m reading, I can often rattle off a good history or foreign affairs book, or even a few novels over the summer. But admittedly, I spend a great deal of my reading time pouring over the growing number of studies, analyses, and ideas from the burgeoning nonprofit research and think-tank scene.
I find reading the most productive way to learn. Unlike webinars and workshops, books and articles allow me to advance at my own pace. If the content is too basic, I just put the thing down. If it’s not, I can revisit the details as many times as I’d like.
Not too long ago there was a dearth of nonprofit information. Colleagues and I would sit around debating issues that would have obvious answers in other industries. We still do that on occasion, but the volume of information I now receive electronically, and even in my old-fashioned mailbox, is stunning.
Don’t limit yourself to reading within the sector. Business, public policy, and many other topics can provide great insights into our field.
Many of us have grown up on our professional associations’ meetings, networking events, and conferences. Those are still excellent ways to learn and expand our circles. New and narrower groups are forming all the time. The competing market for credentialing and continuing education hours benefits us all. It means that we can all find more detailed information in the fields that interest us most.
Some associations cater to particular sectors of nonprofit management or fundraising, while others focus on consulting. The Giving Institute and the Association of Philanthropic Counsel provide opportunities for those in our field to formally connect and learn about best practices in nonprofit consulting. Whether you own a small shop or a growing one, the training and support offered by these organizations can be invaluable.
Of course, when you join an association, the networking can be as big a boon as the education.
There is also an incredible number of interactive resources, such as CharityChannel and LinkedIn Groups, geared toward reading and responding to nonprofit interests. (See Chapter Six for more information about LinkedIn Groups.) These are great when you have specific questions you’d like answered, want to network, or want to help a colleague by responding to a post.
And webinars are fantastic, especially for consultants in smaller cities and rural areas, where there are fewer face-to-face workshops available. If you’re like me, you receive several invitations to webinars every day in your inbox, many of them free. So if there is a third-sector topic you would like to learn more about, there are dozens of opportunities waiting for you. Admittedly, some of these webinars are sales presentations, but you can always “walk out” of a webinar by simply closing your computer’s window.
Don’t overlook the value of podcasts. I download them onto my computer or iPod and listen to interviews with experts in our field and others while I’m doing my bills, driving, or walking downtown. Search iTunes or your favorite websites—nonprofit or otherwise—for topics of interest.
Despite some very good electronic resources, remember to unplug regularly. Our minds really are too cluttered these days. After many frustrating moments, it never fails that I go for a walk or a leisurely bike ride—with no electronics in tow—only to emerge with some of the best ideas I’ve had since my last mind-clearing activity.
During a recent unplugged moment, I decided how I would approach a client’s development plan. It was a much more creative strategy than I’d had previously. While walking to the store a few weeks ago, I mentally refined an article I’d been working on. These are minor improvements to everyday issues, but I’ve also had some of my more “aha” moments during an unusually quiet state.
The beauty of being your own boss is that you can make time for these quiet activities. You must. They make room for new solutions and put our busy lives into perspective.
You’re the boss.
No one else is watching.
How you decide to spend your day is up to you.
Be creative and have fun with the range of professional development opportunities out there. Even when business is at its busiest, continue to pursue the people, events, and resources that keep you sharp. Don’t let up. If you do, your skills, networks, and future business will dry up.
Self-employment allows you to seamlessly toggle between client work, volunteerism, networking, and continuing education all within a typical day. It’s the art of managing those endless options that consultants must find.
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