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Putting First Things First as You Enter the Consulting Profession: The Why’s and the What’s Before the How’s

On a pretty regular basis, a new consultant, or someone considering being a consultant will ask the CONSULTANTS listserv on CharityChannel a how question. “How do I set my fees, now that I’m grantwriting?” “How do I write my contracts, will you give me yours?” “How do you educate the clients so they know what to expect?” and its sister “and so they don’t make me crazy?” Each of these questions is very important, and will be considered when you put together your business plan. However, to ask them too soon puts the cart before the horse.

As you consider consulting, consider why you are considering consulting, what you want to get out of consulting as opposed to a regular job on the inside, what services you want to provide, and why your clients would use you.

Why do you dream of consulting? What are you missing now that you would get as a consultant? For me, I’m suited to doing multiple few-months’-long projects for different groups that require different skills. That gives me the challenge that keeps it interesting. I also wanted the freedom to be physically there for my children, while also engaging my professional ambitions. As a consultant, I had the freedom to pick my son up from kindergarten every day, remain connected and in touch with what was happening in his life, drop him off at after school care, and get back to my day more focused. As a consultant and small business owner, I wasn?t stealing anyone else’s time to do that. My time is mine, and I make up for it by starting work at 6 before anyone else gets up and continuing work on my laptop in the evening while the others are watching television. I also have the freedom that comes from not having all my income come from any one group. That gives me the ability to serve the community, the sector and my clients better.

So when you are answering your most important why, be honest about the negative reasons you want out of your current situation, write them down so you can’t deny them and you can learn from them, but don’t let them bog you down. As you write your list of whys, if most of your answers are along the lines of “it won’t be like this job because”, reconsider your choices. Consulting has its own negatives, and it may be that you will bring some of the things you hate about being on the inside with you into freedom as an entrepreneur, and the difficulties of entrepreneurship and that would be a shame.

The first what question is probably the most important of all the questions, and should probably be explored by every person. What is important to you, and what do you value? Do you value variety and challenges? Do you value freedom, and also risk? Do you value self-determination, and blazing your own path? Do you value stability, predictability teamwork and collegiality? Do you value direction, career ladders, and retirement pensions? One set of values is going to be more in line with consulting than the others. There are great things about being a consultant, but you have to give up some of the great things about being part of an institution. These are choices you have to make, and it is best if you do them knowingly.

If you really enjoy variety, self-determination, can market, and really want to be a consultant, but you also desperately want the peace of mind that comes with employer-provided health insurance, for example, you need to know this up front, so that when it comes time to attend to the hows, you know to put a very good health insurance package and some retirement planning into your business plan.

Think also about your values and how they relate to the outcomes of the work you do. Are there organizations or causes that you would love to further? Are the organizations or causes or a set of “those people” that are anathema to you? Explore this too. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the lazy trap and paint with broad brushes – what exactly is it about “those people” that you don’t want to associate with? Those character traits on the other side of the political spectrum are probably also present on your side, so you will want to be on the look out to avoid headaches and disillusionment. Nothing hits me harder than when I expect better of a person or group I admire and they show their feet of clay. I can only prepare and be realistic to avoid those disappointments.

You may have standards for philanthropy. I will no longer work with a group if it will not seriously commit itself to sound financial management, to a healthy balance of unrestricted to restricted funds, and if it is unwilling to develop sound programs with client-focused outcomes and objectives. Grantsmanship cannot be the development plan, but only a part of it. In the absence of these things, my job is harder. More important to me, though, the donor’s money is better used with a different group. I don’t feel right raising money for an organization that causes me to doubt how well the money will be used. I am willing to work to improve an organization on these fronts, but if they are intransigent, then so am I.

Others may be bothered by fundraising practices, biased assumptions, or even racism on the part of key members of the organization. You may be bothered that a certain organization raises money because it can, not because there is real need for more. This is a fundraising-skewed list, which reflects my experience, but it should give you an idea of what kinds of things to search your conscience for. It doesn’t matter how long or short your list is, what matters is how true it is to what makes you excited and thrilled with your work, and what makes you uncomfortable or even nuts. Knowing thyself will go along way towards preserving thy sanity in the midst of real life.

However, your values should not be a list of negatives. Find what you do stand for, not just what you oppose. It will make you a much happier, much more pleasant person to be around, and that might be the difference in signing clients.

For example, we moved this summer to a new state, and we are still looking for a church. One church we visited posts a sign prominently declaring its stance against bigotry and unaccepting attitudes. Couldn’t they be for the dignity of all people, saved or “unsaved” churched or unchurched, similar to us or different? Stating that they embrace, in love, all people? That they love the Lord their God with all their strength, soul, and heart, and that they love their (global) neighbors as themselves? That doesn’t seem so far from what they were trying to say. The thing is, of all the churches we have attended, this was the least welcoming one. And none of the others had codified their opposition to unwelcoming-ness. So, what do you stand for, not just against?

As you are inventorying your what-values, give yourself plenty of time. Question what scares you, because your fears will point to the opposite of your values. And if you follow your fears, and really investigate them, you will learn valuable things about yourself. Write your fears down, and use them to find your values, and also, when we get to the hows, your fears will help you determine what you need to contract out, or what subjects require some training.

What services do you want to provide? Please, right now, don’t do a market analysis and decide that folks need X service, so you’ll learn how to do X and consult with X. Right now, with pen and paper, or keyboard and screen, list every job you ever had. Ever. Really. Include the volunteering you have done. Particularly in our industry, volunteer work matters. Think also about the roles you have taken in your life – as the family comic, or the older-brother-who watched out for the younger kids. What has been your “place” in groups?

Then, seriously consider what, about each thing, did you love? What made you chafe under the pressure, or feel bored and uninspired? What activities inspired you? Which skills and traits are transferable, and ultimately marketable? Don’t answer that too quickly, though. It may not seem significant to you that you loved decorating the family Christmas tree, or loved to come up with interesting crafts or table settings and family gatherings, but it can be. Maybe you can take your experience and become an event planner for non-profits or design programs for clients’ clients. So search for the skills, even if they seem silly. What you happily do for free, may point you to what you should do with your career. However, you can’t do it for free so often anymore.

What kinds of tasks and interactions do you want to have throughout the day? Do you want to be out and about, meeting people, inspiring people, traveling? Or do you prefer to be quiet and contemplative, possibly writing more than talking? Each set will point you into a different direction. Also try to assess how important it is that your work involves these activities or traits. Must you have them or would you be able to fulfill these needs in your off hours?

The next question, “why would your clients choose to use you?” may have you exulting “finally, we’re getting to something concrete and practical.” Yes, this may seem more practical, but without the careful inventorying that the previous questions, and this question, require, you may end up finding out how to do something, doing it for years, and realizing it isn’t what you want to do. Building a consulting business is risky, costly, difficult and time consuming. Please don’t embark on the journey without being certain where you want to go, or if you even want to make a journey in the first place.

As you answer the question “why would my clients choose to use me?” honestly ask yourself about your level of expertise in your chosen field, but also about your ability to lead and inspire people. Engaging clients isn’t like a job interview: sometimes clients don’t know they need your services. Sometimes you have to sell the need for services from anybody before you sell the need for services from you. Why is what you want to do important for your clients? How will it make them happier, their lives better, bring them more money, or save them the money they have? Why should they use you to get it? Are you smarter, funnier, more charming, more capable, more ethical, or more efficient than their alternatives? And here’s the kicker: how good are you at communicating these things to potential clients? Do you know where they are, how to communicate with them using which words to resonate with their fears and desires and assure them of your abilities? Are you willing and able to spend money on marketing, go to meetings and network (rather than sit and watch and learn), project a confident face even when the client pipeline is low and the mortgage payment is high? Do you know what they need, how to tell them they need it, and can you convince them that they need you to give it to them?

So, when you can answer the why, what, why what?, and are ready to commit, eyes wide open, to the risk and the reward that is life consulting to non-profits, then you can start worrying about the how’s.

About the Contributor: Katherine Driskell Felts

While a graduate student at the University of Miami, Katherine Driskell (Felts) served as the interim Executive Director of a small non-profit organization.  She helped that organization refocus on it’s mission, planned and hosted a wildly successful board member retreat, redesigned its logo and letterhead, developed board member recruitment strategy and packages, cleaned the database and sent two successful select mail pieces.  

Ms. Felts then worked as a policy intern in the office of a United States Senator before being hired onto a political campaign in Arkansas.  As Campaign Finance Manager, Ms. Felts managed the phone solicitation and two constituencies of direct mail solicitation.  She identified lists, helped to recruit volunteers, trained phone solicitors, developed suggested scripts for each list, ensured successful follow-up on pledges and phone solicitation contributions and helped coach the candidate on key major donors from each list.  She also wrote two different direct mail pieces to two different lists she identified and acquired, oversaw logistics of personalized printing of the pieces, stuffing, addressing and ensuring bulk mail regulation compliance.  Ms. Felts also took on some responsibility as the traveling aide, cultivating key supporters and prepping the candidate for speeches.

As a volunteer, Ms. Felts has helped numerous political campaigns, church committees and non-profit organizations including stints as a Sunday School teacher and volunteer on a mission trip.

In the past year, we have raised over $800,000 for our clients.  Since founding kdfconsulting, Ms. Felts has developed grant proposals, research, and inquiry letters for numerous organizations including public and private schools; an excellent pre-school serving low-income families of student-parents, a counseling agency; an emergency shelter for troubled teens; and a medical, humanitarian and housing organization with major projects in six states.

As a member of the Orange County Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Ms. Felts has availed herself of many seminars and conferences on topics from fundraising post 9-11, major donor prospect research, legal issues for fundraisers, creating a fundraising plan, individual donor cultivation, and more.  She has attended conferences and seminars on planned giving, training, and, one of her favorites, the inaugural Charity Channel Summit

Committed to  developing skills and abilities for herself and others in the profession, Ms. Felts teaches a beginning grant writing class at the Volunteer Center of Greater Orange County, and is a  contributor to the Grants & Foundations Review, published by CharityChannel.  She also works to help interested members of clients’ staff and other novice grant writers increase their writing skills and ability.

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