No strings attached | Consulting 101

main.jpgIf someone told me when I graduated college three years ago that I’d be working as a nonprofit consultant, my response would have been: Me!?! A consultant? Don’t you have to be an expert to do that?

I’m no expert. I am, however, fortunate to have come into the nonprofit sector at a time when a less-than-desirable economy forced me to get creative with my career path.

Consulting & the Economy

At its heart, consulting is about creating your own opportunities. While many consultants will say they simply “fell into the work,” recent reports suggest that a surge in consulting opportunities in the United States is due to more than just luck.

The unfortunate reality is that we are working in a sector of limited resources. Despite the continued growth of nonprofits over the past decade, a shaky economy has resulted in a situation where nonprofits are being forced to do more with less.

While this has not been good news for job seekers, this climate has been beneficial for consultants. Increasingly, cash-strapped nonprofits have turned to temporary workers outside their organization who offer specialized, results-oriented assistance with no strings attached.

As consulting opportunities become more prevalent, many young professionals are seeing this type of short-term work as a real option.

“People get intimidated by the term consulting, but it really is just regular work,” Adaobi Okolue, a marketing consultant, puts it. “It doesn’t matter if it came from permanent, temporary or consulting work. At the end of the day, a job needs to get done by someone, so why not you?”

So, why not you? – What to Consider

“You have to be fearless,” says Francie Nelson, a veteran fundraising consultant.

Fearless and committed. Whether you are embarking on your own consulting business or starting a “nonprofit side hustle,” consulting is not easy. I found this out through personal experience with my own consulting side job and my feelings were echoed when I put this question out to Adaobi, Francie and digital communications consultant, Nicole Harrison.

They all agreed; it’s important to know what you are getting into before you make the commitment. So, before you take the plunge into consulting, here a few factors worth considering:

  1. Passion is important – As Niecy Taylor put it, consultants are more like “community change agents.” You have to have to have a real passion, for not only the type of work you are performing, but for the missions of the organizations you are assisting. 
  2. You gotta have skills – Consulting is a practitioner’s profession. The ability to draw from experience, think analytically and know how to work with diverse groups of people in challenging situations is crucial. These skills cannot be taught, they need to be cultivated through real-world work experience.
  3. Confidence is key – You have to be comfortable with the concept of reaching outside your comfort zone. Networking and the ability to ease into new situations will take you far.
  4. It’s not just quick and easy cash – You’re going to have to build your reputation before you can build your bank account. In addition, consultants don’t get benefits, sick days or paid vacation.
  5. You might have to give up your social life (and/or sleep) –This is particularly true if you already have a full-time job. Youhave to be willing to give up your evenings, weekends and lunch hours.

Do you have passion, skills worth sharing and a penchant for working odd hours? If so, I highly suggest reading “Becoming a Consultant: Is this the job for you?” In this chat transcript by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, three accomplished consultants tackle topics such as criticism of the profession, building credibility and the possibility short-term starvation.

Getting your Feet Wet

There are many ways to get into consulting. I found my position through some strategic volunteering. Adaobi pitched herself as a short-term alternative for a year-long internship. Nicole and Francie took a more traditional approach, taking their finely honed skills and starting their own consulting companies.

Regardless of which direction you take, if you're ready to embark on your entrepreneurial venture, here are a few tips to help you get your feet wet:

  1. Work for free – While this may seem counter-intuitive, providing pro-bono or volunteer support for an organization is a great way to gain specific skills and test your consulting abilities. Be strategic about the type of work you take on and the types of organizations you work with.
  2. Find your niche – Consultants are typically considered generalists or specialists. Generalists tend to take on projects of a larger scope and complexity within an organization. Specialists focus on addressing one particular aspect of an organization, such as grantwriting, social media development or event planning.
  3. Build your personal network – Continually build a network of people that can help you along your way. Let them know that you are looking to consult and be as specific as possible with what types of services you can provide and the clients you are after.
  4. Build your brand – As a consultant, you are your own product. Create your own personal branding strategy. Items, such as business cards, personal web pages and a strong social media presence will help to bolster your identity on and offline.
  5. Join a network – Lastly, associations, such as the Minnesota Council of NonprofitsNonprofit Technology Network and the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers, provide valuable training and networking opportunities to help get you on your way.

If you are serious about making a transition into consulting, here’s Philanthrophy411 Blog’s list of 15 practical things you can start doing right now.

In her own post on starting out as a consultant, Nicole writes, “I had to take the journey to get where I am today and it was the journey that helped me to begin to see my true talents, skills and passion… I am lucky… I am in charge of my life.”  

Consultants—Share your story. How did you first get into consulting? What are some tips you have for launching a consulting venture? Consultant-hopefuls— What are the next steps or goals you have for starting your consulting career? Where have you been successful? What road blocks have you encountered?

A special thanks to Adaobi OkolueFrancie Nelson, and Nicole Harrison for sharing their wisdom with me for this blog post.

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