So You Want to Be a Consultant?

I frequently hear questions, from development professionals and others working in the nonprofit sector, about being a consultant. What’s it like being your own boss? How did you get started in consulting? How do you find your clients?

To many, the idea of being one’s own boss is alluring. Setting your own hours, picking and choosing among projects, and being autonomous all sound great, don’t they? Before you quit your job and jump in, here are 8 questions well worth considering.

1. Do you have the expertise necessary to be a consultant?

It may seem obvious that a certain level of expertise is required if you want to be an effective consultant – and if you agree, that’s a step in the right direction! For example, if you’d like to help nonprofit organizations produce profitable special events, you’ll be a much more effective advisor if you have already managed a good number of events. 

2. Do you have a robust network?

If you have held various staff positions with several nonprofit organizations in your community, that can be a good start. And if you have maintained relationships with your past supervisors, executive directors and colleagues, that’s even better. Your service on nonprofit boards or committees, or in other volunteer capacities, will also boost your network, as will membership in professional development groups such as the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

The bottom line is that having a robust network is going to help you to find your clients. It’s not uncommon for a consultant’s first clients to be organizations with whom they have worked or volunteered in the past.

3. What level of risk or uncertainty is comfortable for you?

Being a consultant comes with plenty of “unknowns.” You may not know who your next client will be. You may not know how much money you will make this month or this year. You can mitigate your risk but starting part time as a consultant while still fully employed, or by saving a little nest egg before jumping in. But eventually, you will face uncertainty, so be sure you can be comfortable living with it – or at least won’t consistently lose sleep over it.

4. Are you self-motivated?

As a consultant, you will not have a supervisor helping to ensure you complete your projects on time. Of course you will have deadlines from your clients but for the most part, you will set your own schedule and be solely responsible for getting the work done. And, it’s very likely that – at least to start – you will be working from a home office. Will you be able to ignore the pile of laundry or stack of dishes in favor of getting your client’s work done?

5. Do you like a challenge or do you prefer routine?

As a consultant, you will often be hired to find a solution to a challenge. There will likely be no road map showing you what to do or where to go. And often your client doesn’t know what needs to be done and certainly not where to start. So you need to be able to come in, assess the situation and make recommendations. 

Moreover, you will be face unique challenges with each of your clients. Each project is virtually a brand new one even if you have two clients who say, want to start a major gifts program. Each client will have different donors, board members, and staff members, as well as a different culture and infrastructure. Thus, your approach will need to be tailored to fit each organization and its strengths and weaknesses.

6. Do you enjoy working alone?

If you are working from a home office, you will likely spend large chunks of your day working alone. Sure, you’ll get out for client meetings but there may be days when you don’t have any client meetings or networking events, so you’ll be alone all day long. Many people love the idea of so much time alone, but if you are super social, it could be a challenge. 

The other aspect to consider when you think about working alone is that you will not have a built in network of fellow staffers with whom to bounce around ideas. There will be no one to help you brainstorm solutions to your client problems. Many consultants create their own group of advisors or associates to help address this challenge.

7. Are you comfortable managing budgets?

Yes, you will need to understand your business expenses and revenues to know if you are making money. At the very least you need to cover your costs, but it would be good to have extra revenue as your income. If you do not want to manage bill paying yourself, you can hire a bookkeeper. And you should definitely consider hiring an accountant to advise you on taxes once you are an independent consultant.

8. Do you like to toot your own horn?

As a consultant, you’ll need to be comfortable marketing yourself, which includes talking about your past experience and why you are the perfect person for your prospective client to hire. Securing new clients often looks a lot like getting hired for a staff position. You may need to provide a proposal, conduct a presentation, and/or participate in an interview. You also will want to continue building your network, which might include presenting at conferences or joining professional organizations. 

None of these questions are make-or-break considerations. But I hope they have given you something to think about as you consider the consultant opportunity. 

Special thanks to fellow Denver-based consultant Cindy Grubenhoff of In the Know for helping to develop this list of considerations! And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Check out Nonprofit Consulting Essentials by Penelope Cagney, among other resources, for much more on the subject.

Thoughts? Questions? If you are a consultant, what advice do you share with others about jumping in? Please share your experiences, thoughts and ideas in the Comments box below! 

Special gift for you: Conquer Your Fear of Asking for Money, a step-by-step guide, is available here (click).