So, You Want To Be A Philanthropy Consultant?

About once a week someone emails me to learn more about philanthropy consulting: foundation staff looking for their next career move (or more recently, anticipating a layoff), business executives tired of an emotionally unfulfilling career who seek to make a difference in the world, and recent college graduates who stumble upon my website and think what I do sounds really cool (it is!).

Each asks for 30-60 minutes of my time – preferably that week – to help them think through their options. It would be great to have time to talk with them all. But alas, I don’t.  Instead, I’m writing this blog to pass along some insight that I have developed in 10 years of consulting to foundations and nonprofits.

To consult or not to consult

In many ways, consulting is one of the easiest and least expensive businesses to start.  Assuming you have the expertise and contacts, all you really need is a desk, computer, phone, high-speed internet, and a printer – and you probably have all that at home already.  But being an entrepreneur and consultant isn’t for everyone.

5 questions to ask yourself before you take the plunge

  1. Are you organized and disciplined about your time? As a solo practioner, you wear all the hats: CEO, consultant, marketer, business developer, proposal writer, bookkeeper, administrative assistant, and office manager to name a few. You will also be managing multiple projects, clients, deliverables, and deadlines.
  2. Are you comfortable working alone, or do you need to be around lots of people? People often ask if I’m lonely working in my home office. The reality is I’m around people all the time:  in person and phone meetings with our clients and subcontractors, networking, and conducting interviews and focus groups for our clients. I enjoy the balance of working alone and with others on projects. But there are options if you really need the support and buzz of people around you:  start your consulting business with a partner or find office space with other small business owners.
  3. Can you support yourself for the next six months if your business is slow to take off? This is a tough economy in which to start a consulting practice.  Most foundations are reducing administrative expenditures and grantmaking. You will be much better off if you have savings to live on, or a partner who can support you. Another option is to work part time and keep your benefits while you grow your consulting practice.
  4. Do you know the type of consulting work you really want to do (and equally important, what you don’t want to do)? Foundations and nonprofits hire consultants to help them with all kinds of things, such as strategic planning, program development, environmental scans, fundraising, communications, needs assessments, foundation management, facilitation, next generation planning, and executive coaching.  Determine what you are most excited about (and qualified to do). Get clear on what you really don’t enjoy and don’t want to do, and learn how to say “no” (even when money is tight).
  5. Do you have the experience and contacts to advise foundations, donors or nonprofits? No matter how much experience you have in your industry, if you don’t have experience working in philanthropy or with nonprofits, you need to get that experience – through employment or volunteering – so that you understand the industry you hope to help.  If you just graduated from college, you really need more “real-world” experience of any kind before you start consulting.  And just because you were a fabulous program officer or nonprofit executive, doesn’t mean you will be a great consultant. One way to gain experience as a consultant without taking the plunge and starting your own business is to subcontract to another consultant. That’s how I got started, and it helped confirm that I love both philanthropy and consulting.

7 resources to learn more about consulting
Check out these resources about consulting and working in the nonprofit sector:

Million Dollar Consulting, by Alan Weiss and the many resources available on his website.

National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers – A great way to connect with and learn from other consultants. You can join as an associate member if you are new to consulting.

Nonprofit Consulting Review (Charity Channel)

How To Start a Consulting Business (Entrepreneur)

What to Expect When Switching To The Nonprofit Sector (NYT article)

Starting and Building a Career in the Nonprofit World (Chronicle of Philanthropy)

The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for Sector-Switchers

I’m passionate about the consulting and evaluation services we provide our foundation and nonprofit clients. Philanthropy and nonprofit consulting can be a fabulous career if it’s right for you. Good luck and keep me posted!

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Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly  © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2009

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