When I began consulting in my thirties, the learning curve was steep. So steep, that 15 years later, I developed an intensive two-day workshop, with longtime consultant Don Tebbe, to more efficiently bring new and aspiring consultants up to speed. When I started out, I remember thinking that my nonprofit sector experience would make up the bulk of what I needed to know. But that was only the beginning.
It turns out that there are five key skill sets that lead to consulting success—only the first two of which come by way of working for nonprofit organizations:
- Sector and industry knowledge. The dynamics of, say, a behavioral counseling agency are dramatically different from those of a community foundation. Being grounded in the sector in which you will work, and having some appreciation for the dynamics of that field is essential to successful work with clients.
- Content knowledge and technical skills. Successful consultants have deep skills and knowledge in an area that forms the basis of their services. This might be executive coaching, advice on major gift fundraising, strategic planning facilitation, board development or some other area. And they prioritize continuous learning to maintain their edge.
- Business skills and practices. No matter how strong a consultant’s services, shoddy or amateurish business practices—around fee-setting, billing, marketing or legal issues—undermine client confidence and eventually will kill the practice.
- Consulting process skills. While nearly all consulting projects involve a fairly standard set of stages, the tools, content and approaches within those stages vary considerably depending on the type of engagement.
- Consulting presence. Successful consultants hone their interpersonal skills to effectively manage client relationships. "Presence" is the ability to wed process skills and people skills to successfully move the client forward.
I was one of those lucky ones who secured my first client before I had taken any formal steps to create my business. There was little time to celebrate that milestone until I started wondering:
- What kind of business structure should I create, and how do I formalize it?
- How will I set fees?
- What will my contracts look like? What will a successful engagement look like?
- And, how will I go about finding client number two?
It took years of piecemeal learning—and plenty of trial and error—to learn all five of the above elements well and fully integrate them into my everyday work. For those interested in consulting, it’s never too early to read about service industries, legal obligations and how to overcome the challenges of working for yourself. I also learned early on the value of peer relationships. Mentors are fantastic, but even peers at similar stages of their careers can provide empathetic and insightful solutions.
No matter how you learn the basics, keep in mind that you will require a steady stream of professional development in all five subject areas to stay both at the top of your nonprofit game—and competitive in the for-profit marketplace.
Susan Schaefer is the principal of Resource Partners LLC, which has provided fundraising and board development counsel since 2001. She is co-editor of The Nonprofit Consulting Playbook and co-author of Nonprofit Board Service for the GENIUS. Susan has led workshops for hundreds of aspiring consultants and facilitates a learning community of consultants in the mid-Atlantic region.
You can also join Susan at a two-day workshop in May on Succeeding as a Consultant to Nonprofits. YNPNdc members receive 50% off! Use the code ConsultantCourse2016.