So You Want to Be A Nonprofit Consultant

Every year, thousands of people lose their jobs, get bored with what they are doing, get passed over for a promotion, and decide that pfft, I’m going to hang out my shingle and become a nonprofit consultant. And why not?  The barriers to doing so are very minor indeed.  Print up a few business cards, maybe create a website, get a business license and in some states, register with the Attorney General’s office.

The problem is that many people who take this route do so for all the wrong reasons:

  • They don’t want to have a boss
  • They want to be the boss
  • They are tired of looking for jobs
  • They want to have flexibility and—best of all—lots of free time
  • They want to tell others what to do
  • And some even want to help the nonprofit sector

But the reality of being a consultant is typically very different than one assumes.

For starters, you have many bosses, and the only person you end up being the boss for is yourself.  If you thought job search was hard before—well, as a consultant finding work is a huge percentage of what you do.

Personally, I love the flexibility, though it is not as flexible as I had hoped, and when I have free time, that means I have no or not enough work.  Neither is appealing.

I do like sharing the knowledge I have gained in over 30 years in the sector and 15 before that in sales and marketing positions.  I feel that I honestly have something to offer.  But too many consultants decide to become consultants before they have a knowledge base; before they have experienced the realities that their clients are living.

Too many consultants come into the field thinking they know what the organization needs before they know who the organization is.  And before they learn what resources would be available in order to do the work.

If you really want to help the nonprofit sector—and it is, alas, a sector that could use a lot of help—make sure you have the skills to provide that help.  The late Bob Zimmerman used to talk about “bad consulting experiences,” that poison the well for everyone.  Organizations that need assistance shy away because of people who were not ready for prime time stepping forward; consultants who do a really good job (I do, and so do most of the consultants I know) get a bad rap.

The 11 years that I have been consulting have been the most amazing and wonderful work years of my life.  I’ve had the opportunity to work with fantastic people and provide value to wonderful organizations.  But consulting isn’t for everyone.  Before you hang out that shingle, interview other consultants.  Be honest about the things that sound wonderful and the things that don’t sound so good.  And, most of all, be honest with yourself.  Do you truly have the ability to help organizations do what they do better.

And if you do—a really warm welcome to the club.

Janet Levine Consulting works with nonprofits, taking them from mired to inspired.  Learn more about us and how we can help your organization at  Sign up for our newsletter and do contact us for a free, 30-minute consultation.