There are few things more rewarding than knowing that your hard work is creating a positive impact on the world.
Nonprofit consultants are in a special position to help a myriad of different organizations achieve their missions by providing them with expert advice and skills.
If you are looking for a job that truly makes a difference, then this article will not only help you understand how to become a nonprofit consultant, but it will also provide tips on how to excel in this exciting field.
Understanding the Role of Nonprofit Consultants
In the broadest of terms, a nonprofit consultant is an expert who advises nonprofits on various issues.
While there are certainly many generalized consultants who provide services on a wide variety of topics, most nonprofit consultants tend to specialize in a sector or niche that pertains to their specific strengths and their skills.
Because of this, the daily work of a nonprofit consultant will look different depending on their specialization, on the size of the nonprofits they work with, and on the type of assistance they provide.
By working together with the nonprofit’s leadership, board, and sometimes even volunteers, nonprofit consultants provide a variety of services to the organizations they help. These tasks can range anywhere from giving advice on strategy and growth planning, to providing more specific services like grant writing.
Nonprofit consultants can work on both a short-term and long-term basis. For example, there are times when a nonprofit only needs assistance starting a specific campaign, applying for a specific grant, or planning a specific fundraising event. While this still requires familiarity with the nonprofit’s mission and overall objectives, this type of work is focused on a very specific task that will be completed within a very specific timeframe.
Other times, however, a nonprofit might need assistance overhauling their entire donor management and cultivation process. This type of consultancy work can take a much longer time since it requires the consultant to truly immerse themselves within the organization they are helping.
Some of the areas a nonprofit consultant can specialize in include:
While a great number of nonprofit consultants work as independent contractors, there are also many nonprofit consulting firms that offer a wide variety of services.
In fact, many independent consultants started their careers by first working in one of these companies, and after they gained experience, knowledge, and created a robust network, set out on their own path. Most of their clients find them thanks to their reputation and word-of-mouth marketing.
Steps to Pursuing a Career as a Nonprofit Consultant
Now that you understand the basics of the role of a nonprofit consultant, it is time to discuss some of the important steps you can take to start consulting for nonprofit organizations.
This might seem like an impossible step at first. After all, how can you start out a new career with experience?
The truth is, there are a lot of ways you can gain experience that are relevant to consultant work before you ever get started on this journey. Your experience as a grant writer or working as a staff member or volunteer with other nonprofits can really help show potential clients you have the knowledge and experience to back up your work.
Perhaps you even have transferable skills from another industry (like social media marketing) that can help nonprofits thrive in their missions.
Consider also reaching out to nonprofit consulting firms to see if there are any positions open, or ask independent consultants if they are in need of assistance. While these jobs may not be full-time, they will open the doors for you to start gaining experience in the nonprofit world and developing your career.
Consider Getting a Certificate
Nonprofit consultants are typically hired based on two factors: their qualifications and their reputation.
As you can imagine, both can be difficult to obtain when you are just starting out.
This is why getting a certificate can be extremely helpful. Not only will the qualifications prove to potential clients you have skills and knowledge that were vetted by respectable institutions, but it will also help you stand out from other consultants.
Furthermore a certificate also shows that you have the dedication to invest time and effort in your career, which in turn may give potential clients the confidence that you will apply that same dedication to the consultant services you provide.
If you are interested in learning more about educational resources, check out this post on our recommendations for some of the top grant writing courses.
Build Your Network
As we mentioned above, nonprofit consultants are typically hired based on two factors: their qualifications and their reputation. For this reason, building a strong network is the key to growing your career and securing new clients.
Doing this can be especially difficult when you are just starting out and do not know many people in the nonprofit world. If possible, consider finding a mentor who can show you the ropes and connect you with other individuals.
Social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Facebook can also be great resources to connect with other consultants and experts in this field.
Remember, though, that it is important to go into these spaces seeing others not as your competition, but rather, as your peers. After all, if they come across a job that, for some reason, they cannot take on, they might recommend you for that position. Collaborations are also common, and knowing you can work together with a team can open up more opportunities where your skills supplement those of your colleagues.
That being said, do not underestimate the value of in-person connection. Consider reaching out to local nonprofits, attending fundraising events, and connecting with other philanthropic efforts in your community. Nonprofit conferences can also be a great place to meet new people while getting some useful industry insight.
Be sure to also use these contacts to ask for referrals. Introduce yourself, explain to them what you do and how you help nonprofits, and then directly ask them if they know of anyone who might benefit from your services.
Leverage Your Strengths
While it is good to have some basic knowledge about everything relevant to the nonprofit world, nonprofit consultants tend to have different specializations. These tend to be things that the consultants are both good at and things that they enjoy doing.
For example, someone who enjoys writing and creating narratives might find that they excel at being a grant writing consultant. They might find a lot more success focusing exclusively on grant writing rather than trying to also juggle things like social media marketing, event planning, and board development.
While general consultants do exist, most nonprofits prefer the help of specialized experts. Developing a niche that suits your unique skills and building a portfolio and work experience that demonstrate how that work can be useful to potential clients is the best way to make yourself stand out from the crowd.
Know Which Projects to Take
In the beginning of your career, you might be tempted to take any opportunity that comes your way. You might hesitate in asking any questions or saying “no” to a project.
After all, when you are just starting out and you need to both build a reputation and gain experience, any opportunity is a good one, right?
Depending on your circumstances, that might not be true. Taking on the wrong sort of project might not only be detrimental to your career, but it might also hurt the nonprofit you are supposedly trying to help.
For this reason, take time to consider what type of consultant work you wish to do, what type of nonprofits you wish to help, and how you envision your career path moving forward. Ask your mentors or other consultants for suggestions and advice.
And with this, create a set of questions that you can ask nonprofits when first discussing a project. Remember that if you are working independently, this is not a job interview—you and the nonprofit are partners, and both should be working to vet each other to make sure that this is something that will be mutually beneficial.
Know What to Charge
Finally, when taking steps to pursue a career as a nonprofit consultant, it is important to know what to charge.
Costs for nonprofit consulting will vary greatly depending on the consultant’s experience, on their location, and their sector. Consultants can charge an hourly rate which can average anywhere from $75 to $175. They may also choose to charge based on a per-project rate. These are typically calculated by taking into consideration the amount of work and time the project would require, and payment can sometimes be divided into different installments.
If you are not sure what to charge, don’t be afraid to ask your mentors or other consultants in your area. It is in everyone’s best interest for you to keep your rates competitive, as underselling your services might lead to the entire profession becoming undervalued. Special calculators can also be incredibly useful with helping you discover what is a fair amount to charge when you are just starting out.
Also remember that your prices don’t need to be set in stone. You can negotiate with nonprofits depending on their size and budget, and once you become more established, you should charge more for your services.
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Key Competencies Required for a Nonprofit Consultant
By now, you’ve learned about the role of a nonprofit consultant and what you can do to get your career started on the right path. Now, it’s time to understand what competencies you’ll need to develop in order to thrive at this job.
Organization and Time Management Skills
One of the key competencies required of a nonprofit consultant is being well-organized.
Oftentimes, consultants work on deadlines, and as such, they must have the organization and time management skills to properly assess the scope of their projects so they can strategize the most efficient way to tackle the different tasks.
Creating a workflow that is easily adaptable to different situations can be helpful in securing efficiency.
Take, for example, a grant writing consultant. When helping a nonprofit, it is important to be aware of the funder's deadlines, requirements, and the time needed to successfully complete an application. Furthermore, an experienced grant writer will have a workflow that will expedite the process, making the best out of useful tools to get the most out of the time given.
As implied above, a nonprofit consultant should also be adaptable.
Because they can work with different clients that have differing needs and different structures, it is important for consultants to know how to adapt to best suit the project they are working on.
Finally, a nonprofit consultant needs to be a good listener.
Their job, after all, is to help nonprofits so they can be more successful at achieving their goals and advancing their missions. A good consultant will be attentive not only to the feedback given on their work, but they will also anticipate their clients’ needs.
Wrapping Up: The Next Steps
Being a consultant for nonprofits is an incredible job that gives you the opportunity to make a difference in numerous ways.
However, setting forth on this journey can seem overwhelming at first—especially as these roles are built primarily through networking and experience. Hopefully this guide has provided you with some small actionable steps you can take in order to start your career as a nonprofit consultant with confidence and success.
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