Career Advancement, Featured, Interviews

Why I quit my full-time job to start a new career as a consultant

There are many career pathways in the nonprofit sector and one that’s increasingly popular is that of a nonprofit consultant. But what does it mean to become a consultant and how does one get started? We invited Rosetta Thurman of Thurman Consulting to share how she went from working full-time at a nonprofit to being a consultant.

Photo credit: stevendepolo, Creative Commons/Flickr

Photo credit: stevendepolo, Creative Commons/Flickr

Now that I’m working for myself full-time as President of Thurman Consulting, people often ask me how I got into consulting in the first place. It’s kind of a funny question to answer, though, because I never actually set out to be a consultant. I’ve been working in nonprofits since I was in college, focusing on fundraising and development for about eight years. Along the way, I got really interested in leadership development due to the organizations and programs I was working with. In 2007, I started a blog about leadership issues in the nonprofit sector as I saw them. Then, people actually started reading my blog and inviting me to come speak at events and create programs related to my ideas. Finally, I started telling people that they should pay me because I just couldn’t do that much work for free!

And that’s pretty much how I became a consultant.

Why I Quit My Good Nonprofit Job

Three years ago, I was working in a fast-paced nonprofit organization in Washington, DC. I was enjoying my work, while at the same time managing my budding speaking and consulting business “on the side.” By all accounts, I had a good job. My organization had a great reputation and I was well-compensated. I had employer-paid healthcare, five weeks paid time off, flexible hours, the ability to work from home, and yes, my very own parking spot! To be honest, I probably could have worked there for many more years. But I wouldn’t have been 100% happy because at that point, I was ready for a new challenge. When I was at work, I couldn’t wait to get home to start working on my own projects. I’d wanted to write a book for years, but could never seem to find the time to do it. After a few years, my side business had become more of a passion for me than my day job.

First Steps I Took

In January 2010, I began working for myself full-time. Since then, I’ve experienced all the freedom and fear that comes with being self-employed. What helped was that before I even submitted my resignation letter, I had already secured two contracts that provided a guaranteed stream of work for a defined amount of time. When I left my job, I had one six-month contract and one 12-month contract. Financially, I was pretty set for my first year. Those initial contracts drastically reduced the monetary risk of self-employment. With the help of my existing network of colleagues and the personal brand I had built online through my blog, my business continued to grow from there.

What Life is Like Now

My life as a consultant consists mostly of writing, planning, coaching calls and frequent travel for speaking or on-site training at client organizations. I operate as a sole practitioner in my business, in partnership with part-time virtual staff as needed. Currently, my products and services include:

  • Speaking
  • Workshops and training
  • Leadership program facilitation
  • Coaching
  • Books and ebooks
  • Online training programs

As you can see, I have a diverse range of income streams, which is critical for any consultant. There will be times when your client pool seems to dry up for a while and you still need income to pay your bills. Blogging and social media are still responsible for 90% of the leads I get for new business. In fact, without my online presence, I would have NO business. Seriously.

My speaking and training clients are mainly nonprofits, universities and associations. My coaching clients are nonprofit professionals, sector-switchers as well as aspiring consultants and speakers. People all over the world have read my books and put the ideas to use in their work!

Tips for Striking Out On Your Own

If you’re thinking about working for yourself as a nonprofit consultant, I offer a few lessons learned from my own experience:

  • Hang your shingle while you still have the security of a full-time job. I don’t recommend quitting your job before you have a solid client base or at least a long-term contract. Also, be sure to have at least six months of living expenses saved. I only had three months of savings when I left my job and I wish I had more of a financial cushion.
  • Test the waters first. Do pro-bono consulting with an organization that could use your expertise. Providing free support for an organization can be an easy way to gain experience and build confidence in your skills and abilities.
  • Speak for free. My very first speaking engagement was as a pro-bono panelist to get my name and ideas out there. I over-prepared and gave the best remarks I could. As a result of seeing me on that panel, people began to contact me for other opportunities. Soon, speaking pro-bono paid off: my second speaking engagement was paid!

If you want to work for yourself as a nonprofit consultant, it’s important to first get clear on what value you have to offer the sector. Then, create products and services that folks are actually willing to pay for. Finally, expect to market yourself like crazy. If it sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is! Running a consulting business (in any economy) is challenging. But it’s also the most rewarding work I’ve done in my career so far.

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Rosetta Thurman is the President of Thurman Consulting, an education company that provides personal and professional development opportunities to empower a new generation of leaders to change the world. She is also the co-author of How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar: 50 Ways to Accelerate Your Career. Sign up for Rosetta’s free weekly leadership newsletter here.

 

 

8 Comments

  1. April Greene

    Thank you for the great post, Rosetta! Consulting careers have often seemed interesting but inscrutable to me—I appreciate your so clearly walking us through the steps that have brought you to where you are, and explaining what it takes to keep succeeding. Congratulations on forging your own brilliant path to career fulfillment!

    • Thanks for reading April! So glad the post resonated with you. Consulting can definitely seem like a “black box” when it comes to figuring out the path, but many consultants would be happy to chat with you about how they got to where they are.

  2. Carolyn Jones

    This article is right on time! I quit my job in the non-profit sector in December 2012 to start my own consulting business. I got cold feet and started seriously looking for a job TODAY and ran into this post. Thank you soo much! I feel renewed and confidence to try, again.

    • Carolyn – we all have those moments! Especially me. But give yourself at least 2 years, seriously. Most new business take 3-5 years to really get off the ground and start making money. Don’t quit too soon! Your breakthrough could be just around the corner :)

  3. Lora

    Thank you for going through the details and for the transparency. It’d be easy to scratch the surface of this topic and make sweeping claims, but it’s another thing to share openly and precisely what you did for the benefit of others. Thanks Rosetta! Learned from this one.

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