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.
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:
- Workshops and training
- Leadership program facilitation
- 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.
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.