5 tips to consider before you become a nonprofit consultant

Photo credit: docstockmedia, Shutterstock
Photo credit: docstockmedia, Shutterstock

In my work with young nonprofit professionals, a question I get asked a lot is how one can transition from working inside an organization and into becoming a successful consultant that serves other nonprofit organizations. To answer that question I caught up with my friend and colleague, Vanessa Chase, the President of The Storytelling Nonprofit and creator of the Storytelling Non-Profit Virtual Conference.

Vanessa is only 25-years-old yet is in the process of writing her first book, Co-Chairs YNPN Vancouver, sits on the board of directors of a local nonprofit organization, speaks at conferences internationally, and has so many requests for her services that she is in the process of hiring her first employee after only being a consultant full time for just over a year. Amazing! How did she do it? Let’s find out…

Natasha: How did you decide to start consulting?

Vanessa: Prior to my work in consulting, I worked as a Development Officer doing fundraising. I really enjoyed my work and I loved being in the nonprofit sector. But as I was doing some reflection in 2012, I realized that there were some aspects of my job that I loved and excelled at, while others that I didn’t enjoy at all. I wanted to create a career that really leveraged my strengths. Shortly after that time, I started picking up some freelance communications work from other nonprofits and I was moonlighting as a writer for about a year. During that time I also started blogging and found that I really enjoyed that, too. Eventually, I had enough freelance work and a big enough blog audience that I felt ready to make the leap. I’ve been working for myself full time since the Spring 2013.

Natasha’s takeaway tip #1: Build your business part-time before you jump in all the way. Test the waters and build your audience before making the leap.

What were the first steps you took before you started full-time consulting?

I was still working full time when I first started consulting, which was a huge blessing! Outside of work, I was able to dabble and experiment with the type of work that I wanted to be doing without having to worry about the amount of money I was making. I had identified a few areas of my work in fundraising that I loved – communications, marketing and copywriting – and I decided to start looking for small contracts doing that kind of work. I told everyone I knew about my new venture and invited them to connect with me anytime. I also started meeting organizations that I was interested in and approached them about their work needs. While not all of these leads would pan out, enough did and that helped to boost my confidence that I could work for myself.

In addition to gaining some work experience, I started saving a little extra every month so that I’d have a “safety net” for about four months after I left my job.

Natasha’s takeaway tip #2: Prove to yourself that you are capable of making money as a consultant. You cannot be focused on really helping others when you’re financially stressed all the time.

What does it take to be successful as a consultant?

At a very basic level, you do have to know your craft. There’s no way of getting around that! Aside from that, I think there are a couple of key qualities that people who work for themselves have.

– Discipline. Sometimes you’re going to feel like not doing work and instead binge watching TV or wasting time online. But getting the work done comes down to you. It can be tough sometimes, but the good news is that discipline is a learned skill and one that you can get better at.

– Have a long-term vision. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of flying by the seat of your pants when you work for yourself. But as I saw in my first six months of self-employment, that’s not how you’re going to get ahead. You really do have to have a larger vision of what you want for your work and your company. That way you can say yes to the right opportunities and no to the ones that will not help you realize that vision.

A willingness to go against the grain. Even in our modern day and age, there are still a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes about people who work for themselves. For months after I started my business, people would constantly say, “Well, at least you can always go back to a real job if this doesn’t work out.” So many people can’t imagine a type of work beyond their 9 to 5. It does take courage to zig when everyone else is zagging, but I’ve found that it’s been the most rewarding period of my life so far.

Natasha’s takeaway tip #3: Be prepared to feel uncomfortable. There is nothing easy about being self-employed – you set the rules, you do the marketing, you create the products, and you have to pick yourself up when you’re feeling down.

How have you been so successful at attracting clients?

Clients generally come to me one of two ways. Either they are referred by someone who knows about my work or they are familiar with my website and inquire about my services through the contact form on my website. Regardless of what way they come to me, it always requires lot of hustle and consistent marketing. I contribute most of my success to my blog and weekly email newsletter. By building up an email list of people who are interested in what I’m talking about online, I have a list of warm prospects that I can consistently communicate with and potentially land as clients. Alternatively, if I’m teaching an e-course or a webinar I can also let those folks know about it through email.

I’ve also found that I’ve had good luck with content marketing on LinkedIn, especially groups, which tend to refer about 50% of my website traffic each week.

Natasha’s take-away tip #4: Start building your list of prospects now as it will take some time to cultivate these relationships before they actually put money down to hire you.

Do you have any tips for making the transition between working for an organization and working for yourself?

Making the transition to working for yourself looks different for everyone. Right before I gave notice at my last job, I was feeling really terrified. I was worried if it was the right decision. I was worried about making enough money. I was worried about failing. But I happened to read Career Renegade by Jonathan Fields around that time and he had some advice about making the leap that has stuck with me ever since. He said that at some point, you’re not going to know how successful your side venture could be unless you give it 100% of your undivided attention. Yes, there is a lot of uncertainty as to whether or not it will work out, but unless you try you will always be faced with the uncertainty of wondering, “what if . . .” That was enough to push me over the edge because I knew that if I didn’t try I would sincerely regret it.

Natasha’s takeaway tip #5: Mentally prepare to give your business 100% of your attention while you’re getting started. Put non-business-building-related projects on hold temporarily so you can get used to your new routine.

Got a question about starting out as a consultant that we didn’t answer here? Post your question below and one of us will be happy to get back to you.

More about Vanessa:

Vanessa Chase is the President of The Storytelling Nonprofit and creator of the Storytelling Nonprofit Virtual Conference hosted every January. She regularly presents to nonprofits in the US and Canada about how to fundraise using the power of storytelling.

Through her consulting and strategy work, she has had the opportunity to work with Love Global Foundation, Union Gospel Mission, the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, A Rocha Canada, Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine, Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia, Wagner Hills Ministries and Cancer Care Connection. Her work has resulted in combined $10 million fundraised and significant improvements in donor relations that will create lasting legacies for the causes they support. Prior to working in a consulting capacity, Vanessa worked as an in-house fundraiser at Union Gospel Mission and the University of British Columbia.

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Natasha is the Founder of Next Level Nonprofits – an online training company dedicated to equipping new nonprofit executive directors with the skills and support they need to enjoy successful, sustainable and satisfying careers.
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  1. Great article. Though it sounds like the consultant has done really made a name for herself early in her career, I’m still wondering if organizations are willing to pay ‘top-dollar’ for someone with such little professional experience. That being said, what kind of fee structure is she using? In my market (Chicagoland), it seems like the hourly for newbies is $35-$60, though I’ve read advice to set your hourly, estimate project costs, and submit a total project estimate, vs. revealing your hourly to clients, since, in all likelihood, you’ll go over it. I’ve had some balk at seeing such a big number early in the negotiation process. Any thoughts?

    1. Hi Dan –

      That’s a great question! I always charge by the project rather than by the hour because I believe that will leave less surprises for all parties involved down the road. Secondly, I always emphasis to clients that I charge professional fees based on the value that the project will bring to the organization. I’m sure as you know, the work never happens in a vacuum and has a ripple effect to other areas. I find that reminding them of the value, not the cost, helps.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Natasha,
    I really enjoyed the article and it hit home for me as it probably has with mention who venture into this arena. Looking forward to more insights and to share some of mine as well.


    1. Hi Ron –

      Glad so much of this resonated with you. Best of luck as you venture into the consulting world!


    • Jamie
    • April 24, 2014

    Very insightful article. Just recently I decided to venture into this path and I am glad to have seen your input. I am working on my not for profit management certification and after serving a year in AmeriCorps, that experience showed me another side of nonprofits.


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