Confessions of a Nonprofit Consultant

I’m just about one year after having commenced my nonprofit consulting work in earnest, and I can sincerely say that I feel…ambivalent about it.

Especially in this economy, I’m asked pretty frequently by students about my consulting work, and the kinds of opportunities it provides. I tell them pretty unequivocably that it’s not where I’d recommend starting a career; both because the connections that I have make it feasible for me to build a job out of it, and because I really needed the legitimacy and structure that an organizational home offers, at one point.

But, for me, at this point in my life, it makes a tremendous amount of sense: I get to work with organizations I care about, contribute to research and policy on a variety of causes, and have the flexibility to be a more hands-on parent during the day.

But, to me, my consulting work, and whether or not it’s “working” has to be about a lot more than me, and my scheduling preferences. And, so, I guess as an exercise for me as much as anything, I’ve been thinking about what I like about it, in terms of my interactions with organizations, and what prompts some of those more complex emotions.

First, the completely excellent:

  • 1. I’m relatively unbound by resource limitations and pragmatic organizational constraints. I get to make the suggestions and offer the critiques that I find most compelling, without having to always worry first whether they’re totally feasible.
  • 2. I build organizational capacity. My favorite work is doing training, providing materials, answering questions–building up the staff, Board members, and volunteers who work directly with clients and the social problems that plague us, and increasing their ability to make a difference in their communities.
  • 3. I have space in my life and legal and political latitude to be overtly political, when it’s necessary–I represent only myself, on a daily basis, and not always a 501(c)3 organization.
  • 4. I can tailor my work to an organization’s actual needs, in every way from how I communicate with staff to how much I charge to how much power and control they retain over the process.

    And, what I’m still grappling with:

  • 1. I seldom get to see things through to any sort of real implementation or follow up. There’s obviously never ‘completion’ in any social change work, but a lot of my consulting involves drafting recommendations, putting new processes in place, creating templates…without much knowledge of the degree to which those tools will really be used to effect change at the organization.
  • 2. That same freedom, to be divorced from resource and practical constraints, can mean that my recommendations seem, well, divorced from reality. A best practice is only a best practice, after all, if it can really be practiced, and I know that I sometimes set standards that don’t make sense in the daily lives of agency personnel.
  • 3. I have some real ambivalence about how my work promotes the idea of unmooring workers from an organizational context; given how critical I am of the increasing shift of risk to employees, and away from institutions, I’m very aware of how I’m contributing to this very trend. In some cases, this is less problematic, because I know that the work I’m performing wouldn’t be done at all if not for me, but, in others, I wonder if I’m not making it possible for organizations to avoid hiring regular, full-time staff for some of these functions.
  • 4. And, finally, I’m very cognizant of needing to always keep my work focused on building up the organization, rather than ever seeming like someone who swoops in, provides “expert” advice, and then leaves. That’s critical not just because of how we know change becomes institutionalized within an organization, but also because of my fundamental belief in empowerment.

    I’d love to hear from other nonprofit consultants (and it’s certainly a growing industry!) about how you balance these tensions, and what you see as the most rewarding and most challenging parts of this work. And, nonprofit leaders who have worked with consultants, what do you look for in a consultant? What contributions do consultants make to your organization that truly enrich your work, and how do they fall short of this goal?

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