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Blueprint for Becoming a Consultant to Nonprofits

Earn an income and employ skills from your previous career while giving back

Nonprofit consulting word cloud

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People who have worked in corporate America often consider nonprofit consulting for their second career.

People who have worked in corporate America often consider nonprofit consulting for their second act. It’s a great way to continue bringing in an income and employing skills from your previous career while enjoying the satisfaction of giving back.

There’s plenty of opportunity. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, charitable organizations and nonprofits employ more than 17% of the U.S. workforce. The number of charities — 1.3 million at the current count — has increased by 150% over the past 20 years.

The key to a strong start is finding the right specialty, says Penelope Cagney, author of Nonprofit Consulting Essentials: What Every Nonprofit and Consultant Needs To Know. The skills you enjoy most may serve you in the nonprofit world, so consider tapping them first. Cagney, who founded The Cagney Company, worked as a fundraiser for health care companies before becoming a consultant specializing in fundraising, governance and board consultation. Planning, human resources, technology and marketing are also in high demand.

Here's how to make the transition to nonprofit consulting:

Explore your passions. 

Your first step toward a consulting career in nonprofits is to research fields where you have a passion, says Andrea Nierenberg, principal of the Nierenberg Consulting Group, who joined the board of directors of the Boy Scouts of America after working as a consultant for the organization.

She suggests setting up Google alerts for the organizations you're targeting, and attending events and networking, with an eye toward writing a convincing pitch letter. “I’ve noticed these things about your organization,” it might read. “Would you be open to talking about ways to tackle that problem?”

Test the waters. 

Cagney suggests volunteering your time with a nonprofit, or taking on a small consulting gig to discover whether you have the skills and personality to be a successful consultant.

Barry Brooks, 69, sold his marketing business, Cookies From Home, two and a half years ago. After 30 years running his company, he figured his skills would make him a natural fit to help nonprofits. He did marketing for two nonprofits in the Phoenix area but found his entrepreneurial personality wasn't a good match for the nonprofit culture, which is less hierarchical and results-oriented than the corporate world, so he discovered another way to serve and earn money; teaching Zumba fitness classes to seniors. “I do 19 or 20 classes a week,” he says. “It's incredibly rewarding."

Wonder whether a nonprofit, and being an influencer rather than a boss, is right for you? Cagney suggests reading these books — Managing the Professional Service Firm by David H. Maister, and The Trusted Advisor, by David H. Maister, Charles Green and Robert M. Galford — and checking out a webinar on transitioning from industry to consulting.

Look into working with a large consulting firm. 

CCS, one of the biggest nonprofit consulting firms in the U.S., employs more than 200 people in major cities; all of its consultants, who specialize in fundraising and strategic consulting, work full-time. People with background in fundraising are particularly in demand says Kelly Albanese, assistant vice president of marketing communications at CCS. Volunteer fundraising experience counts, too. “We look for people who have a strong communications background,” she says.

It may be easier to break into a consulting firm that is set up as a network of independent consultants, like Nierenberg's and Cagney's companies. Through networking, you may find a group like this in your area that you can join.

Figure out how much you can make. 

You’ll need to develop a day rate, says Nierenberg, who advises following the traditional rule of thumb: don't be first to name a number. “When I'm asked if I have a rate for nonprofits, I'll say that I do, but suggest we discuss it. Then I ask if the institution has a budget for this kind of project.”

The Association of Fundraising Professionals Compensation Benefits Study pegged average consultant salaries in 2011 at $106,121 for principals and $80,209 for staff consultants. This gives you a sense of what a successful freelancer can make. It's only a third to half of what a for-profit consultant would earn, Cagney says, but the value of working for a cause you believe in can go a long way to making up the difference.

Elizabeth MacBride is co-editor of $200KFreelancer, focused on helping independent professionals make a good living.

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