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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 organizations issues and concepts word cloud illustration. 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.
People who have worked in corporate America often consider nonprofit consulting for their second career.
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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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