#34 8 things to consider if you want to be a social impact consultant

Me visiting the door of my old classroom in 2017

I get a pretty steady flow of outreach about this, ranging from folks who want to join social impact consulting firms to those who want to, like me, start their own thing. I’m still 100% happy to chat with any and all of you who reach out, but here’s some starting advice.

1. You need to know social impact

I can’t count how many people who have spent their education and career in the traditional business sector have come to me wanting to transition into social impact.

A transition to an in-house role is (mostly) fine, but if you want to consult, you need to have some expertise. That doesn’t always come from a bit of volunteering. Read up on things, go to talks and events, join a board of directors, and immerse yourself in the space.

Social impact has loose boundaries, which I love, but there’s a fundamental need in the space to generate both revenue and impact.

I believe that strategy is strategy across the board, and that both revenue and impact generation need strategy, but there’s still a level of “getting it” that makes my work a lot easier. That needs to be, in some sense, intuitive before you start advising others.

2. Things are 10000% easier if you have a business model & brand

I don’t mean a logo and tagline and incorporation, I mean a solid business model with revenue and cost models and point of view and clarity in who you are and what you offer.

You may be worried up front to put this out there because you don’t know it yet and your business may evolve. . . . but that’s ok! EVERY business evolves.

I’ve updated and tweaked my website and brand a lot since it first launched a few years ago, but it’s been a consistent magnet for leads and people interested in learning more about what I do.

3. Get the legal stuff checked off

If you don’t want to learn this stuff for yourself then hire a lawyer, but it’s so surprising to me how many consultants have loose contracts, start work without contracts, and are missing terms of service and a privacy policy from their website.

Not only does this stuff protect you, but it also gives some piece of mind to your clients. I have 100% had clients let me know how much they appreciate the transparency and predictability of my terms of service, which are on my website and apply to all my work whether it’s a $250 coaching session or a $35k project.

4. Nonprofit and education budgets are tight and follow a rigid timeline

I joked a couple days ago with an ed tech founder that there’s a single day in April when schools and districts have the freedom to write a check, and that wasn’t too far from the truth. While nonprofit and school/district budgets are quite transparent, what many fail to realize is they are often allocated down to the dime and that allocation follows a pretty strict timeline.

Consultants have to be in synch with this timeline and understand each client’s fiscal year cycle and when budgets get decided. Make sure you and/or the firms you’re looking at do their homework here.

5. Not productizing your services is a huge risk to quality and margins

I rarely charge or price projects by time and materials. Here’s why: when purely service based consultants do that it’s at times an indicator that they don’t totally know what they’re doing. Tensions often evolve as time is spent figuring things out when the client expects things to have already been figured out.

There are definitely exceptions to this, especially when the consulting project is more process or implementation or execution focused.

But generally, the bulk of my projects follow a very similar structure. They use tools I already have developed, and I know both how long they’ll take down to the day (which clients love) and also how much time I’ll spend on them behind the scenes (which clients really don’t need to know. They just want outcomes).

This is because I’ve put a TON of work prior to commencing any project with any client into my tools and templates and methodology, and I just tweak them slightly with each new client so they’re continuously getting more and more effective.

Do my clients pay for that? You bet they do. I generally end up making between $200-$300/hour on my projects, but I price them based on the value, not the project. I get things done quickly and efficiently because I’ve done them before and I have everything I need to get them done at the get go. I definitely suggest, whether a solorpreneur or at a firm, you do this as well.

You should ESPECIALLY do this and check that this exists if you’re thinking of joining a firm. The best consulting firms out there have defined methodology and tools that are shared in onboarding new hires. Yes they evolve, but when a new project commences, team members are aligned on what’s going to happen. When there’s not a productization of services, that alignment is missing, and things become a sh**show. I’ve seen this from both the client perspective and in some partnership work as well.

6. Your business development strategy needs to evolve over time

At first, when I started my business, I reached out to pretty much my entire network looking for work and got some pretty fast and high value returns. Those got me through my first year or so of business. It was awesome. “This is easy!” I thought.

Then year two hit and so did a dry spell. That’s when I leaned in hard to my brand, thought leadership, and started content marketing through my blog, social media, my newsletter, contributions to external publications, and speaking opportunities. I actually built and drew out a sales funnel and recognized the time it’d take for both inbound and outbound leads to run through it.

And while all my clients have referred me to leads, I recently began incentivizing referrals through free coaching sessions and monetary referral incentives. It definitely helps keep my work top of mind.

If you go into this work, be prepared to learn all sorts of things and put in the work in both sales and marketing. And if you join a firm, especially if it’s smaller, make sure you have some insight into this process. Larger firms rely a lot more on RFPs and the contacts of more senior employees and partners, but it’s still good to know how that cash flow is predictable, responsive to the market needs, and sustainable.

7. Nonprofit and social impact consulting firms often don’t pay at parity

Trust me, I’ve seen behind the folds at many of them and this is a HUGE soapbox of mine. Across the impact space, if we’re operating with a scarcity mindset then we’re going to be too stressed about money to allow the focus on impact that’s necessary . . . which is why I find the salaries offered at many (not all, but many) firms disturbing.

When pay is low and benefits are not great, turnover is high, and that affects service quality. Something to consider, even if you’re willing to bite the bullet for a few years and join a firm. You don’t necessarily want your reputation tied to something that has varied or sub par results, so do your due diligence.

That said, there are a lot of fantastic firms out there that do pay their employees what they’re worth.

8. You may not want to consult forever

Client services is hard work and it’s totally normal for an individual’s interest in consulting to expire. It’s naive to think you’re going to want to do this work forever. A few people do, but not the majority. So if that’s the case, you need to make sure that while you’re consulting you’re also building skills and a network and expertise to position yourself for whatever may come next.

Ok, that’s it for now. What would you add to this list? What else would you want to ask me about? Keep it coming because seriously, I get asked about this all the time and am so excited about how many folks want to come into this space! xx