The Five Essential Skills of Successful Consultants to Nonprofits

It seems that, at some point, nearly every nonprofit executive flirts with the idea of either becoming a consultant or going to work for a foundation. In the workshops that I lead for transitioning nonprofit leaders, both of these roles seem to hold some fascination for executives when they contemplate what’s next for their careers.

While I will leave it to others to speak to what it takes to succeed as a foundation executive, in this post, I explore what my colleague Susan Schaefer* and I have learned about success in consulting with nonprofits. Reflecting on our combined 35+ years of experience building our consulting practices plus Susan’s work chronicling the success of America’s leading nonprofit consultants, we’ve identified five critical knowledge areas, skills, and abilities that successful consultants master.

  1. Sector and industry knowledge. The nonprofit sector and virtually every discipline within it have their own quirks, norms, and narratives. The dynamics of, say, a behavioral counseling agency are dramatically different from those of a community foundation. Being grounded in the sector in which you will work, and having some appreciation for the dynamics of that field, is essential to successful work with clients.
  2. Content knowledge and technical skills. Successful consultants have deep skills and knowledge that underpin their services. These can range from executive coaching, to advice on major gift fundraising, to strategic planning facilitation, to board development – the list could go on and on. Those services are based on the consultant’s content knowledge and technical skills. Successful consultants also maintain a “growing edge,” regularly learning new skills and information to stay at the forefront of their field.
  3. Business and practice management skills. Whether it’s a solo practice or a multi-associate firm, consulting is a business that remains sustainable because its leaders have mastered a range of business skills. This includes the ability to structure your business, define and price your services, market your services well, contract with clients efficiently, organize projects and the work overall, deliver projects on time and within budget, invoice projects on a timely basis and maintain cash flow, and meet your regulatory and tax obligations. No matter how strong the consultant’s services, shoddy or amateurish business practices undermine client confidence and eventually will kill the practice.
  4. Consulting process skills. While nearly all consulting projects involve a standard set of 5 or 6 stages, the tools, content, and approaches employed within those stages varies considerably depending on the type of engagement. The craft of consulting includes the ability to shepherd projects through these stages, and having effective tools and approaches for each stage of the process. However, it’s not all about steps and techniques. Successful consultants simply use these stages as a platform to guide clients through an experience of discovery, change and commitment that leads to the project objective.
  5. Consulting presence and client engagement skills. Successful consultants cultivate their interpersonal skills to work effectively with client teams and manage client relationships. “Presence” is the ability to wed process skills with people skills to successfully move the client forward. First, it involves “being there,” which means showing up, being available, and being fully present when working with a client. Second, it includes the ability to inspire clarity, confidence, and a sense of possibility in the people with whom the consultant is working. It’s the ability to help clients discover and commit to a way forward and taking the necessary action to follow through.

So how does one develop these skills? If you worked in the nonprofit sector for any significant period of time, you probably are well on your way to mastering the first two – sector and industry knowledge, and content knowledge and technical skills. The craft of consulting, the consulting presence, and business skills and practices are also born of experience, but there are training programs that can help jumpstart the process.

Our observations about these five skills come out of our collective research on the business practices of successful consultants as well as our own work having trained dozens of associates for our practices and hundreds of executives through workshops. If you have a different take on these skills, or if you think we’ve missed something, please feel free to ping me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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*Susan Schaefer and I are the codevelopers of several courses designed to help nonprofit executives get started as a consultant to nonprofits. Going Solo. Going Big. Setting Up Your Consulting Practice, is a one-day course that walks participants through everything they need to know to frame their services, price their work, market themselves, get their practice started, and keep their business on track. Succeeding as a Consultant to Nonprofits: Setting Up Shop and Getting Down to Business is a two-day course. Day One focuses on the business side of consulting. Day Two focuses on the process and craft of consulting. We cover the six stages of the consulting process, exploring the tools and techniques for each stage, and emphasize how to manage the process to deliver great work and win fans for life.

Susan has 15 years of experience leading her consulting practice, Resource Partners LLC, which focuses on fundraising and board development. Susan is also the coeditor of The Nonprofit Consulting Playbook: Winning Strategies from 25 Leaders in the Field. She has led workshops for hundreds of aspiring consultants and facilitates a learning community of consultants in the mid-Atlantic region.