From In-House to In Business: What to Learn Before You Leap into Consulting


Have you ever dreamed about translating your nonprofit experience into a consulting or freelance business?

If you’re like most in our sector, you have at least considered this career path. You may be looking for more flexibility, a potentially higher income, or the chance to be your own boss. On the way to achieving any of those goals, most people are surprised by the steeper-than-expected learning curve when going from in-house to in business. And just about every veteran consultant has a list of “I-wished-someone-had-told-me” items from the start up days when they made their leap into consulting.

The biggest lesson we each learned?

There's more to consulting than content knowledge and sector experience.

Consulting is a craft that must be learned and then honed. When each of us began consulting many years ago, we assumed that our “content” knowledge and nonprofit sector experience would make up the bulk of what we needed to know. That was only the beginning. 

Obviously, you want to have a deep knowledge about both the sector and your niche—no matter how narrow or wide—in which you plan to offer services. Little did we realize that so much of consulting would depend upon three areas we had given scant thought to before we launched our respective businesses:

Business practices
Managing a consulting practice is different than managing a nonprofit. And, no matter how strong a consultant’s services, sound business practices—around fee-setting, billing, marketing, and legal issues—provide clients with the confidence that they are dealing with a professional. Of course, these skills also happen to be the lynchpin of business longevity.

As we have trained budding consultants all over the country, we have encountered some novices with a flair for marketing that led them to stand out in our memories years later. One branded herself with bold graphics and a memorable business name. Her outgoing personality added to her magnetism. Yet she confided that while she attracted plenty of interest, she struggled to close the sale and land new business. A simple sales process and some straightforward selling techniques transformed her business.

Process skills
Nearly all consulting projects involve a fairly standard set of stages. When you learn the framework, you can tailor your tools and models to create stellar experiences for your clients.

Another consultant in one of our workshops had been in business for a few years already. He easily secured clients. But, once the engagements began, he fought to keep the scope of the projects in check. His philanthropic inclinations led him to tackle tangential problems outside the scope of the original contract. He had no tools or processes in place to limit his work appropriately. Better definition of some process steps and more thorough and detailed work plans led to better project management and provided clear boundaries that helped him avoid “scope creep.”

This refers to the ability to wed process skills and people skills to successfully move the client forward. It’s the consultant’s equivalent of a doctor’s bedside manner. Successful consultants hone their interpersonal skills to build and manage client relationships effectively.

Your presence might include a strong dose of scholarly theory that leads your academic-minded clients to trust your well-read lead. Or you might take a less buttoned-up approach, as your grassroots clients appreciate humor and straight talk to cut through their hectic days.

Consultants who succeed regularly learn and grow in all three areas.

As with most things in life, once you learn the basics, you can build on them to shape a business that speaks to your unique gifts, interest areas, and the relationships you seek to have with clients. But don’t underestimate the power and value of continuous learning. A good consultant is always a work in progress. Always leveling up your skills. Thus leveling up your value to clients. And leveling up earning power in the process.

For more about what to learn before making the leap into consulting, join Susan Schaefer and Don Tebbe for two full-day consulting workshops at Foundation Center in Washington, DC: Going Solo, Going Big: Launching Your Consulting Practice on Friday, March 9 and Going Solo, Going Big: Turning Consulting Clients into Fans on Friday, April 13. We hope you will join us!

Susan Schaefer

Susan Schaefer is the principal of Resource Partners LLC, which has provided fundraising and board development counsel since 2001.  She is co-editor of The Nonprofit Consulting Playbook and co-author of Nonprofit Board Service for the GENIUS.

Don Tebbe

Don Tebbe has been a leader in the nonprofit sector since the early 1980s – first as a senior executive and CEO, and for the past 22 years as a consultant to nonprofits. Don is the author of numerous articles and books, including the award-winning Chief Executive Transitions: How to Hire and Support a Nonprofit CEO, and a new book, The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap: Your Guide for the Journey to Life’s Next Chapter.