“So if I could impart any advice, it’s this: If you have a checklist, good for you. Structured ambition can sometimes be motivating. But also, feel free to let it go.”
Actress Mindy Kaling shared that sentiment with the Dartmouth graduating class of 2018. Along with other useful advice, like “be your own cheerleader!” and “have insane confidence in yourself!," she gave the graduates a generous gift: the permission to let go of any preconceived notions about what their life path should be. Whether that means letting go of expectations around your career or your personal life, her message was powerful.
Mindy's speech got me thinking: what would my own career in consulting look like if I had not given myself that same permission? What if I had not looked beyond my own preconceived notions of how things were “supposed” to go?
Many people miss out because they think there is a set, one-way-only path to consulting. But in my career, I have found that the skills required as a fundraising consultant are quite portable in nature.
I consider my career path “perfect.” Not perfect like I made six-figures upon graduating or flew up the corporate ladder. I mean perfect in that each job I had seemed like an impeccably placed stepping stone in my path forward. I was fortunate to know that I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector very early on. I was intrigued by fundraising, since it kind of runs in my family, so I set my sights on development and jumped in. From a therapeutic humor nonprofit to a business school to a membership organization in the healthcare field, I collected experience and perspective quickly. I benefitted from structure, mentorship and professional development at certain times, and freedom to experiment and be creative at other times. More than anything, I learned.
Two and a half years into my last job — and days away from turning 30 — I felt ready for a new adventure. I had brought strategy to that organization by establishing a development program and celebrated success as we nearly tripled philanthropic revenue. But I looked around and wondered: now what?
I had been curious about consulting, and decided to look into it. Maybe you already have your own visions of what a fundraising consultant “looks like." Most people picture someone later in their career, perhaps making a last stop before retirement. A former Vice President of Development or Chief Development Office… maybe five times over. Many believe a “consultant” in our field is someone who is getting on the exit ramp.
Well, that wasn’t me at all. I realized consulting didn’t have to be that exit ramp and for me, I knew it would be an on ramp to an incredibly rewarding career. And nearly eight years later, I wouldn’t change a thing.
So, what was it that made me ready for consulting — and could mean you're ready for consulting, too? These five qualities:
1. You like a challenge.
When I felt like I had done or learned all I could, I was ready for the next project. When you work in house, that next project is usually at another organization. Within consulting, it’s with the next client.
2. You don't want to pick a corner.
As my career progressed, I knew I would have to pick a side of the house – major gifts? Annual giving? Prospect research? But I liked them all and frankly, I thought I was pretty good at them all. Consulting meant advising on all of them.
3. You like variety.
Beyond focusing on certain areas of development, some professionals find a sector and stick to it. I found a thrill in shifting from a nonprofit focused on bringing humor to cancer patients to a top-notch NYC business school. Appreciating variety serves a consultant well.
4. Type A, anyone?
This is the one I joke about, but it has been my most valuable tool. I am organized and a better leader than follower. I don’t mind taking charge in order to chart the course. Clients appreciate that.
5. You're empathetic.
While I am confident in my opinions, skills and work, I am humble and empathetic enough to partner with clients in an authentic way. I connect with people easily. And over the years, people have told me that I missed my calling in two professional areas: being a therapist and being a teacher. There is a bit of both in consulting.
During my time as a consultant, I have been a part of dozens of campaigns and partnered with organizations across the country and across all sectors. Breaking another stereotype, I have returned to my own bed (at an appropriate time) most nights with travel not being a large part of my role. I have delivered and sold service, coached college presidents and brand-new fundraisers. I’ve celebrated, supported, counseled, and guided. You experience the industry and seemingly learn at warp speed in the consulting world.
Working as a development professional at any organization can be valuable, rewarding, and, for some, the perfect fit. If some of my top five consulting qualities resonate with you, I challenge you to stop counting the years until you are “supposed” to move into consulting. The timing is up to you.
The average turnover in development has held steady around 18 months. People job hop. But it doesn’t have to be lateral. The move to consulting can be an on ramp for you, too. You get to decide when to take your skills and knowledge and go.