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What’s New in Nonprofit Consulting? Everything.

Consulting for philanthropic groups bears little resemblance to what it was a decade or two ago, when the field was dominated by large firms and most consultants focused on basic fundraising. These days, the work is broader, more specialized, and more strategic. And in many ways, it offers greater flexibility—and broader appeal—than ever before. Here’s how:

  • Greater specialization: Information technology, social marketing, globalization, donor-directed philanthropic advisers, and blurring of the lines between profit and nonprofit (e.g., cause-related marketing) are a few examples of consulting specialties that have emerged in the past 25 years or so.
  • More breadth: Though consulting specialists abound, there is an equally strong demand for experienced consultants who can advise clients strategically–meaning the problem a client walks in the door with is seldom the real problem. Increasingly in our practice at the Oram Group, an engagement is a troika of fund development (not just fundraising but funding alternatives as well), governance, and strategic planning.

Consulting for nonprofit groups these days is big business: The private nonprofit sector is a substantial economic driver in the U.S., employing over 10 percent of the work force. And entry into the field is easy: As Penelope Cagney’s blog “The Need for Good Advice” pointed out, anyone can apply the consultant label and the cost of professional entry, and ongoing costs can be kept low. Technology and portability have really enabled our work. First the laptop and now, for many, the iPad and smartphones have inalterably changed us and our work. (I look at my fax machine and think “how primitive.”)

There are still large consulting firms with staffs of “resident” campaign managers and costly fixed overhead. But client visits to their offices are not that common, so they are cutting down on headquarters space, and their senior staffs work from their homes or hotel rooms.

When the Oram Group had 40 employees and offices in three cities, it was fairly rare that clients came to us. We went to them, and that’s still pretty much the rule. Having given up a midtown office three years ago, I now work from my SoHo loft. Clients who meet with me at my home enjoy the side benefits of shopping and good restaurants. It’s cheaper for me and works perfectly.

Working alone takes discipline, but the rewards of consulting make it well worthwhile.

Henry Goldstein is a principal of the Oram Group. For a free download of “So You Want to Be a Consultant,” e-mail him at hankus@oramgroup.com.

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