10 Tips to Supercharge Your Social Impact Consulting Journey
People often ask at the IC-Hub, “What’s the best way to get clients in the Social Impact sector?” The answer? Get Work Through Doing Work.
In other words, when you deliver great work for your clients through a platform like Work for Impact or otherwise, those clients tend to refer you to others. There’s a lot more to business development, and there are further resources at the IC-Hub Blog.
But for now, we want to share 10 big things that we’ve learned from more than a decade of freelancing in the social impact space. These are the principles that underpin our everyday mission to create value for our clients, and you can implement them too to take your consulting to the next level.
Tip 1: Do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it
There are two aspects to this. The first is practical: projects often require the freelancer and the client to know when they will each work on project inputs. Giving certainty to the client about when you will deliver on your end of the bargain helps them plan effectively.
The second is about trust and credibility. People will want to work with you if they know, like, and trust you. Said you would call the client at 3pm on Tuesday? Do NOT leave them hanging! Otherwise, the next time you promise on something big or – very exceptionally – need to ask for an extension on a deadline (truly as a last resort), it’ll be a no-go.
Tip 2: Avoid surprises – make it 110% clear how you are undertaking a project and what your next steps are
99% of failed consulting projects (excuse the hyperbole) are probably due to a misalignment of client-freelancer expectations.
Being a good freelancer is about guiding the client towards being clear about what they want.
I’ve seen many freelancers not wanting to come across as incompetent by failing to ask questions. And that was definitely myself eight years ago. Ask questions. State and re-state your understanding through calls and emails in order to give the client ample opportunity to make corrections.
Another common freelancer’s retort is that the client’s instructions were open to interpretation. In the absence of clarity, it’s up to you to bring clarity. Explain what you propose to do and how you propose to do it. Make sure at the outset that the project terms of reference or Work for Impact Job Description are detailed, precise and unambiguous. Then hold a meeting early on to discuss the client’s objectives and ask as many stupid questions as you can. Then develop detailed methodologies and work plans.
That’s just the start. Throughout the project, remind the client of the next steps and how your thinking about the project is evolving.
Tip 3: Be proactive and make life easy for the client
I recently had a feedback call with one of my clients. I asked her how she felt the project went. She said, “Actually, I thought it was all pretty easy”. In my mind, I was shouting, “Well, it was no picnic for me!”. But at the same time, I was happy to hear that the client found it easy.
Freelancers are not just service providers – we are solutions providers and problem solvers.
Different clients have different levels of experience, fluctuating workloads, and internal pressures to deal with. Freelancers are paid to focus on one small thing (okay, that can quickly end up becoming a few big things, but still).
Your project is your baby and it’s for you to take care of. So you should bring the ideas and you should outline to the client where and when you need their support.
Tip 4: Be nice and courteous
While fairly self-explanatory, I would emphasize the importance of accepting criticism of your work gracefully and constructively. A human reaction to receiving criticism is to push back or justify, at times unknowingly manifesting passive aggression.
First, understand that feedback is part of the process. You’re delivering what the client wants so they should care and provide guidance to help you achieve that (it’d be even more worrying if the client didn’t care about your work). Second, make it a habit to show gratitude for feedback.
Tip 5: Assess your client’s preferred communication style early on and adapt to it
I’m a writer (or, rather, typer) and have little appreciation for aesthetics. I have a passion for writing detailed emails and plans and part of me thinks all would be right with the world if everyone was the same.
But the world is a bit more diverse than that, which is probably a good thing (we probably don’t need a world that runs solely on emails). Some clients prefer face-to-face calls. Some prefer audio-only.
Being a good freelancer is about understanding the client’s preferences and idiosyncrasies, adapting work style accordingly.
I now regularly inject color and visual supports into my reports when I think it would help the client’s reading. When I do send detailed emails, I offer “a quick call to talk it through”.
Tip 6: Go for impact over output
In the Social Impact field (and the same principle can be applied to other fields), we all know that poverty reduction is better measured by improved standards of living (e.g. income levels or mortality rates) rather than by the number of training manuals on poverty reduction distributed.
Freelancers have a tendency to focus on their terms of reference or scope of work. I will admit to being guilty of this. But I’m trying to change this mindset.
For a project to research human trafficking, for instance, the terms of reference may ask you to write a nice research report. But the broader aim might be to fight trafficking. So try to orientate yourself towards that broader goal. Rise above the cynics and shoot for the stars!
Tip 7: Ask for feedback
The crux of improving in any pursuit is doing, receiving feedback, then doing better.
The feedback loop may be stronger for employed staff than it is for freelancers: managers have responsibilities to train their subordinates, who can contribute more when their employer invests in them. Organizations don’t always perceive there to be benefits of helping a freelancer to improve, despite some freelancers making the rounds among the same organizations.
And if you don’t understand why this is, perhaps ask yourself how eager you are to fill out customer service surveys for your energy or broadband provider, or accountant?
Yet we freelancers have so much to gain from understanding our strengths and weaknesses.
So why not arrange closing interviews at the end of every project. Ask the client how they think the project went, what they liked, and what they think could have gone better. Simply listen to their responses and take their views on board. It can be frustratingly difficult to stay quiet when you disagree, but sometimes perceptions are just as important as reality.
Tip 8: Don’t take too much on; learn to say no
If you are completely overwhelmed by consultancy work, then congratulations! Take a moment to appreciate that.
Once you’ve patted yourself on the back, sit down and consider honestly what your bandwidth is and get better at saying no. I’ve seen many good freelancers – and I’ve fallen into this trap before – who take too much on and cannot deliver well.
It can be hard to develop the reflex of saying no as a freelancer. Perhaps the projects are too interesting or lucrative to turn down. Or perhaps you’re trying to “make hay while the sun shines”. But the consequences of taking on too much include doing bad work and losing your reputation for quality (freelancers’ reputations are built hard over time but lost easily and quickly).
Instead, use the abundance of offers to only say yes to high-quality projects that align with your mission. And if you don’t have a mission yet, then spend time defining one, or write out criteria for saying no. I’ve also taken the approach to explore more collaborations with other freelancers.
Tip 9: Understand your client’s challenges and pressures, and help manage them
“My client is so difficult. They are obsessed with promoting the project and not focusing on the substance.”
“My client changed the scope of work and now keeps changing their mind about what they want from the report.”
Sound familiar? Many of our clients are large organizations. Some are bloated bureaucracies with layers of politics between and within them.
The people we work with are subjected to a range of challenges and pressures and we sometimes forget that. The constant pulling and shoving that our clients endure daily can manifest in seemingly random instructions passed down to the freelancer, or by frequently changing to the brief.
While we find it easiest to work with clients who “speak with one voice”, we should recognize that in reality, we’re working with organizations comprised of people with diverse views and human desires and pressures.
Good freelancers put themselves into their client’s shoes. They ally themselves with the client in their daily battles. If you can help your clients and make them look good, you will set yourself apart from other freelancers.
Tip 10: Develop your own rules, policies and processes that make you more efficient and effective
Most businesses develop rules, policies, and processes as a way of codifying what they do and how they do. It enables them to delegate tasks to different staff members and to identify improvements.
As freelancers, we are micro-entrepreneurs. We are small businesses. Whether you’re working for an organization or for yourself, you probably spend at least a fair chunk of your time doing things that you’ve done many times before.
Such tasks might include writing proposals or methodologies, issuing invoices, bookkeeping, checking bank accounts, replying to consulting firms who ask to use my CV, and drafting report structures.
Freelancing through a platform like Work for Impact takes away a lot of that admin and stress.
For the other tasks, why reinvent the wheel? Why not write down the processes, or draft stock emails that you can copy and paste?
This can cut down the daily “micro-decisions” that need to be taken and allow you to do the tasks quicker (and often better). It might also help you see how some processes could be automated or outsourced – perhaps to other freelancers through Work for Impact.
About the Impact Consulting Hub
The IC-Hub is a global community of independent social impact professionals. We offer networking, advice, and training to help freelancers start and accelerate their independent consulting journey. Join us for free at www.impactconsultinghub.com and get instant access to our resources.