10 biggest myths about independent social impact consulting
Updated: Dec 15, 2021
"Consultants live care-free."
"Consulting fees are inflated."
"Consultants come in, write a report, then flee the scene."
"You must be just chasing projects all the time."
These are all very common misconceptions about independent consulting in the international development and social impact fields that we hear time and time again.
And there are many more of these "myths" - some positive, others negative; with varying relations to the truth. So we're addressing the most common ones head-on based on our own experiences and those of other IC-Hubbers.
1. You're necessarily doomed to writing proposals and chasing projects.
In our experience, the consulting myths underscore an ongoing battle between overly-positive or glamorous characterisations of the independent adviser versus a doom and gloom vision of precarity.
The truth can be both and depends on how you build your consulting practice.
We have our ups and downs but overall, we don't chase projects. We're overbooked several months in advance and say no to more projects than we say yes to. Our bigger challenge is to take holidays (see below!).
We think that's a combination of us working hard, learning over time, and implementing the types of approaches to building an independent consulting practice that we talk about here at the IC-Hub.
2. You're sitting by a pool or on a beach typing on your laptop every day.
We admit, we have worked from beaches, rooftop cafés, and many different locations. And you can follow our consulting shenanigans on our Insta channel.
But most of the time, we're either at our home offices or at a local co-working office at our home base in Southeast England. It's where we're most comfortable and we've set up workspaces with high-speed internet, external monitors, HD webcams and microphones, etc. to ensure we're delivering well for clients.
We love being location independent but tend to choose the most practical places from which to work. And most consultants are the same.
3. You're necessarily living a precarious life.
This ties in with the above-mentioned battle and myth 1. And it can be true for some.
However, building a consulting business is a skill in itself and when combined effectively with a strong skill (e.g. communications or fundraising) and/or thematic expertise (e.g. migration, rural development, public health), will generate more work than anyone needs.
We've previously had family members assume we're living precariously. But from our perspective, the average NGO or IO in-house staffer is moving from fixed-term contract to fixed-term contract. They might have to move countries to get another contract. And their employer can let them go at any time.
As independent social impact professionals, we have our jobs for as long as we want - regardless of where we choose to live. We're unfireable and that gives us great peace of mind.
4. You're optimising for the short-term, and not for delivering sustainable impacts for beneficiaries.
I once had a client say, "You're so lucky as a consultant; you don't have any responsibility."
That might come across as a little mean but I honestly believe she was just ignorant about the consulting life - hence why we're keen to address some of these myths!
The idea is that consultants are only looking to deliver what's in their terms of reference before moving on.
And there's some truth in this. The whole international development "sector" is overly "projectised" in our view and the world of consultancy work is part of a broader challenge.
But in my experience, successful consultants are generally the ones who are in the business for the long run. They have that "skin in the game". And, normally, they are only as good as their last consultancy contract, which means we have to deliver good work consistently.
5. The consultant is the expert.
The word "expert" is almost as over-used as terms like "mainstreaming" in the social impact sphere.
There was once a time that most social impact professionals were in-house employees and external consultants were only hired for very specialised or "high-level" tasks.
The sector has moved on rapidly from that time. Now, the balance has shifted such that a large proportion of social impact professionals are independent contractors. Work that was done in-house is now contracted out. So "consultants" do all manner of tasks at all levels of complexity and seniority.
We're all just humans cooperating - just with different contracts and legal categorisations. In-house staff need to remember that consultants are just humans like them - perhaps with a similar level of expertise and experience.
And we consultants need to remember that in-house staff face a tonne of challenges that we might not be aware of and that our clients need support and guidance from us too.
6. You earn less than an employee.
Again, this all depends. But in our experience, if you:
a) manage your time well and generate lots of consulting work;
b) ensure contractual working days equate broadly to actual working days;
c) work full-time (at least 200 working days per year);
d) charge the "going rate" for your skill level and sector...
Then you will likely earn more than an in-house staffer of the equivalent level and experience.
I started consulting early in my career 8 years ago. At that time, I instantly went from 60 euros per day in my job to 150 euros a day as a consultant.
7. Consulting fees are unreasonably high.
While some have the idea that it's not possible to earn well as an independent consultant, others baulk at the level of fees that we consultants charge. And that's because they multiply consulting day rates by the number of days in a month and then compare that with their net monthly salary.
And yes, you can make a good living as a consultant. But we also have to charge daily fees that are higher than a daily salary because:
We pay our own taxes.
We pay our own social security (consider pension, sick pay, parental leave, etc.).
We compensate for the risk we take as solopreneurs.
We have no paid holidays.
We might have to take out insurances (e.g. indemnity insurance).
Once you take all that into account, the fees might not seem so exorbitant!
8. It's easy to combine consulting work with side projects.
Many consultants pursue consulting because they see themselves trying something else: perhaps starting a side hustle or NGO, or just taking more time to devote to another hobby or interest.
It's all possible and we've started the IC-Hub in our spare time! Consulting work can be pared down and combined with other activities. And the ease of this also depends on the type of work that you do (e.g. work with multiple clients by the hour versus long multi-month contracts for fewer clients).
At the same time, consultancy work can be "lumpy" - especially at the beginning where you normally need to accept most projects that come your way in order to build your credibility and client base.
We've also found that consulting projects take up a lot of headspace. So even if you have only one or two projects ongoing, they might occupy your brainpower and stress levels. After working a full day on a laptop, it can be challenging to work on side projects that require similar activities. That can lead to those side projects falling by the wayside.
9. Consultants take more holidays and work fewer hours.
Our experience is that many consultants take fewer holidays and work more hours than in-house staffers working 9-to-5. We, on the other hand, take more holidays while working about the same number of hours. But that's because we've worked our way up to a level where we're confident work will continue to come in and because we've made a conscious choice to earn a bit less money and have a bit more time off.
The great thing about consulting is that it'll be for you to decide. There will always be that temptation to "make hay while the sun shines". And yes, different people have different financial situations, with different levels of financial pressure.
But let's do away with the myth that consultants don't work as much as in-house staff!
10. Consulting is "not a real job".
Again, many of the consulting misconceptions we've listed are contradictory and that's because they come from different people with different interactions and experiences with the consulting world.
We believe this misconception might come from the fact that many people on LinkedIn list their title as "independent consultant" while they're between jobs. And also because it takes a mindset shift among independent social impact professionals in order for them to start considering themselves a "small business" or "solopreneur" as opposed to a short-term contractor.
We were fortunate that this mindset shift took place early on for us. It allowed us to develop our business plans and consider our missions and visions - identifying who our stakeholders/beneficiaries were and how we wanted to impact them. This has allowed us to be strategic and develop our consulting practices for the long run!
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