The 10 BEST things about being a freelance international development consultant
Updated: Jun 18, 2021
So you're interested in becoming a freelance consultant in the social impact space? Perhaps you want to assess the pros and cons of consulting. So we've come up with this two-parter (best vs worst) based on our experiences. You can click here to view the other list. Ultimately, though, freelancing is what you make of it. The right strategy can set you up to enjoy the many benefits of going freelance while mitigating the downsides, so hopefully, the IC-Hub is helping you develop the right strategy.
1. You choose your clients
Stuck in a job with a bad boss and bad colleagues? You can end up feeling like there's no way out. At least that's how I felt when I was an employee earlier on in my career.
When you are a consultant, you will have bad clients (although good client management is about working with difficult people in a way that they can become good clients; more on that in a future post).
However, most consultancy assignments have shorter timelines, meaning you do see the light at the end of the tunnel and once the project is over, you no longer have to work with them again. I take a little bit of pleasure refusing new work from old clients ("because I'm too busy").
2. Higher fees
Again, this isn't a given. But all things equal, a consultant can command a higher daily rate than the equivalent-level staffer at the same organisation. As a service provider, you (as opposed to the employer) take care of your own taxes and social security.
Beyond that, you charge a risk premium that accounts for the risk of having gaps in work. So if you can optimise the number of working days you work (and bill for, which can be another matter!), you stand to win big.
Of course, you won't be getting paid for the time you spend surfing Facebook at the office, so if that's your thing then freelance consulting might not be for you!
I started consulting after working my first job for two and a half years. I went from about 80 euros per day (as an employee at a private consulting firm) to 150 euros per day (at my first UN consultancy; very low by market standards, so subsequently increased that).
3. Control over your schedule and potentially a better work-life balance
Again, this depends on the type of workflow that your type of consulting lends itself to. I work with clients on the basis of XX working days within XX calendar days.
I generally avoid taking on more work than I can handle and sometimes I take on less work to allow me to advance side projects.
Since 2016, inspired by Tim Ferriss's 4 Hour Work Week, Getting Things Done, and other productivity literature, I have generally restricted my hours to 30 hours per week (excluding breaks), working from 08:30-16:00 every day.
If I work irregular hours (e.g. calls with Australians at silly o'clock), I take note of the additional time worked and make sure I finish early other days.
And while in 2020 I haven't taken many holidays (I mean, what to do with it during a pandemic), I usually take at least six weeks off.
Ultimately, if you are more productive, as a consultant you can either take on more work (and earn more) or take on the same amount of work and work fewer hours. Some employment situations may allow similar flexibility, but you're more likely to be bound by a 40-hour workweek or that pressure to stay later in the office ("facetime!!").
4. Working with and add value to a range of people, projects and organisations
I often say, "I have loyalty to causes, not organisations". We're all doing social impact work for a reason, right? So work out what that reason is and work on projects with organisations that align with "the why".
Beyond ensuring that you stick to your mission instead of waving the flag for your employer and competing with other international development organisations because you're contractually bound to do so, you get to work with and add value to, a range of organisations and people.
I've personally enjoyed having different governments, international organisations and NGOs as clients, as it allows me to experience the working cultures of these different organisations. It's also allowed me to serve as a bridge within my community of work to share knowledge amongst organisations that too often take a competitive approach to working with each other.
5. Ability to work from anywhere
Again, your flexibility in this regard depends on whether your type of consultancy work requires a lot of in-person or in-office contact with your client and partners. Like a lot of consultants, my projects often require a one-to-four weeks field visit to a given country, with the write-up done from my home base. Many of my projects involve research work entirely remotely.
I'm therefore somewhat bound by a need to be close to a decent airport (more to minimise my jet lag than due to client requirements) and roughly in the Euro-African time zone (again, more to reduce out-of-hours work calls for me).
I used this flexibility early on in my career to live in some fascinating and low-cost countries while earning dollars and euros. Later on, I used it to relocate back to my home country to spend time with my family. And I've been able to be productive wherever I can get out my laptop. How you would use the freedom is up to you!
6. Avoiding office politics
As a consultant, you may inevitably dip in and out of the office politics but the fact that clients (as opposed to employees) rarely see you as "competition" in the workplace or a part of office dynamics means you largely stay out of it.
I had negative experiences with the daily stress of office politics back when I was employed and I've found it much easier to maintain positive relationships with clients (again, you also work with them temporarily). This allows you to keep your head down and focus on the work.
7. Actually doing international development work instead of the admin
When you're an in-house project manager, head of policy, fundraising officer, project assistant, etc., how much time do you spend every day on admin (reporting to donors, chasing down finance, drawing up terms of reference, participating in endless internal meetings, etc.)?
Sure, it might be important and necessary work but is that what you were expecting to do when you went into the international development/social impact space?
In my field of work, project managers play a crucial role, but it's not one that personally interests me. I'd rather be doing the work than fighting bureaucracy. I like to do research, training, or policy work.
8. Shortcutting your way to high-level projects
This ties in with the point about fees and the point about being pushed to deliver great work. You're not bound by the schedule of promotions and the office politics that go along with hierarchical organisational structures. You don't have to wait for that pay rise or for your boss to give you the opportunity.
As a consultant, it's up to you to take the opportunities. If you think you have the capability to work on more complex projects, then go for it; develop a proposal and pitch it to the client.
The terms of reference for my second consulting assignment - aged 25 - asked for an "expert with 10 years experience." I won that project because I demonstrated in my proposal and through personal recommendations that I was capable of doing it.
As a service provider, clients will work with you if you can prove you have the ability. The number of years physically present in an office tends to matter less.
9. No one can fire you!
My mother (Asian!) for a long time saw my work as precarious and preferred that I stay in a "proper job". But I (and after seven years, she is now on board with this!) have always considered myself a business that only I can fire myself from. I will continue consulting as long as I enjoy it.
Of course, there are things to do strategically to ensure you are safe as a consultant, such as continuously adapting your offering to the needs of your target market and diversifying your client base to not be overly dependent on one client's needs. And, again, we'll be talking about all this and more at the IC-Hub in future posts.
10. It pushes you to improve and deliver great work
When you're an employee, you can be forgiven for an "off day" at the office. Came in tired and made some mistakes in a report? It's not the end of the world, as your long-term contract will ensure you're largely judged on performance over a longer period of time.
As a consultant, you're only as good as your last assignment. Reputations are hard-won over time and easily lost in an instance. You have to keep up the quality of your work and this also goes hand in glove with the above point about not taking on too much work.
Ultimately, though, if you're serious about making it as a consultant, that nervousness to please the client and build a reputation pushes you to consistently deliver quality work; and that's a very good thing!
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