We recently connected with Emily Davis and have shared our conversation below.
Emily , appreciate you joining us today. What do you think matters most in terms of achieving success?
Consulting for nonprofits is a very specific niche. Applying corporate practices to nonprofits doesn’t necessarily translate and vice versa. There are so many different types of nonprofits from their missions, to their services, to their budget and staff sizes, to their organizational lifecycles. For that reason, providing consulting services to nonprofits isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, as a nonprofit consultant I have expertise in nonprofit board governance but that doesn’t make me an expert in program design and evaluation or planned giving.
Anyone can call themselves a nonprofit consultant. There aren’t any formal standards or qualifications or fee structures. The market and word of mouth play a major role in the success of a consultant. There are plenty of examples of intelligent and thoughtful consultants that don’t quite have the personality that nonprofits are seeking so they aren’t very successful. On the flip side, there are consultants who are very dynamic and charismatic but don’t provide any real expertise or content and are still very successful.
When people come to me and want to become a nonprofit consultant, the first thing I tell them is that they are going to have to love running a business as much as doing the work itself. It takes a good amount of time and strategy to develop a sustainable practice including systems, networks, and income.
A successful nonprofit consultant knows their strengths and weaknesses. They focus on their areas of expertise and deepen them rather than expanding out across even more areas. For example, my primary area of expertise is nonprofit board governance with a focus on small to midsize social justice organizations. There are of course exceptions but generally, this guides me. I don’t pretend to have expertise in an area that I don’t.
Success includes knowing your service areas. For me, I provide training, facilitation, planning, and coaching in the areas of board governance, nonprofit creation, multigenerational issues, and philanthropy. I’m very clear about what I do and what I don’t do.
It’s important to know that starting and running any business costs money. Planning to invest in administrative systems, coaching, and ongoing professional development is critical to growth. It’s important to know what it costs to run a consulting practice and what your value is financially. In other words, be clear and confident with your pricing.
In my experience, the nonprofit sector is widely misunderstood. Nonprofit is a tax status, not a business model. Nonprofits are businesses but different kinds of businesses. Consultants are very much seen as outside the nonprofit ecosystem even though we play a critical role in the sustainability and success of organizations. Therefore, I spend a lot of time teaching nonprofits how to effectively work with consultants and challenging myths. This helps organizations to better understand the overall nonprofit community and be better equipped to have positive experiences with consultants in the future.
Lastly, successful nonprofit consultants “put their oxygen masks on first.” It took me a very long time to learn this. If I am not taking care of myself and my sustainability, I will burn out. I’ve done it. It’s not fun. this means setting clear expectations and boundaries and building healthy joyful relationships with clients whom see you as a human, not just an entity.
As always, we appreciate you sharing your insights and we’ve got a few more questions for you, but before we get to all of that can you take a minute to introduce yourself and give our readers some of your back background and context?
I am a consultant for nonprofits and philanthropists throughout the country. My expertise is board governance, multigenerational issues, philanthropy, and nonprofit creation. I provide these services through training, assessment, facilitation, coaching, and planning. I am also the author of Fundraising and the Next Generation.
I help organizations strengthen their board governance by helping them understand and implement the best practices in nonprofit leadership. I help organizations better understand how to run their businesses. I help organizations bridge gaps across generational challenges. I help philanthropists identify their values and practices in giving within the community.
I am proud that I was identified as one of 15 top consultants in the country who provide expertise on board governance. I am proud of the process I use with any prospective and current clients to get the most out of our work together. I am proud to have written a book. I am proud of how hard my team and I work at our consulting services and expertise. I always tell clients that I will be honest with them, tell them the hard truths but I will do it with jazz hands and a smile. We’re friendly and fun but also focused and accountable.
Can you talk to us about how your side-hustle turned into something more.
In my childhood and in my early career, I was always volunteering with and working for nonprofits. I started out in women’s health and ending violence against women. I trained law enforcement, prosecutors, and victim advocates on sexual assault. I worked for and with a lot of amazing organizations but I also saw a lot of how NOT to run nonprofit businesses. I could see that they were all heart and very little head for business.
I decided I wanted to learn a better way to run nonprofit businesses rather than what to avoid when leading them. I was originally planning to go to law school when the course catalog came in the mail for a master’s in nonprofit management. I wanted to take every course. I knew law school wasn’t going to happen. I applied and two weeks later I started graduate school.
For each course, we had to write a plan for a final project. For example, in my fundraising course, I wrote a comprehensive fundraising plan for an organization. I chose to select different nonprofits for each of my course projects. I was working part-time as a development assistant at the time but also volunteering to help social justice organizations to practice what I was learning. I was consulting and I didn’t even realize it.
After graduate school, I started a couple of volunteer-led nonprofits and was asked to write a book based on my graduate school research work about multigenerational organizations. I was continuing to advise and freelance consult during the time as a side gig. When my book was released, I was serving as executive director for a local chapter of a national organization. The organization would not give me time off to promote the book so I decided it was now or never.
I took on my consulting formally and full time. I started out in fundraising like so many nonprofit consultants and slowly evolved into loving board governance. I worked hard to learn all I could and become a leader in the field.
We often hear about learning lessons – but just as important is unlearning lessons. Have you ever had to unlearn a lesson?
I had to unlearn that nonprofits and their staff and board are martyrs. When I started consulting, I was fully immersed in the nonprofit culture that begs for a seat at the table or doesn’t see its worth. I almost apologized for charging a fee for my consulting services in the beginning. I felt guilty that I wasn’t offering my services for free.
The truth is though that nonprofits play an absolutely critical and essential role in our economy and our communities. They are not victims nor are they weak. They should not seek pity for the services they provide and the money it costs to pay for their work and their staff.
Once I saw the true value in the nonprofit sector and in my consulting as part of that, I could help organizations see that themselves. I could help them better understand their businesses and the success that would be possible. I could use some of my confidence and infuse them with confidence where needed. Nonprofits are not charities to me; they are social sector businesses that provide services that corporate and government entities don’t. It’s hard work and we can all do a better job putting high value on that work.
- Website: https://www.emilydavisconsulting.com/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/emilydavisconsulting/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/emilydavisconsulting
- Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/emilylariedavis/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/AskEmilyD
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKrTxBHVzAmYH_umg27k7Uw/feed
- Other: Podcast coming soon: Behind the Unicorn Consulting Cafe
Photo 1: Tara Polly Photo 2: Tara Polly Photo 3: Emily Frost Photo 4: Biz West Photo 5: Social Venture Partners International Photo 6: Foothills United Way Photo 7: Tara Polly