6 Lessons I Learned in the First 6 Months of Nonprofit Management Consulting

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CC BY-ND 2.0 Deveion Acker

Last October, I offered up a bundle of my ideas, dreams, and experiences, granted it a name and a business bank account, and launched it onto the World Wide Web: Groundwork Consulting.  Groundwork was a way I could formalizing and publicize work I’d been doing for years on the side: working with friends and acquaintances in the nonprofit world to tackle management challenges and think through new opportunities.

Six months later, I realize I’ve been learning a ton about nonprofit management consulting without a lot of chance to reflect on it all. So, here’s a listicle of lessons to commemorate the journey so far:

  1. You can’t change other people. You can only support them in changing themselves. I think this is a lesson I will be blessed to learn again and again in my consulting work. As a management consultant, I can’t make someone change. When talking to a client who has slipped back into a bad pattern, I sometimes wish more than anything that I could just do the work for them. But that’s doesn’t actually help anyone. Only the client can ultimately do the work. My job is just to be a coach, a collaborator, a sounding board, a guide, and a cheerleader in their process. The process can be slow and stumbling at times, but it’s their journey and I need to be present to support it.
  2. My job is to see the best version of my clients. The more I do this work, the more convinced I become that my ultimate work is to believe in the best version of someone else, and reflect that vision back. No matter how down a client may feel on where they are in adopting changes, my job is to keep strong in the belief that they can and will reach their ultimate potential. The world is full of doubters and nay-sayers. But through my consulting work, I get to always believe in the best in others.
  3. Nonprofits are systems whose problems must be viewed holistically. Sometimes a client wants me to help address one small piece of the organization. But no sooner do we begin than all the connected problems and concerns start rearing up, demanding attention. Fixing any one problem requires stepping back and looking at the whole picture.
  4. Changes have to be made one tiny bite at a time. Success helps clients feel optimistic and engaged, and helps them believe in the process. But if they bite off too much, they’re destined to trip up. So my job is to make it easy by drilling down to a single, achievable thing that we can change right now, and then moving on to the next step only once the first change has been mastered.
  5. Relationship problems are the root of many organizational problems. Sometimes nonprofits come to me wanting solutions to what they see as huge organizational problems around structure and strategy. And while it can be useful to get aligned on structure and strategy (and I love hosting those conversations), many of the day-to-day issues boil down to relationship issues. These look like communication problems, unresolved jealousies, hurt feelings, and broken trust. Fixing the relationships makes all the other problems easier to address.
  6. I need to practice what I preach. Even as I have advocated for other people to believe in themselves, practice self-empathy, repair relationships, and adopt big changes by splitting them up into manageable bites, I see countless ways I fall short in these respects. As I look at the next six months, I’m recommitting to holding myself to the same ideals I hold my clients, including making sure that I’m not letting the work run my life. 

I’ve had a lot of other moments of insight along the way, but not all of those lessons fit neatly into a list like this. So I’ll leave it there for now. And if  you’re interested in my nonprofit consulting services or just want to brainstorm about management challenges you’ve been facing lately, drop me a note and let’s chat.

Note: this was originally published on Groundwork.

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