The Channels Blog

How to become an independent consultant in the communications for social impact field

This is a guest post by Loksan and Molly from The Impact Consulting Hub (IC-Hub)

Have you ever considered that instead of working hard to create value for your boss or employer, you could be creating the same value—or, indeed, more value—as a self-employed solopreneur?

Do you enjoy serving the organisation that employs you, but also don’t see any qualms with helping a wider range of stakeholders?

Are you the kind of person who can organise yourself and work on multiple things at the same time, while being free to live anywhere in the world?

And are you tired of asking for a raise and want control over your own fees?

If you’ve answered yes to any of those questions, then perhaps independent consulting (or “freelancing”—at the IC-Hub, we approach them the same way) in the communications for social impact space is right for you.

Indeed, at the Impact Consulting Hub, our network includes many communications professionals—just like you— who serve multiple social impact “clients” (think: NGOs, United Nations agencies, social enterprises, and others) and provide services, in areas ranging from strategic communications and advocacy, to graphic design, video production, and event planning. These folks in our network range from highly experienced experts like Dietlind, who has run high-level strategic communications campaigns for global NGOs, to some newbies just getting started in providing their graphic design services to grassroots charities.

Did you know that, in fact, the wonderful Channels co-founders met through the IC-Hub?! It's true!

If this kind of work might interest you, then read on and we’ll tell you how to become a self-employed communications for social impact professional.

Who is this post for?

Firstly: who is this post for, and what do we mean by independent consulting? This is for independent social impact consultants, but what does that mean? At the Impact Consulting Hub (IC-Hub), we define 'independent' as self-employed or the founder/CEO of a limited company with few or no employees (aside from yourself). The definition of 'social impact' varies widely depending on who you ask. At the IC-Hub, we use it as a catch-all term for any organisation (whether non-profit, for-profit, or governmental) that aims to improve the world. And 'consultant'? Well, that varies too. We use it to mean any facilitator, contractor, advisor, trainer, etc., providing services from outside the organisation.

The Pathways toward independent consulting

We know from working with hundreds of independent consultants for the last year that typically, IC-Hubbers go into consulting after 5-10 years of career experience (this seems to be the “sweet spot”), although plenty have launched with more or less experience. Many have walked one or a combination of the following pathways towards self-employment. Here are some of the many career paths we’ve seen independent consultants follow:

1. The employee-turned-consultant:

This is where you either parlay your job into a part-time or consultancy position. Perhaps you work for a communications agency and have built enough trust to ask for reduced hours and the right to work from home? Or perhaps you can propose to work as an independent consultant for your employer as an alternative to leaving the company altogether? Or you can use your time in employment to conduct your market research - to find out what types of external consultants your employer hires and what they hire them for (and then do some focused networking).

This tends to be the most straightforward way to start as a consultant but by no means the only one!

2. The accidental consultant:

This is when you are offered a consultancy assignment by being in the right place at the right time. It might happen when you’re in between jobs. Some IC-Hubbers have also started consulting in their spare time whilst still in employment (just make sure there are no conflicts of interest with your employer!).

This is a great way to “get into consulting”, as it provides you with a “foot in the door” and a foundation on which to build to snowball that first client into more clients (it’s all about getting those referrals!).

3. The self-starter consultant:

This is when you purposefully decide to become an independent social impact professional. You choose what services you think you can provide, you develop the skills to do so, you build a following through content-based email marketing or social media marketing, and then market yourself to target clients. This may lead you to develop a business and a service offering that differs significantly from what you did in your previous employment.

This pathway tends to require more hustle but also represents an exciting opportunity to start from scratch and build the business that you want to build. At this stage, especially if you are a less experienced professional, you may wish to seek part-time contractor positions at communications agencies. This might help you learn more about the sector while providing some income stability.

IC-Hub’s tips for start-up success

If you’re still interested in launching your communications for impact solopreneur start-up, then check out the IC-Hub’s Start-up Cheat Sheet (100% free), which takes you through the IC-Hub 5-step Start-up Process that we use for our premium start-up course. It embodies the following principles for start-up success:

1. Break the start-up process down into manageable steps:

We find that many would-be independent social impact professionals find the mere idea of launching their own thing to be overwhelming and scary. And it is! So we recommend breaking the freelancing start-up process down into bite-sized steps. This makes it much more likely that you’ll actually take action!

2. Start with the market research:

In the same vein, you want your first step towards launching your solopreneur start-up to be the easiest one. Market research is both critical and relatively easy to achieve. So if you don’t do anything else, just start by connecting or reconnecting with 10 people in your network— ideally those who have done consulting in the past. Channels is a great place to start if you want to connect with fellow communications professionals. The IC-Hub Members Directory (that members have access to!) will also help here.

3. Develop a clear elevator pitch:

Your market research will enable you to determine how you will position yourself, what services you will provide, and whom you will serve. It is critical—for new and experienced consultants alike—to nail your elevator pitch. This means explaining very quickly and clearly what it is that you do. We recommend using a format like, “I am a (type of specialist) and I do X (services) for Y (client types).” Or “I help Y to X”. Just as “the IC-Hub helps people launch and accelerate their independent social impact consulting businesses.” It is this clarity that will drive client referrals.

4. Find your own business development style:

Some would-be freelancers in the social impact for communications space get put off by the idea of “doing business development” and hustling for clients. And there is an inevitable degree of “hustle”, especially earlier on, as you need to tell people about the value you can create (indeed, we’d argue that it’s your DUTY to let others know that you can help them!).

But selling does not have to make you feel like a door-to-door salesperson, and it doesn’t have to involve sitting down and firing off a million proposals every week.

At the IC-Hub, we teach our students various value-led approaches to business development - a process-focused approach that sees you gradually draw people into your “orbit” (through approaches like email marketing), before getting to know and building trust with these different audiences by feeding them useful resources that they actually need (creating content). Leading with value is the way to have clients come to you, and often ends up not even feeling like business development.

5. Network with other independent social impact professionals in your field:

Meeting other independent professionals who have already successfully launched and developed their consulting businesses is a fantastic way to learn more about what opportunities are out there (market research). The more experienced consultants may even become your first clients! Both Channels and the IC-Hub offer great options for networking with others in your field.

Beyond that, we strongly recommend continuing to educate yourself: there’s a long more to learn beyond this blog post! You can check out our page for new consultants, which offers a host of free resources to help you learn whether consulting is right for you and the steps to go through to launch successfully, along with some premium resources (coming in January 2022) for those serious about investing to accelerate their consulting journey.

About the authors:

Loksan Harley is an independent migration specialist with extensive experience working with the United Nations, governments, and non-profits in research, project management, capacity-building and technical assistance across Europe, Africa, and Asia-Pacific. He holds a BA in economics from McGill University and an MSc in public policy and management from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where he has also lectured on migration policy. He is passionate about helping people launch and thrive as independent professionals in the social impact and international development spaces.

As a fundraising and partnership specialist, Molly Morrison leverages her decade of experience in the international development sector across Africa, Asia, and Europe to help grassroots NGOs provide value-driven projects. Her grant writing, donor mapping, and content creation services help organisations navigate donor requirements, position themselves in a competitive market, and build meaningful partnerships that ensure resources are utilised to drive change.