I hear this a lot, especially from relatively new consultants, and especially from women.
“There are people who know a lot more than I do.”
“There are people who’ve done this kind of project many more times than I have.”
“There are people who have been doing this work for decades longer than I have.”
Of course, all of those statements are likely true, and will be forever. So what?
If you are getting hung up on statements like these, you are really focusing on just the first way that people become known as experts. There are two other equally compelling ways to reach the same status.
1. The Expert with Real World Experience
This is the been-there, done-that expert or “hands dirty” or “eye witness” expert. It’s the kind of expert that most people are thinking of when they pooh-pooh their own expertise.
2. The Reporting Expert
This is the kind of expertise you gain by constantly listening, observing, and analyzing. If you are good at soaking up all kinds of information and squeezing it back out in more useful forms, or are great at crowd sourcing, curating, and convening, you are likely this kind of expert.
3. The Expert with Insightful Perspectives
This expert focuses more on the future than on the past. They talk about “what ifs” and “why nots.” They are often more visionary or inspirational that other types of experts.
Is one better than another? That totally depends on what you are doing, and who you are doing it with. Performing brain surgery, yes, we want the real world expert. Teaching others about how to solve problems that current brain surgeons are having? I’d go with one of the other two.
In my own journey, I started out as the real world expert. As I built my consulting and training practice, I focused more on being a “reporting” expert. Now, as I build my coaching/mentoring practice, I’m working more on the “insightful perspectives.”
What kind of expert are you? Did you start as one kind and transition into another? I’d love to hear your path in the comments.
People love to follow a good system. Just look at the hundreds (thousands?) of popular diets and fitness regimes out there.
You might think of it as a process, method, game plan, or recipe. But in consulting or coaching, it’s often called a framework. SWOT analysis is a framework. Myers-Briggs is a framework.
It’s your approach to solving common problems for your clients. You can make up frameworks yourself, or you can adopt frameworks created by others. (If you use someone else’s, be sure to do your research. Sometimes simply acknowledging the creator is enough; other times you need to pay a licensing fee.)
Sometimes a framework is a step-by-step process, other times it’s more of a checklist. Sometimes they are attached to specific timelines. Frameworks are often expressed visually.
I’ve found frameworks, even very simple, limited ones, to be extremely helpful in working with nonprofits. It gives everyone — you and your clients — a place to start and a way to move forward together. Frameworks can be especially helpful in giving some structure to otherwise hard-to-grasp conceptual work. They can also add some credibility to your work. When they are really good, they can become a core part of your brand.
Because of all of these benefits, you can also use them in your marketing!
Here a few examples of frameworks I have created:
The Six Rs of Message Relevance – This is a simple PDF that many people have told me they’ve printed out and keep next to their computers.
Six Month Mentoring Program for Communications Directors – In each month of the program, we cover one of six core elements of nonprofit marketing that I defined as:
- Your Community
- Your Messages
- Your Style
- Your Plan
- Your Tools
- Your Team
“Start Here, Then Try, Next Steps” — We created this framework to organize a lot of the free advice we offer on our website. You can see it at work on these pages on growing your email list and email newsletters. We also use it to organize the content within the Mentoring Program for Communications Directors.
CALM: Collaborative, Agile, Logical, and Methodical. This is brand-new one that I just released today! I’ll be expanding on this the rest of the week on the Nonprofit Communications Blog and using it in some new coaching programs I’m planning.
Think about how you can create a framework for the consulting or coaching you do with nonprofits. It can make your marketing much easier!
I’ve been looking through the questions that participants in the new Get Nonprofit Clients Coaching Program have submitted to me, and, wow, we are going to have some great conversations!
One that jumped right out at me was, “How do I get over the imposter feeling?”
This person is more than qualified to do a particular kind of work, but because others are already more established at doing it, she fears she has nothing to add.
First of all, even knowing that this feeling has a real name — imposter syndrome — is a great first step. It’s something that anyone with the slightest bit of humility feels at some point in their careers. If you are a perfectionist, you are more likely to struggle with it. Same goes for being a woman, especially a high achieving woman.
Hell, I’ve been at this for going on 20 years, and have written two books, and I still feel it from time to time!
I love the advice in this article: Afraid Of Being ‘Found Out?’ How To Overcome Impostor Syndrome. It’s a great read.
Let me add a bit to it, from the perspective of working in the nonprofit consulting world.
Show Your Personality in Your Work — It’s Yours and Yours Alone
Your personality and the kinds of relationships you build are infinitely more important to succeeding in the nonprofit sector than your credentials. So what if someone else already wrote an e-book on a topic you want to write one on? Maybe theirs is a total bore to read, or too short, or too long. The unique way that you look at a topic, or the style of writing, or the specific experiences or examples you bring are all more than adequate to set you apart. Let your personality and your own life and work experiences shine through.
Collaborate to Innovate
In the nonprofit world, there is so much room for innovation. The challenges are difficult, and the ground is constantly shifting under everyone’s feet. There’s a real thirst for finding new solutions that will actually work. At the same time, there is a real collaborative spirit in this sector. If you are shaky about whether something is valuable or not, you can usually find someone who is willing to talk it through with you. If you feel like you are strong in one area, but weak in another, collaborate with someone who has the opposite strengths and weaknesses. You don’t have to go it alone.
Don’t Let Nonprofits Take Advantage of Your Lack of Confidence — or You Will Go Broke
Don’t let your lack of confidence affect how you negotiate your fees. It’s a quick way to end your nonprofit consulting career. Your fees are most likely at the lower end of the spectrum already anyway since you work for nonprofits. If you are going to undercut yourself even more, you won’t be able to survive. Nonprofits aren’t going to tell you that you are charging too little! There’s always something else they can spend that money on.
What suggestions do you have for dealing with imposter syndrome? Please share in the comments.
Many freelancers would argue that specializing in the nonprofit sector is itself enough specialization. But let me make the case for going even further.
With just a simple Google search, we can find answers to very detailed, specific questions. We can find people who know the answers to problems we didn’t even know we had. The Web makes that kind of specialized assistance available to everyone immediately, and we are growing accustomed to it as a society.
This translates into our purchasing behavior. No one buys coffee anymore. You buy decaf, or French roast, or flavored, or Fair Trade, or Ethiopian, or whatever. You have choices, and you get exactly what you want. I argue that nonprofits have the same choices available to them with freelancer and consultants.
Because 99% of what we do can be done online, nonprofits across the country, and across the world, can hire us. And because there are so many freelancers and consultants online, it’s hard for a nonprofit to decide who is the best choice. Those decisions are often made based on recommendations from others.
But if you stack up five freelancer websites against each other, odds are that the nonprofit communications director will pick the freelancer who describes herself in ways that match up with what the communications director needs or identifies with. That requires some level of specialization.
Specialization helps you in other ways too:
- It gives focus to your own marketing materials, including your website, which makes it easier for nonprofits searching on specific keywords to find you.
- It makes it easier to narrow down the entire nonprofit sector to a targeted list of potential clients.
- It means you get better at what you do more quickly, because you do the same thing more often.
- It often means you can charge more for your expertise.
Specialization does have its downsides.
- You may limit your potential client base. When I first started out, I planned to do writing and editing for environmental groups. That was too narrow. I ended up doing communications planning, writing, editing, and graphic design for progressive causes, adding animal and social service organizations to the enviros.
- You may get bored. If you enjoy lots of variety, then specializing may feel monotonous to you.
- You may not know what you like. If you are just starting out, you may not yet know what you prefer.
- You may get locked out. If you are known as a specialist, you may get locked out of new and exciting opportunities because people may think of what you do too narrowly.
You have lots of latitude in how you go about specializing. You might work for organizations in specific fields, like the environment or health. You might lean toward causes that are considered to be more liberal or more conservative. You might specialize by geographic area or size of the nonprofits. Many freelancers and consultants specialize according to the type of writing they do, such as grantwriting, fundraising packages, event marketing, or media relations or the kinds of strategies they produce, such as strategic plans, board development strategies, etc.
For most freelancers, I think some level of specialization is helpful. But that doesn’t mean generalizing won’t work either. After all, my friend Ruth Thaler-Carter uses the trademarked motto “I can write about anything!” in her marketing!
Nonprofits don’t need freelance writers.
What they do need are newsletters, direct mail fundraising letters, Facebook pages, annual reports and other content for both print and online distribution.
But not even the content is the real need. The real need is donors, volunteers, advocates, and other supporters who can help them implement their mission.
So why would you market yourself to nonprofits as simply a freelance writer? When you do that, you fall into the trap of talking about features, when you should be talking about benefits.
The benefits of a good freelancer are newsletters that inspire supporters, annual reports that reassure donors, and Facebook pages that get people commenting and sharing about the cause.
When I first started out, I talked to potential clients about how I could provide freelance writing services. I got blank stares. When I started talking about how I could write their newsletters, special reports, and event speeches, I got paid.