5 Lessons I’ve Learned as an Educational Consultant

March 24, 2014

I’ve spent the past 15 years or so doing contract and consulting work in the non-profit and educational sectors. Over the past year, I’ve answered questions for a few dozen people who are eager to learn more about what’s involved in this career. Here are some lessons I’ve learned that I’m happy to share:

Sarah Eaton, keynote, speaker, presenter, education, languages, literacy

Lesson #1: It’s not about you

When a potential project or job comes your way, the first thing you need to remember is that it is not about you. The organization contacting you needs to have work done. They have goals and needs that they need met. Even if they’re not too clear on what those needs are, don’t be fooled… They still need to have work done.

The precise moment you get bedazzled by the pay cheque is the precise moment you’ve ensured you’ll never be hired again. Keep your eye on the prize — and your prize is the client, not the paycheque.

Lesson #2: Never negotiate via e-mail

When you are trying to figure out the details of a contract, it is a bad sign if the other party wants to negotiate via e-mail. In my experience, it indicates either a lack of deep interest in engaging with you for a sincere negotiation, or an alarming naiveté about how  business is done.

If you can, figure out the details face-to-face. If that isn’t possible, pick up the phone or arrange for a Skype, web conference or video conference meeting. This gives you the chance to listen carefully, ask intelligent questions, understand the other party’s position and then figure out a solution that works for both of you.

More than once, I have walked away from a deal where the other party only wants to negotiate via e-mail. It throws up too many red flags before the work even gets under way.

A successful contract starts with listening, not demanding.

Lesson #3: Know your sector

It may seem obvious, but the education and non-profit sectors differ from the corporate and industrial sectors in many ways. Not only is the ultimate goal not profit, but very often the cultures and values are different, too. Non-profit and educational contexts are often messier and more nebulous. The work can be — and in fact, may need to be — more iterative and flexible. 

Some of my friends who do corporate consulting will slide their reading glasses down their middle-aged noses and advise, “The contract must include clear and precise deliverables.” That is true — to some extent.

In my experience, consulting in the educational and non-profit sectors means you need to be nimble and adaptable. Yes, every contract needs a “Schedule A” of deliverables, but that doesn’t mean you need to articulate those with militaristic precision. It depends on your sector, your client and your mutual understanding of the work.

Lesson #4:  Not every “opportunity” is an opportunity

It is naive to think that every prospective project is an “opportunity”. In my early years of consulting I would get phone calls, e-mails and LinkedIn messages from people I didn’t know offering me an “opportunity” of some kind or another. I quickly learned that this was a euphemism for “volunteering to promote their cause”. Whether that cause was a start-up project they wanted to get off the ground or some other endeavour, what it boiled down to was me working for free (or for the promise of money, but without an actual contract) to “help” them advance their work.

Besides, you want to be suspicious of any “opportunity” that sounds too good to be true or comes  as a “limited time offer”. Be even more suspicious when someone you have never met before insists on a phone call or Skype meeting to tell you all about said “opportunity”. More than likely, it’s a sales pitch… They want to sell you an opportunity to give away your time for free. 

The correct response to these offers is, “No thank you”. Every hour you spend working for free is volunteer time, plain and simple. Be choosey about how you spend your time. Volunteer only for causes that make your heart sing.

Lesson #5: Time is a limited resource

There’s a culture of giving in the social sectors that is embedded in the work we do. That’s a good thing. What’s not a good thing is when a working person’s commitment to volunteer activities interferes with their ability to earn a living, spend time with their loved ones or fulfill other responsibilities.

I know numerous freelancers and consultants who work themselves to the point of break downs, break ups, or just general exhaustion because their time is stretched too thin.

It is important to give back to society, but not at the expense of your own health or relationships.

I find the 80/20 rule helpful here. Decide how many hours you want to put into work in a week. For this example, “work” includes paid hours and volunteer time. Let’s say that’s 60 hours a week. Before you balk at that number, it’s not unusual for a freelancer, entrepreneur or contractor or even a salaried employee to put in that many hours or more per week working.

Let’s assume you are smart enough to take one day off per week to recharge your batteries and spend time with people you love. That leaves you 10 hours per day, six days a week, to dedicate to paid hours and volunteer work. If we use the 80/20 rule, you’ll spend 8 hours a day putting in paid hours and doing a maximum of 2 hours of volunteer service. Or put another way, you’ll have 48 hours a week available for billable hours and 12 hours a week for volunteer commitments. That’s more than enough for most mortals.

You need to set aside enough time for billable hours that you can meet your financial obligations and goals. Don’t be misled into thinking that volunteer work automatically leads to paid work because of “networking opportunities”. (There’s that word again — (or a variation of it…): “Opportunity”.)

If you’re volunteering with the ultimate hope of it leading to paid work, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. The time we spend volunteering is time we give awayfreely and without expectation of anything in return. Besides, if you’re exhausting yourself doing unpaid volunteer work, you won’t have enough time or energy left over for billable hours. Your mortgage doesn’t care that you put in so many hours volunteering that you failed to pay attention to the need to do paid work, too.

It’s one thing to be independently wealthy enough to be a philanthropist. But even philanthropists believe in self care. Find a balance that keeps you energized, not exhausted.

Learning how to balance the demands of a career as a consultant, freelancer or contract professional is tough. Learning what works for you is half the battle. Learning to  stick with it — consistently and without apology — is the other half.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Uline – A company non-profits and entrepreneurs need to know about (in a good way)

August 11, 2012

It is not often that I post endorsements of commercial companies or products on my blog. In fact, I can’t remember ever having done it.

So, let me start with a disclaimer: I am about to do that. I would add that I do not work for this company and I am in no way affiliated with them. I do not receive any financial kickbacks or other perks because I have written about them here. I just think they’re worth talking about.

For years, I bought my office supplies at Staples or Costco, but I’ve found something better. Their prices are unbeatable and the quality of their products is very good. The company is Uline. They are a web-based company that sells everything from envelopes to cleaning supplies to office machinery. They have a U.S. site and a Canadian site.

Types of products they sell

  • Office supplies – This place is like Staples on speed. If you are like me and you luuuurrrrrve office supply stores, you’ll love Uline
  • Envelopes – regular envelopes, bubble mailers, self-sealing envelopes
  • Packaging materials – boxes, crinkle paper, bubble wrap, packing tape, you name it. (For my friends who sell on Etsy or ship other products to customers, you really gotta check out their prices…)
  • Safety products – Everything from disposable gloves to protective eyewear
  • Cleaning products – Need cleaning products for your office? They’ve got it all.

Great prices

Most people in my social and professional circles work in the non-profit or educational sectors, or they are entrepreneurs. In other words, they’re always looking for a bargain. If you are watching your budget, this company offers warehouse prices on their products to everyone. You do not have to be a business to buy from them. The difference in price between retail and these guys is staggering in some cases, and nominal in other cases. If find them particularly good for office supplies and packaging materials.

Delivery to your door

Although they use UPS to deliver their products and UPS often charges horrific tarrifs on their deliveries, Uline guarantees that Canadian customers to not pay extra tariffs. I have put in about six orders with Uline over the past year and so far, I have never paid extra UPS tariffs. My orders have usually arrived within 3 days of ordering.

The only downside

You can’t buy just one envelope or just one box. You have to order in quantity. Providing you have space to store a carton of envelopes, this is a great service. Depending on what it is, sometimes the minimum is 6 or 12. Other times it is 100 or more. It depends on the product.

Insider tips

Check out their sale products. I just ordered a case of bubble mailers for my books. When people order a book from my website, I usually send it in a bubble envelope. I have been buying these from Staples in a 12-pack for about $7. I just ordered a case of 100 from Uline for $25. Big price difference, eh?

Google “Uline coupons” before you submit your order. There are a couple of services that give you discount codes. Often these codes are available on the Uline site itself, but they are not always easy to find. Googling the discount codes helps to ensure you find the discounts you may be eligible for.

Who would benefit from Uline?

I am pretty sure that their target market is big corporations, but the deals are open to everyone, including:

  • Non-profit organizations
  • Schools and other educational institutions or academies
  • Small businesses
  • Entrepreneurs, solopreneurs and mompreneurs
  • Freelancers, independent authors, independent musicians, artists and others who sell and ship books, CDs and other self-created products

Like I said… I can’t remember ever giving a commercial company a plug on my blog — and I certainly do not plan to make a habit of it. But these guys are for real. I have used them several times and I think they are one of the best kept secrets that “the little guy” needs to know about.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

A leader’s job: How I handle complaints from a volunteer board

July 23, 2012

Sarah Eaton - leadership blogThis year, I took on the role of President for a non-profit board that I sit on. I have sat on boards before and held the position of President before. At that time, I was in my early 30s. Now, a decade later, with a completely different board, it feels very different. I feel less “attached” to the position itself, but feel a deeper responsibility to lead wisely.

I often ponder the Native American concept about considering the impact our decisions we make today will have on the people living seven generations in the future. This shifts my perspective from the idea of trying to balance everyone’s input and views today to a more complex model that also considers the long-term impact of our decisions, into a future that we can neither know, nor predict.

The decisions we make today are not just about us as a board. Our decisions are not even about our members. They are about both the elected directors and the members we represent; and not only those who are involved today but those whose lives may be impacted in the future. Our leadership decisions impact not only our work today, but also the future.

I recently had a board member come to me with a complaint. He seemed angry and insistent that his ideas be heard and implemented immediately.

As a younger leader, I may have gotten angry with another board member insisting that I do something a certain way. Or I may have caved into his insistence and done what he wanted without thinking it through, in an attempt to keep the peace.

Now, I think that my first job is to listen. Instead of being emotionally involved, I am curious as to what he has to say. I am wondering about his point of view, his insights and his concerns. I did not promise that I would agree with him and I also promised that I would not ignore him. I promised to listen.

After I have listened, I have said that I will do one of the following:

  1. Address the concerns in a fair and just manner (take action).
  2. Explain why the concerns cannot be addressed in the exact manner that the complainant would like (give a clear explanation that is solidly grounded in evidence).
  3. If I lack adequate expertise, then take the concerns to either a governing body (i.e. the rest of the board) or a specialist with more more depth of experience (e.g. staff, outside consultants, etc.) who can offer guidance, provide additional knowledge and/or propose a course of action.
I take a strength-based approach to my leadership work. That means that I start with the assumption that everyone brings strengths, talent and expertise to the table.

Starting with that assumption changes the leadership game. It means that rather than reacting immediately, that I take the time to consider the strength that the individual brings to the situation. This often means setting my own opinions and feelings aside. I may be angry or frustrated, but I still have a job to do.

Being in a leadership position doesn’t mean that we have all the answers. I means that others are trusting us to be wise and fair.

I believe that as leaders, our first job is always to listen. Then ask questions. Then think seven generations ahead. Then either seek more advice or take action.

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.

10 Ideas for Non-Profit Facebook Posts

May 7, 2012

I’ve been working with a non-profit literacy group in Calgary who really wants to increase their Facebook and Twitter presence. The group asked me today, “What kinds of things can we post on our Facebook page?” Well, folks, this one’s for you.

  1. A group photo of your staff.
  2. A photo of the building where you are located.
  3. A photo of the materials you use in your program.
  4. A link to an online article about your areas of expertise (Example: early childhood literacy).
  5. A link to an upcoming event or program.
  6. A link to an interesting and relevant online newspaper article.
  7. Links to resources in your field.
  8. Call for papers for an upcoming conference in your field.
  9. Links to other community events related to your work. (Your colleagues will thank you for this!)
  10. A link to your website that showcases a success story of someone who benefited from your programs.

This list is just a beginning. The important thing to to post on a fairly consistent basis, so your online supporters can connect with you on a regular basis.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Letting them shine: Working with multi-organizational coalitions

April 3, 2012

A colleague and I were recently asked to facilitate a workshop for a large, multi-organizational coalition that included government, educational and non-profit stakeholders. The coalition includes over 25 organizations who have all joined forces to promote a particular aspect of education.

As facilitators, we were warned that the groups were having difficulty agreeing on a structure for their coalition network and that different stake holders came to the table with different values, philosophies and areas of expertise. Yet, they all wanted to work together. Their lack of consensus was causing concern among some members.

Traditional model of governance

The coalition had a leadership team comprised of senior members of some of the major organizations. The group had been working hard to define what the structure of their coalition would look like. Here is what they came up with:

Eaton International Consulting, Sarah Elaine Eaton, Sarah Eaton, facilitator, speaker, keynote, presenter

Characteristics of the traditional organizational structure

Org charts like this show the typical structure of a traditional organization. This chart could work for a business, a non-profit organization or a public sector organization. The characteristics that define them are fairly uniform:

  • Top-down model (Leaders are at the top)
  • Clear hierarchy
  • Orderly
  • Rigid
  • Governance-focussed
  • Straightforward and easy to understand

Why traditional models do not work for coalitions

In the traditional model there is an underlying assumption that all members who belong to the organization share the same values and that those who are lower down in the pecking order are less qualified, experienced or powerful than those at the top.

In a coalition, every member organization may have a structure like this. Or they may be a “flat organization” with very little hierarchy. In any case, in a coalition, you are bringing together collective wisdom and knowledge for a common purpose. A traditional model of governance does not work because a “pecking order” is unproductive. Members who are not at the top may feel confined and undervalued, when in fact, they have a great deal to contribute. Members at the top of the coalition may feel frustrated because they do not have all the answers and they sense disengagement from those who are lower down in the organizational structure. The result can be feelings of disempowerment, frustration, anger and ultimately, disengagement from the work that everyone has come together to do.

In addition, members may feel pressured to surrender their current organizational culture in order to become part of the new coalition. Members may feel that their identity as an organization is challenged.

The Constellation Model

We presented a different model for the member organizations to consider. This model was developed by Surman & Surman (2008). It captures the complex nature of multiple stakeholders working together based on shared interests and assets.

Constellation model of Social Change, Eaton International Consulting, Sarah Eaton, facilitator

At the top of the model is a “magnetic attractor”, or the purpose that caused all the groups to come together in the first place. This essentially becomes their guiding star, or in less “fluffy” language, their guiding principles. The larger group’s shared purpose is what guides them and drives their actions, defining how they will work together.

This model is light on governance. There is no separate legal entity or incorporation. Instead, action-focussed work teams called “constellations” take on the responsibility for moving certain pieces of the work forward. There is no obligation for a group to exist indefinitely. Once their work on a particular area has been completed, the constellation may be phased out, giving way to new constellations. This “phasing out” is seen as a natural progression of the work, rather than a source of anxiety. It does not mean that the foundation of the larger organization has been shaken in any way.

Instead of a traditional leadership team at the top, there is a stewardship group that serves to empower the various constellations. Their job is to set a strategic direction, monitor the coalition’s overall health. Then, it turns over the energy and power to the working groups. Each group takes the lead on a particular project or set of actions. The general terms of reference for the stewardship group are “as little process as possible”.

This model also includes a third-party secretariat whose job it is to coordinate the overall efforts of the project and troubleshoot problems. Surman and Surman point out that:

“When non-profits set up collaborative projects, they typically… (create) a secretariat within the partner who has the most capacity. This is seldom an ideal solution. Placing the coordination function within one of the partners permanently alters the power dynamic of the group. One partner takes power. The others defer responsibility and lose energy.”

In this model, the secretariat is responsible to both the stewardship team and the constellations.

Characteristics of the Constellation Model

  • Defining traits of this model are:
  • Organizationally complex
  • Lightweight governance
  • Messy
  • Exist through lightweight agreements between members
  • Fiscal and legal responsibility moves around depending on which partner is leading a constellation
  • Leadership and power are shared among members

Our process

We challenged the groups to consider the constellation model in more depth. We asked them which aspects of it resonated with them and how.

We did not tell members that their current structure was wrong or that they needed to change it. We simply presented the constellation model as a tool for further discussion.


  • The group was able to engage deeply in a productive conversation about governance, leadership and structure.
  • Members gained insights into why a traditional organizational structure might not work for them.
  • Individuals who were feeling anxious and undervalued suddenly felt that they had options.
  • The group was able to acknowledge that a structure can be “messy” and still work.

Just as constellations in the sky may seem messy to the untrained eye, each functions well on its own. Sometimes stars burn out… and that is OK. In fact, it is normal and does not mean that the universe is falling apart. There is a natural ebb and flow to all work and process.

As facilitators we were astounded at the depth of conversation and levels of engagement. We brought the constellation to the table as a tool to generate dialogue. The unexpected result for us was a sense of relief, mixed in with excitement. Members felt that they had a better understanding of how many organizations could work together effectively without giving up their own identity or culture.


Here are some of the resources that we drew upon in order to prepare for and deliver the workshop:

Byers, R. (2011). “Models and Elements of Collaborative Governance” from @ A Glance: A Resource of the Healthy Communities Consortium.

Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M. (2003). Appreciative inquiry handbook. Bedford Heights, OH: Lakeshore Publishers.

Koch, J. (2005). The Efficacy of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) in the Educational Context. (Master’s Thesis).University of Calgary, Calgary.

Kretzmann, J. P., & McKnight, J. L. (1993). Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets. Skokie, IL: ACTA Publications.

Kretzmann, J. P., McKnight, J. L., Dobrowolski, S., & Puntenney, D. (2005). Discovering Community Power: A Guide to Mobilizing Local Assets and Your Organization’s Capacity. from the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University: http://www.abcdinstitute.org/docs/kelloggabcd.pdf

Storti, C. (1990). The art of crossing cultures. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, Inc.

Surman, T. (2006, March 15, 2012) Constellation Collaboration: A model for multi-organizational partnership. Retrieved from http://www.socialinnovationexchange.org/files/event/attachments/Constellation%20Model%20Description%20June%209%2706.pdf

Surman, T., & Surman, M. (2008). Listening to The Stars: The Constellation Model of Collaborative Social Change. Social Space. Retrieved from http://socialinnovation.ca/sites/default/files/Constellation%20Paper%20-%20Surman%20-%20Jun%202008%20SI%20Journal.pdf

Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (3rd. ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Teaching Non-Profits How to Use Webinars Effectively

March 4, 2012

Tomorrow is an exciting day for me. I start teaching another “Build Your Own Webinar” course. This will be the third time I am teaching the program and I’m pretty excited. In the past, we’ve had participants from literacy and other non-profit organizations who run educational programs, as well as entrepreneurs, and people working in small to medium-size businesses.

The course basically teaches people how to build a webinar step-by-step, taking it from concept to delivery. The idea is that by the end of the program, participants have a webinar that is ready to go live.

Here is the course outline:

Here’s what some participants of the webinar programs have said:

“I have nothing but gratitude and thanks for such a well planned and meaningful learning experience. This webinar was pivotal to a new career direction for me.” – Pat Minor, Canadian Parents for French, High River, Alberta, Canada

“Sarah is definitely an expert in her field. The breadth and depth of her information is excellent and she is very willing to share her time and expertise. I have attended several of her webinars. I highly recommend any webinar that she’s presenting in.” – Jeff Hough, Idaho State University, ISU Workforce Training, Pocatello, ID, USA

“Sarah is hugely knowledgeable in e-learning design to ensure that the audience is kept engaged. She also has a keen sense of what works and a broad knowledge of what tools are out there in the marketplace. I’d recommend this webinar to anyone contemplating developing their own programs!” – Peter Temple, Past President, Canadian Association of Professional Speakers, Calgary Chapter, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

“Great practical information for anyone who is looking at venturing into the world of webinar production. Sarah provided practical information and questions to ask when you are looking for a provider that will meet your needs.” – Laura Godfrey, LearningLinks Resource Centre, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

I am excited to meet the participants who will be joining us for this new course. Love working with adult learners who are dedicated to lifelong learning, professional development and using technology to advance the good work they do.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

The effectiveness of enthusiastic fundraising

June 11, 2011

Pink RibbonA few weeks ago, a dear friend asked me if we’d like to attend a fundraising event being put on by her brother. He’s a super guy and is the manager of a local pharmacy. All the staff at his store decided to join in the Weekend to End Women’s Cancers. To raise money for the event, they held a fundraising dinner at a local pub. We bought tickets to the event and my friend, who has just started a business producing her own all natural beauty products donated items to their silent auction. I followed suit, and donated a coaching session on social media marketing for small business.

The event was brilliant! Over 80 people attended, over 30 silent auction items were donated (including one each from my friend and I) and there were over 25 door prizes. The energy in the room was incredible.

What struck me was that people were there mostly to have a good time and to socialize. Every single person there seemed to have someone else that they were cheering for. Good work is important, but it take good people, with good intentions to do that work.

It takes many hours to put together a fundraising event, especially when the people doing it aren’t fundraisers. But they were organized, energized, dedicated and sincerely committed to their work. Their passion was both effervescent and contagious. They use their personal leadership skills and collaborative teamwork to reach their goal. Personally, I much prefer fundraisers like that, where people are driven by their desire to come to together and fill a room with sincere enthusiasm, rather than those events where you stand around awkwardly with a glass of no-name chardonnay in one hand while you try to avoid noticing the cubes of cheese that are silently sweating on the plate in your other hand.

You don’t have to put on a big gala to raise money. A small group of people who are wildly enthusiastic, mobilized and organized can work wonders in garnering support of all kinds for their work.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.