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