In late 2009 I left my previous job and decided to strike out on my own as a consultant. This wasn’t as big a change as perhaps it seemed to others at the time. I started my working life working for myself and regularly over the past 23 years I’ve swapped working for someone else with working for myself. But nevertheless, I did wake up the morning after the last day at work thinking “what the hell have I done!?!”
I did the right thing it would seem.
But during the past five years I’ve learnt a lot about being a consultant, working with different types of NGOs, working in the field, managing evaluation processes, managing clients and monitoring and evaluation methodologies. But if I had to distill all of this down to five things that I learnt in the part five years, this would be my top list:
Manage client expectations: I cannot count the number of times that clients and potential clients have wanted work done very quickly, expecting full impact analysis-type reports in just a matter of days. Ok, well maybe not days, but in a far shorter time than is practically possible. Usually there is a very small budget attached to these requests. It has been crucial to set out upfront what I can and cannot deliver and the timeframe that I can deliver within. Of course it is important to be flexible during the process, as things can change. This means that communication with the client has to be clear, consistent and regular in order to manage when things change. During the process, providing regular management reports showing progress, challenges, and what is left to do has been valuable in tracking how the evaluation is progressing (as well as providing a written record of when you’ve informed the client about things going on in the evaluation). It is better to under-promise and over-deliver, than promise the world upfront and deliver less in the end.
High quality results are better than lots of different results: Related to managing client expectations, the quality of the results of your evaluation is important. The client will be using these results for reporting to donors at the very least, and possibly also for strategic and project planning and possibly organisational learning more generally. So while clients often want you to deliver results related to a wide range of activities, it is better to ensure that the results that you do deliver are of the highest possible quality. This is also related to the budget of course: how much of your time your client can afford and your own productivity. There is no point in pushing to deliver something in less time than you need to do the job correctly at a price that cannot cover your overheads, just because the client makes unreasonable demands. Better to provide something that can stand up to scrutiny and on which both you and the client can rely. Remember it is your reputation and your client’s reputation that is at sake.
Putting beneficiaries at the centre of evaluations is crucial: It is pretty standard these days to include focus groups with beneficiaries in evaluations. Sometimes however this can seem like a simple consultation rather than a full investigation of what the beneficiaries really think. Often beneficiaries are used to the focus group process and give you the responses that they think you want, rather than an honest response. Which is why I’ve learnt to use PRA processes that engage beneficiaries in a different way, often getting their views on strategy and programme design as well as results and impact that they experience. I learnt to put the beneficiary at the centre when I was doing my SROI training and it has stood me in good stead ever since.
Work well with others: It isn’t often that I work on an evaluation or a study alone. Most of the time I am working in a team, either one that I have put together or one that I am asked to join. Understanding what the unique skills I bring to each team is important to agreeing who does which bit of the work plan. It is also important to realise that these teams form solely for the piece of work being contracted out. There are times that I am leading one team whilst being a supporting member of another team. This generally works well and gives “solopreneurs” like me a chance to work closely with other consultants, learn from them and improve my own offering. It also means I end up with a lot of contacts of people who I can ask to be part of a team in the future. Having this broad network of consultants is important for making sure I can put together teams for clients when asked to do so. Its like having a large team without having a large workforce.
Know your worth: Particularly as I started out on my own after the 2008 crash it has been extremely important to be able to generate sufficient income from my work, whilst at the same time attracting new business and providing a competitive services to clients. This hasn’t been easy, but knowing how to price my services so that they are not too expensive and not too cheap has been crucial. Doing market analysis has been important (although few consultants will tell you what their day rate is); as has knowing what the lowest profit margin I can work to is. Clients constantly try to negotiate you down to a lower rate, and only when I was clear on how low I could go, could I negotiate with them from a position of strength. Often it has been useful to be upfront about whether I can afford to do a piece of work and sometimes I have had to walk away from a contract when it just hasn’t been financially profitable – as much as that goes against my instinct to grab every bit of business that I can. Sometimes saying “no” can be the most important statement you can make. Many of the clients that I have to turn down for financial reasons come back with offers of other work in the future or sometimes even with revised offers.
So there you have it: my top five in the past five years!