by Dr. Michael A. Wright
The social worker will certainly be skilled in connecting with and informing clients. The social worker as consultant will also need to manage a business. Social work tends to attract persons whose primary concern is not money, who do not typically publicize their achievements, who favor trust-based relationships, and who are uneasy charging directly for the good they do. The social worker as consultant will need to face these tendencies in the context of business and consider an approach in four areas: legal structure, marketing, contracts, and consulting fees.
Deciding on a legal structure for your business is important for taxation, expensing, liability, and partnership reasons. It is a decision that should not be made without professional consultation from your tax preparer. After all, your tax preparer will be the individual either praising your planning or lamenting your tax position.
Many social workers have long dreamed of starting a non-profit, but I do not recommend this legal structure for the social worker as consultant. Of course, make your own decision, but make it based on your proposed activity, whether you want a board, the application process (and fees), your ownership concerns, and your reporting preferences.
Non-profits are not the only way to secure grant funding. Partner with 501c3 organizations like universities or community agencies to gain access to grant funding. Partnering also allows those with the proper expertise to administer the grant budget.
Non-profits are also not immune to profit motives. Any business must sustain itself by creating revenue that exceeds expenses. Consider that other options exist for the social worker as consultant to express “social good” as a motive. B-Corporations are one option.
I am in favor of the sole proprietorship structure for occasional projects. If this is your structure, be sure to secure a credit card that will be solely used for business purchases. A mileage log is another tool you may want to consider.
A Limited Liability Company (LLC) is useful when you are signing contracts and taking on some form of liability for project success or failure. It is also a good idea if you are producing a tangible product. An LLC separates your personal liability from your business liability. If something goes to suit, only your business assets are in jeopardy.
Marketing for the social worker as consultant draws on a strength: social skills. But, the most effective social worker as consultant does not engage in social relationships for the relationship alone. Social relationships are external motivation to produce content. This is sustainable marketing in a nutshell. Create a vicious cycle of content creation that engages potential clients, which informs you about the client’s content desires.
Social media can be a great way to operationalize this cycle. A weblog is the minimum implementation. Use a blog to create a record of your credibility and competence. Organize the entries by your areas of expertise. Include stories of your consulting experiences, and put your skills on display. Schedule your posts to provide at least weekly updates. Utilize automatic posting capabilities. Understand your audience to know how long or short you can make your postings.
Social media tools can be managed for client interaction as well. Understand from the outset that tools like dot coms Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, and Kickstarter must be managed actively and responsively. Other tools that can aid awareness and calls to action include change.org for petition services; madmimi.com for formatting email blasts; and goo.gl for URL shortening.
A well written contract is critical to success in consulting relationships. It makes sense because contracts detail the measurement of success among other things. Include clear information on liability, insurance, and deliverables/outcomes.
Liability. Detail the responsibilities, level of authority, and scope related to the project being contracted. Responsibilities can be as simple as locking up when you leave or as complex as ensuring that e-commerce transactions are tracked in a daily accounting review. Level of authority refers to the role of consultant as leader, manager, or advisor. Leaders implement autonomously. Managers implement what they are instructed. Advisors review data and give suggestions. Scope can be limited to a single event, offices in a region, a recurring program across years, or innovation in the full enterprise.
Insurance. Detail how cost overruns, delays, and other complications will be handled. The point is to provide the client with some assurance of your professionalism. This can be handled in a number of ways. Some consultants only accept 50% of an agreed payment up front. Some consultants include language in the contract ensuring a flat fee no matter the cost overrun.
Deliverables/Outcomes. Detail what products will result from the consultation. Include the schedule of outcomes if the deliverable has multiple components. Consider communicating the targets in financial terms as a way to track the progress and efficiency of the consultation. As you gain experience, explore calculations of return on investment (ROI). ROI can be a way to separate your productivity and efficiency from other consultants or potential client investments. The beginning of good ROI is an understanding of the measures of success that represent value to your client. More than just the deliverables themselves, your client may value positive press, new relationships, or increased staff morale.
The social worker as a consultant must switch from a mindset of pay based on the job market to payment based on the market value of expertise. As a rule of thumb, I suggest beginning with the following amounts:
- Bachelor Degree/5 Years Experience = $50 per hour
- Master Degree/15 Years Experience = $75 per hour
- Doctoral Degree/20+ Years Experience = $100 per hour
Consider that special or unique expertise may support higher fees. Your services are worth what you get paid for them. Of course, notoriety and demand also impact your fees.
Many consultants prefer the simplicity of flat contracts. Typically, a flat contract is a calculation of the amount of hours a consultation will require. Estimate the total number of hours you will need to complete the project. Multiply that number by 3. Propose this total to the client. The multiplication recognizes that projects always have unforeseen time delays including revisions as the client better communicates his/her vision. You may consider reducing the multiplication based on how well you know the client and their needs. Familiarity usually means fewer revisions and therefore less time.
Keep in mind that beginning consultants may need to complete pro-bono work. That means working for free! In return for pro-bono work, ask for written recommendations or agreements that the client will act as a reference.
Generalist Practice and Expertise
Consider one final perspective on your consulting business. Social workers are trained generalists. This means that they develop a breadth of knowledge across multiple systems. This generalist training can be a great asset. The social worker as consultant will know systems and have contacts in various community posts.
Yet, this asset needs to be managed in the context of building a business and a brand. Consider that your expertise, though benefitting from breadth of knowledge and contacts, must be distillable to a brand. Expertise is the specific knowledge and skills applied by the social worker as consultant along with specific practice contexts and tools employed. Your brand is the communication of your expertise in a way that potential clients can remember, recite, and relate to. It will not function to say, “We do whatever you need.” It is more functional to advertise, “We are experts in city-level elder care and gerontology data mapping.” Maintain your generalist base, while you practice communicating your brand.
[I am mentor, entrepreneur, and educator, Dr. Michael A. Wright. I have logged dozens of consulting contracts working with start-ups, membership associations, and universities. In addition to a social work faculty appointment, I have operated my own macro practice consultancy, MAWMedia Group, since 1997. Browse more about me at http://www.mawmedia.com]