What is a Philanthropy Consultant?

Are you curious about what a philanthropy consultant does? I can tell you what it’s really like. I can explain what philanthropy is and isn’t, and how to get started in this field (see tips below). You might be surprised, though—my advice is probably different than what you’re expecting.

I answer questions about philanthropic consulting from a lot of people. The biggest group is people wanting to break into the field of philanthropy as a whole—new entrants to the workforce who are looking for jobs they find personally meaningful, and tenured professionals seeking a career change into the social impact sector. They typically ask me, “So what do you really do? And how do I get a job doing it?”

Misconceptions About the Job

People have wonderfully creative impressions of what consultants in the social change field do. Based on the in-person and LinkedIn conversations I’ve had since joining Geneva Global, many people seem to think we spend most of our time attending glamorous events and solving world problems with the flick of a switch. We evidently do these things with our best friends Angelina Jolie and Bono.

Which sounds exciting! If you are offered that job, you should probably take it. It’s not what we do, though.

I also hear from a smaller but no less creative group of folks who view philanthropic consulting as an imaginary career. This group usually wants to nudge me into admitting that we just charge exorbitant fees to provide impractical advice from an ivory tower. (We don’t.) The funny part about these negative stereotypes is that they come from two opposing world views: people who value philanthropy very highly as a catalyst for social change, and people who don’t value it much at all. The crux of the dismissiveness seems to be that social change is either too important to “outsource” or treat as a professional discipline, or that it’s really more of a light hobby that certainly doesn’t require bells and whistles like strategy or metrics. The curiosity from these folks is mostly about what we actually do all day—write fancy useless reports? Travel to exotic places? Prototype unicorns?

Prototyping unicorns sounds awesome! If you are offered that job, you should take it. It’s not what we do, though.

Understanding the Philanthropy Industry

Philanthropy, as a whole, is an enormous field. Much like law, it crosses through nearly every sector of society—health, education, human rights, poverty alleviation, and the environment, just to name a few. At its core, philanthropy is largely about investing in the public good. In strictly financial terms, philanthropy is as influential as venture capital: in 2016, there were $370 billion in charitable donations in the US, versus the $333 billion in assets at venture capital firms. (And that charitable number jumped to a record high in 2017.) When you further consider philanthropy at the global level, the economic impact is jaw-dropping.

But philanthropy is bigger than the concept of giving away money. It’s also about what that money accomplishes. The field of philanthropy contains multitudes: universities, hospitals, places of worship, museums, disease research, civic leagues, neighborhood food banks, community libraries, microfinance, and emergency shelters. In the U.S. alone, there are over 1.6 million tax-exempt organizations across a range of categories. This number doesn’t even include socially-conscious businesses or cause-structured for-profits or the entire landscape of impact investing.

So, it should come as no surprise that philanthropy involves an incredibly wide range of specialties and skill sets: activism, advocacy, policy, logistics, research, technology, communications, finance, and more. In fact, the nonprofit sector is the third largest workforce in the U.S., behind retail and manufacturing. As a result, consultancy within the philanthropy field is broad and varied. Individuals or firms offering professional skills and services are available in every niche of the social sector ecosystem. Fundraising, for example, is a well-known specialty of those who generate support for charitable organizations. Organizations often have “advancement” or “development” departments that manage planned giving, annual funds, etc., and may leverage outside expertise to help them plan and execute campaigns, or even pinch-hit as short-term personnel.

There are service providers for every aspect of philanthropy, many of whom are nonprofits themselves. There’s technology, of course, which has philanthropy-specific considerations. Nonprofits are subject to specific accounting standards (which are different than businesses), so expertise there is often in demand. Even the decision to become a charitable entity can involve specialty services; new initiatives can seek fiscal sponsorship from an existing organization, rather than setting up as a new legal entity.

We are Architects of Social Change

So where does “philanthropy consulting” fit into all this?

In short: everywhere.

At Geneva Global, we call ourselves architects of social change. We are a consulting firm (and a certified B Corp) that provides a range of philanthropic services, in the same way firms like McKinsey or Accenture provide a range of management consultancy services. We are a one-stop shop for anyone who needs help figuring out their philanthropy: where to start, which avenues to pursue or avoid, how to level up, who to partner with, articulating what’s important and why, and the mechanics of making it all fit together.

And we’re not alone in our work. Fellow philanthropic consultancies include Arabella Advisors, the Bridgespan Group, FSG, and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. These and many other independent firms are all focused on making philanthropy more effective.

Consulting in any field is a mix of knowledge and service. It’s not enough to be able to design something amazing, you have to then be able to deliver it. And in philanthropic consulting, you’re designing and delivering for a broad spectrum of clients—as broad as the sector itself. But while the projects are varied, there are certain core skills and capabilities that are critically important.

On a day-to-day basis, philanthropic consulting requires technical skills, emotional intelligence, and the ability to manage complicated projects that move at the speed of light. Our toolkit includes the ability to listen, problem solve, learn on the fly, and synthesize lots of information into clear, crisp concepts. There’s a lot of writing involved, and usually more math than I’d like. But I can state for the record that philanthropic consulting offers a rare chance to experience a broad cross-section of interesting people, places, and projects. All of my advice above about how to get started in the sector applies to philanthropic consulting too, with an added caveat. In addition to developing your skills and experience, as a consultant you’ll need to deploy them effectively for a wide-ranging set of priorities. So, in addition to possessing the know-how, you’ll need to develop a can-do attitude, being ready to turn on a dime while still keeping an eye on the big picture.

Advice for Philanthropic Consultant Job Seekers

As you can see, philanthropy is a vast and varied field. If you are looking to get a professional foot in the door in the field, here is the advice I typically offer as a starting point:

1) Get Informed

Keep up with key publications like the Chronicle of Philanthropy and Stanford Social Innovation Review to learn about issues and trends. Learn the lingo and the landscape through resources like Foundation Center, Independent Sector, and PEAK Grantmaking. Read blogs by practitioners like Vu Le at Nonprofit AF for insider perspectives. There’s even a dedicated channel of TED Talks.

2) Get Connected

Locally, most cities or counties have a philanthropy network or hub that can connect you to the important events, thinkers, and movements in your area. In my region, we have the Philanthropy Network of Greater Philadelphia, plus plenty of active community foundations, membership groups, and think tanks.

A quick online search for your city/county can get you pointed in the right direction.

3) Get Invested

One of the best ways to get grounded in philanthropy is to donate your own time and money. Finding the right volunteering opportunity, with regular or ad-hoc commitments, will let you see how different organizations operate and assess what’s typical versus unique, helping you narrow down the kinds of jobs that are a good match for your skills and interests.

A word of advice: be realistic about what you can contribute. Don’t overcommit in a burst of enthusiasm or demand to restructure an entire organization if you encounter bumps in the road. Keep it manageable and consistent, and think of yourself as a guest who’s there to learn. Similarly, making monetary donations where you can afford to will give you practical experience in the basics of charitable gift giving. How do you decide where and what to give? How do you personally evaluate whether that gift was meaningful? You might be interested to compare your thoughts with high-profile philanthropists contemplating these same questions.

4) Get Global

The social sector exists at multiple intersecting levels: local, regional, national, and global. Multilaterals and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) operate globally in the particular discipline of international development—the long-term improvement of communities or countries. (It’s different than humanitarian aid, which is the short-term response to emergencies.) The global level has its own channels of news, research, and forums to discuss overarching priorities.

As you can see, philanthropic consulting is demanding. But it’s also rewarding. Despite the challenges inherent in philanthropy in general—and consulting in particular—it’s a great feeling to know your work is part of something big. And it’s exciting to work shoulder-to-shoulder with so many talented people determined to make the world a better place. If you decide this is the field for you, I wish you a very warm welcome to the sector. And if someday you do happen to find yourself glamorously saving the world, please tell Angelina and Bono that I’m a fan.

Additional Resources

Idealist, a popular site for nonprofit job searches

Devex, a hub for international development news and careers

An interactive History of Giving

BoardSource, to learn about governance—especially if you want to be a board member

GuideStar, which makes US nonprofits’ IRS filings searchable and accessible

Inside Philanthropy, for news about who’s giving and why

Global Philanthropy Index, about the global giving environment

IRIN, for humanitarian aid news and analysis

Center for Disaster Philanthropy, to help donors understand humanitarian giving

Association for Fundraising Professionals, for guidance and ethical standards

Advice about becoming a fundraising consultant

Oft-cited think tanks: Brookings, Pew, and Urban Institute

Influential bloggers: Lucy Bernholtz at Philanthropy 2173 and Duncan Green at From Poverty to Power