What is Social Impact Consulting?

Introduction

Social impact consulting includes any sort of work where you are advising or supporting nonprofits, government, philanthropy, business or other organizations focused on doing good in the world. Some firms are hyper-focused (e.g., only do outsourced fundraising for nonprofits in Cleveland), while others are much more general (e.g., do a range of tasks for a range of different types of organizations). Some organizations create high-level strategic plans over a short time frame, while others are deeply embedded in supporting implementation and operations over years.

Many people are drawn to the work of corporate consulting because of the high pay, opportunities for skill development, exposure to a range of industries, and the chance to leave for other great jobs in the future. Of course, a drawback is that the vast majority of the work is focused on increasing the profitability of wealthy corporations and propping up the status quo in a deeply unequal world. But what if it was possible to get the best of both worlds? Enter: social impact consulting.

What does the day-to-day work look like?

At its core, a “consulting” firm gets its name from the fact that it completes projects for another entity that pays for that work. Those entities “consult” your firm for its advice or work. Most consulting organizations operate in a pyramid structure, where executives or partners sell new projects to clients, while more junior-level folks execute on the work. Many times, your role will start in the background—doing research, drafting emails, and creating slides for the more senior folks at your firm to use with clients. Over time, you often gain more exposure to clients or partners, presenting materials that you weighed in on, giving advice, and building personal relationships. For some organizations, it can take several years to increase client interaction, while for others, it happens quite quickly.

Social Impact Consultancies range from a few employees to hundreds or thousands of them. Tasks for each organization and role range quite widely. The title for someone hired out of college is usually something like analyst, associate, or consultant. Here are some examples to demonstrate the range of things that you can do in an entry-level role:

  • You could help a nonprofit develop a strategy to expand to new states or restructure their team. Typical tasks include researching how other comparable organizations do things, finding potential funders, designing slide decks to present your findings, or creating a sample budget
  • You could help a foundation evaluate the demographics of its portfolio or identify potential new grantees focused on a specific issue
  • You could create a research report on trends in your specific sector (e.g., talent practices, funding trends) to help a corporate foundation decide where could they make the biggest difference
  • You could help a federal agency develop its strategic plan, redesign its organizational structure and training offerings to better support its employees, or modernize business processes and IT systems to more efficiently match grant funding with communities in need
  • You could help nonprofits develop new fundraising strategies or operate as an outsourced fundraiser for a specific duration of time if they don’t have enough funding to hire a full-time director but need fundraising support
  • You could help develop a new marketing or branding strategy, run communications as an outsourced provider, or help to bring in senior-level talent as a recruiter for any type of organization focused on social good

Some firms have profiles of folks describing their day-to-day work, so check out their websites! This example from Redstone is great.

Categories of Social Impact Consulting Firms

While there are a lot of subtleties across the work, we’ve tried to create some tags and frameworks to help you wrap your arms around this industry. In the social impact consulting database, we use two key tags.

Type of client

These are general tags to give you a quick sense of what work firms do. In practice, these categories blur together and aren’t perfectly comprehensive.

  • Nonprofits - work supporting nonprofits to grow and improve their impact in the world.
  • Philanthropy - helping institutional philanthropy, individuals, or family foundations to improve their giving practices, source additional grantees, or grow their work
  • Private sector - assisting corporations to develop their philanthropic strategy, measure or mitigate their environmental impact, or support impact investments
  • Public sector - supporting the government to do their work more effectively or expansively. It includes both local and federal government work. For now, we are particularly focused on organizations that support government work around the safety net and human services, because that seems like the most clearly impact-focused government work. We may include more public sector firms in the future as we refine a framework for what work qualifies as impact-focused
  • Global - conducting work in offices globally or working with stakeholders based around the world. Because of our networks and knowledge, we are mostly focused on US-based roles for now, but want to flag firms working globally if that is of interest to you

Type of consulting advice

We tried to add tags for the type of work that these organizations do with their clients across the sectors listed above. The categories aren’t perfect, but should give you a good initial sense of their work.

  • Strategy consulting - developing strategic plans, clarifying goals, or helping with key organizational decisions
  • Implementation and operations - running outsourced programs, facilitating change-management within an organization, or helping with tactical program support
  • IT consulting - bringing in, developing, or integrating new technological systems to improve the effectiveness of organizations
  • HR consulting - supporting the people operations and strategy of organizations, including outsourced support
  • Fundraising consulting - helping organizations to improve their fundraising strategy and execution, including outsourced support
  • Communications consulting - helping organizations to improve their communications, marketing, brand, and social media work, including outsourced support and strategy
  • Research and analysis - conducting evaluations of programs, developing custom reports, and using other data-based approaches to support the work of organizations
  • General consulting - this category is used for firms that (1) provide a wide range of services for specific types of clients, (2) are vague publicly about the specifics of their work, or (3) do some type of work that wasn’t common enough to create a whole new category for yet
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You can check out our directory of social impact consulting firms and sort them by type, along with several other criteria!

What are common pay and promotion timelines?

We generally categorize social impact consulting roles into five categories:

  • Internships. These can be for either undergrads or grad students and are typically paid. Pay ranges vary based on hours of work and experience, but likely fit between $2K-$10K for a summer or semester internship. These are very often a gateway into full-time work if there is mutual interest.
  • Entry-level roles. These are full-time roles for someone with 0-3 years of full-time work experience. Typical titles include associate, analyst, or consultant. These roles typically pay between $45,000 and $75,000, with the opportunity to advance into more responsibilities and a higher salary fairly quickly.
  • Mid-level roles. These are roles for someone between 2-8 years of experience. Typical titles include senior associate, consultant, and project manager. Generally, this work entails more client-facing work, but still a lot of individual research and development. It often includes coaching more junior staff and sometimes managing them. These roles may pay between $60,000 and $150,000 depending on the resources of the organization and your experience.
  • Senior-level roles. These are roles for someone with 8+ years of experience. Typical role titles include manager, principal, or partner. These are senior roles focused on managing teams and projects, along with client business development. Experience managing teams, existing relationships that might bring in work, and prior work in consulting are typical qualifications here. Salary will vary widely depending on the firm and how much business you bring in but may range from $120,000 to more than $300,000.
  • Contract work. These are time-delimited opportunities to help on a specific project. In general, firms bring on contractors when they need a specific skillset or surge capacity for a really busy period. The pay, experience, and timeframe vary quite widely. There is a whole industry of independent consultants that have their rates and many social impact firms will have a network of referrals to send on or contract with.

One huge upside of social impact consulting is that promotion pathways are generally more clear, accessible, and predictable than in other social impact spaces. Most firms are built on a pyramid model. That means that most cases have a partner that sells the work and manages the relationship with a client, a project manager that is in charge of driving forward the workplan and coordinating the team, and a group of analysts that do the core research, interviewing, and analysis that is needed.

If you start as an analyst or associate, you will get the chance to work with and learn from more senior team members. Because you will often shift from project to project, you might get the chance every few months to take on a new level of responsibility. Eventually, you can get promoted to a team leader or manager. In that role, you also get the chance to learn about building relationships with clients and selling work until you’ve built up enough of a track record to get promoted to a principal or partner role. The exact promotion timeline varies based on your rate of learning, norms within the organization, and whether they expect grad school as a prerequisite for promotion to certain positions. Increasingly, firms are not requiring graduate school and there are a number of instances of associates moving up to senior-level partners over time.

What about big consulting firms?

This guide covers firms that are primarily focused on social impact work. However, you may have heard of the huge corporate consulting firms like Deloitte or McKinsey that tout their social impact work. These corporations know that students are driven to make the world a better place, so they go out of their way to emphasize those mission-oriented opportunities. However, it is important to understand how and if you will actually have the chance to work on those projects. Second Day has talked to dozens of young professionals that felt misled by recruiters about the potential to do social impact work at big consulting firms. Many of these consultants found ways to volunteer outside of their normal corporate workload through programs like Inspire, or they got onto “real” pro bono/impact work after a few years at the organization. Because so many people want to make a positive influence on the world while also being paid well, placement on these projects is highly competitive. And at the same time, these teams rarely bring much revenue to the organization, so most firms limit how many impact-driven opportunities they take on per year. Finally, consultants that do get placed on impact-driven projects sometimes suffer lower pay and slower promotion timelines.

This doesn’t mean that going to work at a big consulting firm is always a bad option. Working at one of these firms for a few years can position you quite well to transition into a Social Impact Consulting firm or other types of impact work. Just make sure to go in with eyes wide open—knowing that (1) you likely won’t get to do much substantive impact work and (2) these firms do everything in their power to make it hard to leave. The big consulting firms have spent millions of dollars optimizing incentives so that path dependency kicks in—there is always a new promotion opportunity around the corner, an enticing salary, sponsored graduate school, or the fear of the unknown to keep you from leaving the firm. If you are committed to working for a big consulting firm and transitioning later, be sure to create a solid accountability plan and timeline before you get sucked into these incentives.

Final thoughts

Social impact consulting is an amazing chance to do well for yourself and do well for the world. While you will likely need to work hard, there are tremendous opportunities for building up skills and learning about a range of industries. If and when you want to pivot to something else, the relationships and skillset you’ve developed often allow for great exit opportunities. This field is relatively small and therefore many roles are quite competitive. However, with the right focus on developing relevant skills, navigating the application process, and identifying opportunities, it is definitely possible. Check out the other resources within the Social Impact Consulting Network to learn more!