Do I like consulting? I’m not sure.

[a personal reflection]

7 min readAug 22, 2023

I’ve been working as a consultant for a little more than 2 years now, after working a regular 9–5 job for decades. It’s a big change and people ask me how I like it. The answer is: I’m not sure.

I left Oxfam in 2020 without a plan, just needing a change and a break. It was the middle of the pandemic and a good time to be out of the labor market. I got to hang around at home while my kids were on zoom school. It was great, actually.

Eventually, I started thinking about work and began looking for a job; applying, interviewing, etc. But, my heart wasn’t in it for a variety of reasons.

I was playing with an AI image generator to create a logo for my consultancy: Double Dogwood LLC. What do you think?

Instead, I started taking consulting work. There wasn’t a strategy or theory behind it. Almost all of the consulting I’ve done is through word-of-mouth or pre-existing relationships. Most of it has been small projects doing work that is pretty close to what I had been doing at Oxfam: policy analysis, research, advocacy strategy. The content of the work has mostly where I established knowledge and networks: international food security and agriculture, climate change, international development finance, and a bit of gender.

The novelty of consulting has been fun. I’ve enjoyed working with new people and organizations, different approaches to familiar issues, and working as an accessory rather than a principal. I had long wondered what it would be like to be a consultants and now I know. The idea of working independently was intriguing. Being a small business is kind of cool, although actually the taxes and administrative elements are super annoying, not intuitive, and have tripped me up. Many of the things I was worried about are no big deal.

But some things I thought I would like, I don’t.

The good

Thus far, it’s not very stressful. This is probably because I’ve been lucky. It’s been pretty easy to find work so far. My clients have been easy going — often friends or or friendly colleagues. Sometimes I have deadlines and I work hard to meet them. But, on the whole, it’s just not that hard.

It’s flexible, just like they say. I can figure out what I need to do and work out my own schedule. I keep the 3pm hour free so I can pick up my kids — because it’s fun. They don’t need me; they could easily yfind their way home, but I like meeting them and chatting with them each day.

The mechanics have been pretty easy so far. I haven’t had to haggle about payment, invoices, rates, etc. There’s a bit of paperwork and each contract means working things out with a different cast of characters. But, nothing very bothersome.

I like getting a taste for different organizations, perspectives, situations. The diversity of work and clients adds interest.

I have time and flexibility for other things. I exercise during the day — take bike rides and runs and swims. I ran for elected office, won, and have been serving as a neighborhood commissioner.

What do you think of this one?

The bad:

Consulting is surprisingly lonely. I think everyone got a taste of this during the pandemic, working from home. You just feel a bit isolated and disconnected, no matter how many zooms you’re on. But, as offices start reconvening, and meetings are increasingly in person, we consultants are still out here, on our own.

I miss the collegiality and sociability of being in an office. I miss the incidental contact and small talk. I miss going to meetings and seeing people that you wouldn’t normally connect with.

I miss gossip. I’ve been thinking a lot about gossip and have more to say on that topic. More generally, being inside an organization means you get a lot of ambient information, just as a matter of course. You’re cc’ed on things and you hear about them in staff meeting, or read them in updates. Being a consultant means you have to be much more conscious and deliberate about your information diet.

I miss the leverage you get within organizations. As much as you might hate bureaucracy and red-tape, organizations offer resources and leverage. If you can get alignment and build internal coalitions, you can do big things; much bigger than what you can do by yourself. Organizations also have expertise and capacity. You can get help, advice, support.

For the most part, consultants are “advisory” rather than decision-making. What we produce is often ignored or wasted. Our best work is stolen and sometimes uncredited by clients. That’s the job actually; do good work and someone else gets to take it and run. Decisions get made, campaigns are launched, big things happen and you might not even know about it. I’m not used to that experience. I’m trying to get used to it, but I’m not positive my ego can handle it.

I’m not making enough money. Paying for my family’s health insurance is a big budget shock. Tax time is brutal, especially if you (me) haven’t planned well. As an independent operator, you can make a decent living. But carrying a family on that income is tough. I think my consulting rates are at the higher end in my somewhat specialized field of work. But I think consulting rates in my field are pretty low overall. So, this problem is structural, it’s not just that I’m bad at consulting or negotiating. If I want to continue consulting, I’ll need a strategy to make more money. That probably means a) getting bigger and thereby securing bigger contracts. b) switching fields to consulting work that pays better. If you’re in consulting or considering it, I’m happy to discuss this in more detail. I value transparency and honesty, so don’t want to hide stuff, but I also don’t want to put it all out here on a stupid blog.

Sometimes, I don’t feel the passion. In my career, I’ve always been mission-driven and worked for mission-driven organizations. As a consultant, I still get to work on important and interested stuff. I’ve turned down work because I didn’t like it or didn’t care about it. But I don’t always feel passionate about the work I’m doing. And there are issues and concerns that do feel passionately that I don’t get to work on as a consultant. I realize this sound pretty privileged and picky. The vast majority of humanity doesn’t get to feel passion about their work, they have jobs and livelihoods and that’s good enough. But, as long as I’m complaining… I’m going to complain. Maybe that’s my challenge as a consultant: find paying work in areas that I feel more passionate about.

What about this one?

Some details:

Just for interest, here’s some more information about my consulting:

In 2 years, I have had 11 clients and 15 projects. Most of these were pretty small, like 10 or 20 days work, sometimes less. The clients are a mix of international NGOs, environmental groups, and a couple philanthropies.

I created an LLC and do my work and to invoice through that legal entity. Beyond making my taxes more complex, I haven’t really see any advantage in having done this. There are some legal/liability benefits, I’m told, but they don’t really seem significant in the kind of work that I do and probably not worth the hassle involved. On the other hand, creating an LLC is pretty easy and cheap. The only useful thing has been creating a separate bank account for work so I can keep track of business-related expenses and income easier.

I thought about creating a website and a brand and all that. The images here were ideas for logos for my consulting business: Double Dogwood, named for the trees in my backyard. But, so far, doing that has not seemed worthwhile. My consulting, thus far is very specific to my personal knowledge and skills and making a brand or other entity doesn’t add anything or build the business. Several people have advised me that you need a website, if only as a kind of calling card or place for a google search to land. I say… maybe. But why is that better or an improvement over just having a LinkedIn page?

Business feels good. Through the pandemic, it felt like there was a big need for consulting — a flexible workforce to pick up projects that were new or responsive to emerging issues. There was a much-discussed “great resignation” which meant there was a lot of staff turnover and vacancies. And there was a lot of money sloshing around for various reasons. Things may be getting a bit tighter now as vacancies are filled, organizations adjust, and all the money sloshing around gets spent down.





I'm a human person, working in policy & advocacy in international development, gender rights, economic justice.