Posted by: Nathaniel | July 7, 2008

Question of the week: how can nonprofits maximize their use of consultants and skilled volunteers?

In the Spring issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, James. W Shepard, Jr. of the Taproot Foundation wrote a great piece called “MBAs Gone Wild: Nonprofits must rein in pro bono MBAs.” He writes:

like the proverbial bull in a china shop, MBAs like me can, without appropriate understanding of nonprofits, actually wreak havoc when let loose in the often alien world of nonprofit strategic planning. Here’s how it usually works:

Step 1: MBAs arrive at the nonprofit with great fanfare (preferably to the musical accompaniment of Celine Dion’s “I’m Your Angel”).

Step 2: We offer advice and recommendations (based largely on forprofit business models that may or may not work in a nonprofit setting).

Step 3: We accept warm thanks for our work (and hear a host of reasons why our proposals won’t fly).

Step 4: We return to our comfortable for-profit worlds not knowing whether our work will have any real impact; still, we feel warm and tingly about having made a contribution to the greater good.

His point is that there is incredible potential for MBAs (and other skilled consultants and volunteers) to add value to and support the work of nonprofit organizations, but there are areas in which external advice might be incorrectly at odds with the nonprofit staff.

Some of his major points:

  • Nonprofits should retain the integrity of their stakeholder engagement. While it may seem ‘inefficient’ to consult staff, beneficiaries, and supporters in the decision-making process, this engagement is integral to the long-term support and success of most organizations.
  • He notes that with little time to build trust between nonprofit staff and external consultants, there is a tendency for the staff to praise the advice and ideas of the consultants, but in the absence of trust, even good recommendations aren’t implemented. Indeed, the value proposition for nonprofits may be to generate future financial support from the consultants.
  • He thinks the best projects for pro bono MBAs and other skilled consultants include: “collecting and analyzing external data, such as issues the nonprofit will confront in the next three years; analyzing options for the organization itself to consider and debate; benchmarking against great nonprofit and for-profit organizations, particularly those willing to share critical best practices; and creating summary reports that enable the nonprofit’s leaders and board to track implementation successes easily and sustainably.”

I like the article because I think it adds a deeper dimension to the sector blending discourse that’s an increasingly important part of creating social benefit. My sense is that we need a broader conversation about where and how nonprofits differ from for-profit entitites. The need for stakeholder engagement in ultimate decision-making that Shepard discusses, for example. When nonprofits are confident about what they do differently, and what they do well, they are much better able to work with external supporters to address other issues.

One organization to check out as you read about this is campusCatalyst, another innovative organization coming out of Northwestern University. cC puts undergrads through a course where they learn about nonprofit consulting, and work in teams to support local nonprofits.

I’m wondering how other people have experienced these questions? For readers out there who are nonprofit leaders, how have you maximized the expertise of skilled volunteers, MBAs, and other professional supporters? For consultants, what seem to be the most succesful interventions?

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