Diary of an Intern: Recap of Week 3

I just finished up my third week at work and in many ways I feel like I'm just hitting my stride. One of the big things I worked on this week was solidifying what my summer projects will be. When I started at ABC it seemed like I had an endless amount of time to collect a bunch of different projects, but in reality I'm only going to be there for 10 or 11 weeks. So one of the first things I worked on this week was really narrowing my focus and making sure that the projects I've taken on can actually be accomplished.

I spent a lot of time this week focusing on two areas specifically:

1) Preparing the communication materials to roll-out the company's corporate giving platform to the leadership of ABC's satellite locations. This meant that for much of the week, I put my MBA powerpoint skills to the test by creating process flow diagrams and using lots of smart art (my classmates would be so proud).

There are a couple of important points that this communication plan needs to convey. First, we need to educate the leadership at these locations about the types of organizations that, as a unified network, ABC will give money and product to--and more importantly, why. The corporate giving committee at the company has worked hard to establish a focus and purpose for its giving, and now it's time to make sure that everyone not only understands the reasons behind these choices but also follows them. Second, we're trying to explain the various ways that these locations can actually support causes in their communities, especially through product donations. Product can be donated locally by that specific ABC location or by an individual employee working at that location, and the guidelines around the types of organizations that can receive product from the company versus an employee are slightly different. So, outlining that process and making sure the location leadership understands how this works is crucial. Interestingly, since this information is coming from corporate, we're also trying to be sensitive to the fact that these locations were presumably managing all of this before these formal guidelines were established. The tone of the communication pieces, therefore, has to be focused on raising awareness and educating location leadership on our new giving platform, without sounding like we're trying to do their jobs for them.

2) The other project I focused on this week is our employee volunteer program expansion. Right now ABC partners with two local organizations, The Greater Boston Food Bank and The Plymouth Area Coalition for the Homeless, to provide regularly scheduled employee volunteering options. While these are certainly worthy service opportunities, one of my projects is to grow our volunteer program to enable individual employees and department teams to nominate their own volunteering ideas. Although this does include building the system (presumably on the company intranet) that would allow employees to easily suggest their volunteering ideas, a big issue here is that not all employees actually know that they are eligible to participate in the program. So my work here goes beyond setting up the intranet "architecture" and once again moves into communication and education (a theme that actually runs through all of my summer projects at ABC).

One volunteer opportunity that I'm especially excited about is a potential collaboration with another local company to send employees from both companies to work with Outdoor Explorations, an organization that "makes the outdoors a welcoming place for people with disabilities." It's a very worthwhile cause and I think ABC employees would really enjoy a day of working with these folks. I'll keep you updated as the volunteer day takes shape.

In addition to working on these two main projects, this week I also attended a local United Way annual meeting and awards luncheon. For the second year in a row, ABC was honored by this United Way chapter for its financial support (including its annual employee giving campaign), volunteerism, and community committment. It was really exciting to attend this event and to see ABC recognized for its dedication to the communities in which it works.

Finally, ABC runs a fairly well-developed intern program during the summer boasting a number of speakers from different functional areas in the company. Since all of the summer interns are now on board, this programming has begun. I had two events this week: the first was a sensory training (learning all about how people use their senses (taste, smell, etc) when consuming our products), and the second was a tour of a local plant to see one of our products being made. The sensory training was interesting, but the tour was outstanding. My fellow interns and I donned our protective hair nets, hard hats, safety goggles, and white smocks (picture coming soon!) and got an insider's look at how ABC makes one of its best selling items. I don't know if anyone watches that show, How It's Made, but I swear it was just like our own personal episode!

All in all it was a really fun week and I'm excited about the progress I've made.

A Nonprofit Gal Goes Corporate

For as long as I can remember, I have always felt a connection with the nonprofit sector. Maybe it’s because I grew up doing community service and working with local charities, or maybe it’s just that my heart and my spirit have always needed to engage in projects that had a positive impact on others. Whatever the reason, I have always gravitated toward work with a social mission. So it was a no brainer that when I graduated from college, I joined the ranks of nonprofit employees across the country and got to work.  The first time I dipped my toes into the corporate water was when I applied to business school. After five years of fundraising for Bay Area nonprofits, I felt deeply rooted in the nonprofit community. I understood how to exist and thrive in that realm, how to partner with donors and other organizations to truly effect change. In short, they were my people, and I was theirs.

Yet, no matter how attached or connected I felt in the safe nonprofit space I had created, I knew there was something missing. Some people say that nonprofits don’t focus on the cold, hard impact numbers. Others say nonprofits suffer from a crisis of management and leadership experience. And others actually say both are true. For me, no matter how aligned my personal beliefs were with the nonprofit sector and the good work it does, I felt as though I could do more and do better by understanding how “the other half” lived. Which is how I found my way to the Boston University Graduate School of Management.

The BU GSM (as we call it) has been a great place to land for a nonprofiteer in the midst of a bit of an identity crisis (check out BU’s Public and Nonprofit Management Program for more info). I came to BU armed with my fundraising experience and a keen understanding of how the nonprofit sector operated. Yet I also arrived with a true curiosity about how business—with its access to financial, technological, and staff resources that often far exceed those in the nonprofit world—might tackle some of the global, social issues that I care about. Thus I began my first year of business school.

The past 9 months have been a time of intense questioning and driven exploration for me. I have started getting better at seeing problems through the lens of business, and my solutions these days often involve a deeper consideration of revenue streams, operating costs, and shareholder concerns. Yet what’s interesting is that when you think about it, these three issues, while packaged in business language, are actually also necessary priorities in any nonprofit organization. More organizations these days are looking for ways to become self-sustaining through revenue, especially in this economic climate. Maintaining low operating costs is also a huge issue in the sector when so many funders only want to support programmatic expenses. And shareholders in the nonprofit world are simply donors who believe in your mission enough to invest in the work that you do. If there's any development director out there who’s not concerned about keeping her donors happy, I’d like to know what her secret is.

In short, while there may be some very fundamental differences between businesses and nonprofit organizations (which I’m sure will become its own post at some point!), I do believe there are a lot of similarities. And, with a year of business school under my belt, I’m pleased to say that I will soon have the opportunity to become a bit of an expert on this topic.

Starting next week, I’ll be interning at an international consumer products company in Massachusetts (for confidentiality’s sake, I’ll be calling this company ABC throughout my blog). As one of their first-ever corporate philanthropy interns, I will be responsible for solidifying and growing ABC’s corporate giving efforts, which include cash and product donations, as well as employee volunteer hours. It’s a very big job that I’m very excited to start—and I’ll be bringing The Changebase readers along with me throughout the summer.

When I look back at where my journey started in fundraising, and the path I have taken through my first year at BU, I laugh a little bit when I think about my summer plans. Before business school I would have never expected to work anywhere but a nonprofit, and yet I am thrilled to have the chance to understand philanthropy through the eyes of a for-profit corporation. While I’m sure that there will be an inherent, steep learning curve, my hunch is that perhaps it won’t look that different from what I’ve known so far in my career. After all, ABC wants happy, healthy and satisfied customers, which is what every nonprofit wants for its community. At the end of the day, we both want the same thing—we just get there differently. Here’s to seeing how the other half lives!


The Language of Nonprofits

Last night I attended a joint Net Impact Boston/Young Nonprofit Professionals Network event called "The Role of Philanthropy in Solving Social Issues." It featured Phil Buchanan, CEO of the Center for Effective Philanthropy in Boston. While the talk was promoted as being about philanthropy, Mr. Buchanan spent most of his time actually speaking about the "distinct value" and purpose of nonprofits and foundations as separate from their for-profit counterparts. In fact, much of Mr. Buchanan's talk was centered on a discussion of why nonprofits and businesses cannot and should not mix.

One major point of contention for Mr. Buchanan was the idea that all we need to do is take the best practices from the business world, apply them to the nonprofit sector, and instantly nonprofits will be more effective.  This was interesting to me because, while perhaps a bit oversimplified, this explanation is actually the reasoning I used to get into business school, and I think many of my classmates would agree with me. I've worked in nonprofits where the organizations' leaders had no idea how to manage the financials, or had no leadership and management training--and the organizations suffered for it. So why wouldn't I want to go get my MBA, learn how they do it in the business world, and then bring those ideas back to my nonprofit?

Interestingly, Mr. Buchanan said that while nonprofits can and must always find new ways to be effective, "business doesn't have a monopoly on effectiveness." And in fact, to assume that business principles automatically apply to nonprofit scenarios is to deny that the economics of each organization are actually different. For-profit entities have one basic performance measure; no matter what a business sells or what industry it's in, that company can be compared to other businesses using one common language: Profit. A company, no matter how ethical or charitable it might be, would never consistently charge less than what it costs to provide a service or product. And yet, this is what nonprofits do every day.

Mr. Buchanan went on to say that thinking we can have one common metric for performance in nonprofits is foolish: even if we could show that "my donation planted these trees," it's impossible to compare across different projects. Because of this, we cannot assume that taking the language of business (ie: profit) and transposing it onto a nonprofit organization will work. This was one of the big themes of the night: Nonprofits and foundations must resist the temptation to use business jargon when evaluating and implementing their programs, and instead develop their own language (a big example given was the term "Venture Philanthropy," which Mr. Buchanan said was basically a poorly-used business analogy to venture capital that made no sense).

This led into the second big theme of the night: nonprofits have a distinct purpose (separate from business and government) and it needs to stay that way. Mr. Buchanan likened nonprofits to your friendly uncle at the business dinner table who leans over and tells you, "you've had one too many drinks tonight." Nonprofits, he said, often do things that governments and businesses can't or won't do, and for that reason they need to operate differently. Sure, nonprofits should be impact-driven and they should be effective, but they need to develop their own way of getting there. And impact, he said, is not just a business term--it's about getting results, and that's something that everyone wants.

While there were many points throughout the night that I agreed with, by this stage in the talk, I got the feeling that things were taking an unexpected "us against them" turn. Yes, I can see that nonprofits are unique entities and shouldn't just replicate the business world--but should we really keep our nonprofits so separate from business and government that they don't interact? With so much talk these days about partnerships and exchange between nonprofits and for-profits, it was surprising to hear someone so clearly advocating such a distinct divide.

All this talk of nonprofits versus for-profits really hit home for me because this month I start work as a corporate philanthropy intern for a major beverage company. Given what he has said about the distinct purpose of nonprofits (and the fact that business should essentially stay out of the way), I wondered what Mr. Buchanan thought about corporate philanthropy? In general, he said he's found corporate philanthropy to not be very effective. While some companies appear to be doing real work in this area (he mentioned Levi Strauss as an example), most are not. In fact, Mr. Buchanan said that overall he believes corporate philanthropy is not philanthropy--that it's more about a strategic alignment of a brand and a cause than doing real work. He said it's "healthier" to have boundaries around nonprofits, business and governments, and that in fact there is something "scary" about companies being able to define what social causes are important.

My follow-up question to him (which I was unfortunately unable to ask at the time) is: what's so wrong about a strategic alignment of brand and cause? Just because a company is blurring the boundary between itself and nonprofits doesn't mean it's not doing good things. If WalMart wants to deliver low-cost organic produce to the masses, for example, should we say no just because this initiative is coming from a big box store? Sure, not all corporate philanthropy efforts are as effective as they could be, but neither are a lot of nonprofits. It just doesn't seem ok to dismiss for-profit community efforts just because that support isn't coming from the nonprofit sector.

In the end, it was a thought-provoking evening and Mr. Buchanan was an incredibly engaging speaker. He raised some very important questions, and he got me (and the rest of the attendees) thinking, which is always exciting. But now I'm curious: what do you think about the type of relationship that should exist between nonprofits and business? Should we have a clear division, or are partnerships the way to go? I'd love to know your thoughts.

Some additional points and resources that Mr. Buchanan raised in his talk:

  • Concern about nonprofit impact metrics: Mr. Buchanan said that finding a common language to discuss impact was a huge challenge, with no right answer. He mentioned the Center for What Works, New Philanthropy Capital, and Root Cause as three organizations engaged in conversation around this issue.
  • Nonprofit mergers and joint ventures: As you know from a recent post of mine, the topic of mergers in the nonprofit sector is a popular one. Mr. Buchanan addressed this issue by suggesting that all nonprofits ask themselves, "How can we create the most impact?". If that means a merger, that's what an organization should do. However, he cautioned that collaboration is simply a means to an end (and the not the end itself), and that nonprofits should not collaborate just for the sake of collaboration.

The World is a Mess

There's an incredible video making its way around the internet called "The Girl Effect," and it starts with this statement: The World is a Mess. I've watched this short clip a bunch of times, and it never fails to give me chills. Check it out here:

Pretty powerful, isn't it?

As the video closes, a sentence comes up on the screen: "Invest in a girl and she will do the rest". This got me thinking: who out there is really investing in girls?

The good news is that a lot of organizations are. The Girl Effect is, in fact, a collaborative effort between the Nike Foundation, the Novo Foundation, and a handful of other international organizations. Beyond just this project, there are many other well-known NGOs also working to promote education and economic empowerment for women and girls around the world, including Room to Read and Heifer International (both of which have terrific girls' education and gender equity projects). Of those with a U.S. focus, two of my favorites are Girls on the Run and Girls Inc (more along the lines of girl empowerment and confidence building). In the end, it seems that a whole host of domestic and international organizations understand the value of putting girls first.

But this good news is, in my opinion, also the bad news. A quick search on Guidestar for nonprofits with the word "girl" in their title produced a list of 20,177 results. Ok, so I recognize that this isn't the most scientific of all surveys, but it raises a crucial question: At what point are there just too many nonprofits out there doing the same thing? Yes, in theory lots of organizations should mean more resources, more innovation, more impact--but does it? Or does this huge contingent of girls' organizations (or any kind of cause for that matter) simply dilute everyone's collective efforts? The nonprofit community seems divided on this one. While some folks clearly think that this redundancy concern is a non-issue, the topic of nonprofit mergers is increasingly on the front burner. Interestingly, a February 2009 Bridgespan Report stated that mergers should not just be a tool for nonprofits in tough times:

...nonprofit mergers often come about through default—due to financial distress or leadership vacuums. At the same time, relatively few nonprofits are using M&A strategically, as a way to strengthen organizations' effectiveness, spread best practices, expand reach, and to do all of this more cost-effectively. Yet the potential for M&A to create real value in the nonprofit sector exists, particularly if more philanthropists take on the mantle of matchmaker and help nonprofits explore and evaluate M&A opportunities.

To me, the idea of nonprofit mergers seems obvious: given the increasingly competitive fight for fundraising dollars, it makes sense that we'd be entering our own form of nonprofit natural selection, truly a "survival of the fittest." But therein lies the rub, as they say: how can organizations--already strapped for financial and staff resources--ensure that they have the skills and strategy in place to guarantee that these mergers are not doomed to fail from the outset? Looking back five years or ten years from now, what will we say made the difference between mergers that worked and those that didn't? 

And here's where you come in: what do you think about the issue of "too many" nonprofits? Are mergers the way to go? Do you have other examples of two organizations becoming one--and it being a success? I'd love to hear what you think.

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