An Internship in Venture Philanthropy

During my first year I got involved with the Volunteer Consulting Organization – something I highly recommend to anyone interested in nonprofit, consulting, or just a good team-based experience (shameless plug #1). The satisfaction I derived from that experience was different than in for-profit consulting. Nonprofits are almost always resource-constrained – therefore, the areas that they are working on are, by definition, critical.

Despite the red-hot job market (not), I decided to use the summer as an opportunity to try something different from the consulting that had been the mainstay of my professional career. I found a surprising quantity of nonprofit and social sector jobs in the job bank, ranging from consulting to the nonprofit community, to working for area nonprofits, to venture philanthropy. The concept of venture philanthropy intrigued me (okay, I admit it – I initially confused it for VC and got excited…). Venture philanthropy differs from traditional philanthropic giving in a few important ways – there is more of an emphasis on measurement of results, there is a longer-term commitment of support, and there is a deeper involvement in the operations of the nonprofit.

The other key ingredient was the HBS Nonprofit and Public Management Summer Fellowship Program. This outstanding program (shameless plug #2) supplemented my salary, allowing me to work in nonprofit without having to make an extra visit to the nice people at CitiAssist. The program has also provided a community of other people on campus who are interested in social enterprise.

I accepted a job with Common Good, a venture philanthropy fund run out of Waterville, ME. The focus of Common Good is on helping mission-based businesses become more financially self-sufficient through improving their business operations. My office was Portland, ME – a beautiful working New England city (shameless plug #3). The most difficult part of the summer was finding a place to live – there is not much in the way of short-term furnished housing in Portland.

I was assigned to work with two of Common Good’s clients. I had a lot of discretion in creating the experience I wanted – there were plenty of high-impact issues to work on, leaving me to choose those that were the most personally interesting. My goals for the summer included working on marketing issues, and staying near Boston. Therefore, I worked with two of Common Good’s partners in Portland, ME – The Stone Soup Caf‚ and East End Kids Katering. Stone Soup is a soup and sandwich caf‚ with the mission of providing homeless teens and adults with culinary arts job skills. East End Kids Katering has a commercial catering operation that supports a program to deliver delicious high-nutrition meals to schoolchildren around Portland.

After meeting with the boards of the two organizations, I mapped out a game plan for the summer – helping Stone Soup to launch a business catering product, and helping East End Katering think through various revenue enhancement opportunities.

The work itself was almost completely self-paced. I talked and/or met with Kristin, my boss at Common Good, a few times a week. I also met with my clients (the nonprofit organizations) every week. Other than that, however, I did a lot of work on my own – driving around the Portland area to understand the market; interviewing potential customers to validate concepts; and putting together a marketing plan to take Stone Soup through their first year with the new product.

By the end of the summer I had helped Stone Soup through the successful launch of their new product, and East End to improve the profitability of their customer base. When I compare it to any 10 weeks I spent consulting in the for profit world, the differences are stark. For example, over the summer I was able to start the project, come up with new ideas, implement them, and see the results. Also, the satisfaction from knowing that Stone Soup has a successful new product that will allow them to continue to complete their mission, or that East End is a step closer to being financially self-sufficient, is immeasurable.

Perhaps more importantly, I learned that there are tremendous opportunities to apply the skills I learned here at HBS to the world of social enterprise. While I don’t expect that nonprofit work will be a full-time commitment for me for a long time to come, I am convinced that there will still be opportunities for me to have a major positive impact on my community, through applying my business skills.

For anyone thinking of spending their summer in the nonprofit world, either as a step towards a career in nonprofit, or even as a chance to do something different, I highly recommend it. Although I did not achieve my goal of saving the world in one summer, I had a great experience.

December 3, 2001
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