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Gaining Experience through a Social Enterprise Summer

So maybe I shouldn’t have acted so excited when BCG called to ask me if I could defer my start date until October, but I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend a summer working for a nonprofit before starting my full time job. While I had always felt that I’d eventually end up working in the nonprofit world, I had that nagging problem of a complete lack of experience in the field. Though I’ve tried to be an active volunteer in various nonprofits throughout my professional and academic career, I’d never been involved from the management perspective. So I saw the HBS Summer Fellowship as a perfect chance to gain experience and to test my interest in full-time work in the nonprofit sector.
Despite my enthusiasm, I had expected potential nonprofit employers to be skittish about hiring a graduating student with a private-sector job commitment. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find a warm reception throughout the interview process. Most of the nonprofit managers I talked with had transitioned from the private sector, and I accepted a job from one of these: Kristin Majeska, a Stanford MBA and former consultant who had founded a venture philanthropy fund in Waterville, Maine. Her organization, Common Good: Investments in Nonprofit Solutions, provides both capital and business assistance to nonprofit partners located in Maine. In particular, Common Good works with nonprofits aiming to become largely or fully financially self-sustaining through revenue-generating activities.

Faithworks, the partner organization I was assigned to work with, is located in Lewiston, Maine, and employs workers from two of the most educationally and economically disadvantaged census tracts in the state. Faithworks provides employment opportunities to those typically considered “unemployable” because of health or childcare issues, substance abuse problems, poor employment history, etc. Employees perform hand-labor intensive projects on a piecework basis, such as preparing mailings or assembling materials, for companies without adequate personnel resources to do this type of work.

Because of the flexibility of the piece-rate system, workers are allowed to come and go as they please, leaving them time to address their other needs. The leadership at Faithworks sees the organization as the last refuge of those who might not otherwise find employment, so any and all are welcome. Some social programs (education, Individual Development Accounts, housing development programs) are being developed and/or expanded, but at its core, especially during its present period of high growth, the business is the social mission.

Before I arrived in Maine, Kristin and I had discussed broadly my assignment at Faithworks. As a rapidly growing organization, Faithworks had recognized the need to formalize and transform some of their informal, ad hoc systems. Specifically, I would be helping Faithworks to understand the costs of the services they provide, and the pricing implications of these costs. They had been using an unsophisticated costing/pricing system that had been moderately successful, but increased growth demanded a better understanding of their drivers of profitability. Furthermore, most of their core customers were printing and direct mail companies, that tended to have highly seasonal projects for Faithworks, primarily centered around holiday promotional items. We hoped that a better understanding of costs and profitability would permit rational off-season pricing and reveal competence in certain processes that could be marketed to a more diverse client base.

So armed with a semester of FRC and another of Measuring and Driving Corporate Performance (MDCP), I went to work on the new costing model. I spent the bulk of my summer developing and refining this model, but I certainly didn’t spend all my time typing equations into cell AQ513. Bill Baxter, board chairman and founder of Faithworks, Paul Rubin, the Executive Director, and Jason LaPlante, the Associate Director, were extremely accessible and encouraged me to take an active role in as many areas as I wished. In addition to work on my projects, I was able to participate in piecework on the shop floor, accompany Paul and Jason on sales calls to clients, and travel with Bill and Jason to Washington, DC to talk to political and church leaders about the possibility of replicating Faithworks’s model in DC.

With input from Kristin and from V.G. Narayanan, my MDCP professor, the Faithworks team and I were able to create a model that will allow the organization to better understand costs so they can perform job quotes that accurately reflect associated costs, influence customers to act in profitable ways, and offset seasonality by allowing pricing flexibility. While there is still work to be done, I feel like we took an important first step.

I suppose it will be a continuing frustration as a consultant to have limited involvement in the long-term implementation of recommendations, but the management and board at Faithworks certainly made me feel like part of the team rather than an outside advisor. I not only learned a great deal, but I also had a great time doing it. My summer experience was uniformly positive, and I would advise anyone looking for a meaningful nonprofit internship to consider Common Good and/or Faithworks. As for me, I feel that my ultimate migration to the nonprofit world has been radically shifted forward, an outcome that speaks volumes about the quality of my experience with Common Good and Faithworks.

Since 1982 the HBS Nonprofit and Public Management Summer Fellowship has provided financial support to current MBA students who choose to work in nonprofit and public sector organizations during the summer. Over the life of the program, over 350 students have participated in the program, with a record 48 students for summer 2001.

Sponsored by the HBS Initiative on Social Enterprise and the Social Enterprise Club, the Fellowship is funded by the School and alumni donors. The program has three principal goals:
 To enable students to take jobs in nonprofit and public enterprises where their HBS training will provide significant benefits to the organization and the community it serves;
 To expose students to the rewards and challenges of public and nonprofit management;
 To enrich the HBS community and the quality of the MBA education by increasing the number of students with experience in the nonprofit and public sectors.

For more information, contact Margot Dushin, HBS Initiative on Social Enterprise, [email protected], and seeSocial EnterpriseLeaders who make a difference in the world

December 10, 2001
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