Volunteer Consultants:

The Volunteer Consulting Organization (VCO) provides HBS students with the opportunity to apply the skills they learn in the classroom to help non-profit organizations in the area. Last year, over 140 students teamed up to work with 35 organizations throughout the spring semester and similar numbers are expected this year.

Last December, the VCO hosted a member mixer, which gave interested students the chance to meet potential team-mates. A Client Fair was also held. The Client Fair brought representatives from potential client organizations to Spangler, where student teams could shop around for projects that interested them. Following an application process that required personal statements, as well as initial action-plans, teams were selected and announced in late December and early January.

Over the next few weeks, VCO teams will participate in a variety of training programs to help them hone their consulting skills and learn about the intricacies of working with non-profit organizations.

For instance, last Monday, Paul Rosenberg from Bain & Co. led a workshop entitled: “Structuring a Non-Profit Consulting Project”. The presentation introduced the “Answer-First” framework that Bain consultants use when analyzing problems for their clients. VCO members were given general examples of this methodology, and were then given worksheets to use for structuring their own clients’ problems around this framework. Mr. Rosenberg then also drew from his extensive experience working with non-profits to give VCO members suggestions on how to best approach these unique projects. Non-profits usually have many talented, committed employees, but sometimes don’t know what their goals are, said Mr. Rosenberg, adding that they might “not be clear on the best metrics to measure” the outcome of their projects.

Mr. Rosenberg encouraged students to apply the same analytical rigor to VCO projects that they would to any business situation, but urged them to be sensitive to the fact that non-profit organizations may not have the same well-defined measures of success. He recommended that students listen very carefully to various members of the organization in order to distill the key issues the non-profit is dealing with, and avoid using “the language of business”, such as talking too much about “the bottom line”, which may not resonate with non-profit employees. Mr. Rosenberg also advised teams to go for “quick victories” throughout the process to build support for their efforts within the organization.

Some VCO participants have real-life experience putting this framework into action. John Knoch (NE) used to work for the Bridgespan Group, a Bain spin-off that focuses on non-profits. Working for Bridgespan showed Knoch the “incredible impact that business thinking can bring to improving a non-profit’s service to its constituents.” When asked why he thought that HBS students should work on a VCO project, he replied that, in addition to helping the community, “the ability to communicate complex business ideas to people that aren’t from HBS is a powerful skill, and working on a VCO project gives HBS students the chance to develop that skill.”

Knoch is also leading a VCO team from Section E that will be working with an organization called the “United Leaders Institute”. United Leaders is a non-partisan organization dedicated to recruiting and training the next generation of America’s political leaders. Noting that there are currently record-high numbers of youth involved in community service, but a record-low level of young people involved with or entering politics, United Leaders seeks to inspire young people to move between the “soup kitchen and the Senate”. The organization is currently receiving grant money and donations, but would like to identify and develop revenue sources to make
them more self-sufficient.

Last week, the VCO team met with Jesse Levy, the CEO and founder of United Leaders, to discuss the organization’s history, mission, and financial status. “It was a chance for us to get to know each other and to think about how we can bring our business skills to help them meet their organizational goals,” said team member Kian Gohar (NE), “Specifically, we’ll be helping them revisit their business model and see if it can be replicated across the country.” The project will allow Gohar to combine his HBS skills with his passion for politics: “I believe in their mission, and want
to help them out with promoting it.”

Though the projects may seem daunting at first, many of last year’s teams found the VCO experience to be invaluable. Last year, Sylvie Tran (OJ) and her team worked with a grassroots organization called Out of the Blue Art Gallery to help it organize and optimize its operations. “This was a great opportunity for us to leave our HBS bubble and understand how different people view and execute business ideas. Learning how to influence and communicate with the arts community was a rewarding experience,” said Tran.

The team tried to help Out of the Blue form partnerships that would simultaneously help them attain financial sustainability while also staying true to their mission. Team members cited that working on the project taught them the importance of getting to know a client well, setting very specific and realistic expectations up front, and developing simple and executable plans. These are all useful skills for any businessperson to know – and fortunately, the VCO gives HBS students the chance to develop these skills while making positive contributions to the community.