01 Mar 2013

Bringing It Back Home

Nonprofit leaders and HBS faculty alike benefit from the virtuous circle that is the Strategic Perspectives program.
by Constantine von Hoffman


Since the Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management (SPNM) program was launched at HBS 17 years ago, it has provided nonprofits with something they need but can rarely afford: executive training.

SPNM, which is offered through the School's Executive Education program in conjunction with the Social Enterprise Initiative, gives nonprofit leaders the tools to look at their operations from a strategic level. The giving goes both ways, however. The faculty—including Alnoor Ebraham, Allen Grossman, Janice Hammond, Warren McFarlan, Kash Rangan, Howard Stevenson, and others—all say the participants inspire them. That inspiration ranges from sharing the passion of people dedicated to improving their communities to learning real-world problems that help with their research and case writing.

Each summer SPNM brings together some 150 leaders of nonprofits from around the globe for a weeklong intensive education in building strategic perspectives. And intensive it is: Participants address everything from establishing methods of fiscal accountability to assessing organizational performance to mobilizing resources for change.

"We had 18 cases and usually covered 3 a day in class," recalls Gary Millspaugh, former executive director of the Allentown (PA) Rescue Mission. Because the program involves much more than case studies, many participants do a lot of work beforehand to gain the most from their SPNM experience.

"Several weeks before the program started I printed out all the case studies," says David Jernigan, executive director of KIPP Metro Atlanta, a charter school network. "I decided to do all the work before I arrived so I could spend my time really digging in and networking."

While there is a heavy workload, getting others' perspectives on their organizations and the challenges they face is an essential part of the experience. And the range of perspectives is amazing. The geographic diversity of the participants is matched and possibly exceeded by the diversity of the causes and organizations they represent, such as the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, the British Library, Catholic Charities USA, Fundación Paraguaya, Goodwill Industries International, the Humane Society of the United States, and Musica Viva Australia. In any given year, about half of SPNM participants represent organizations with annual budgets of less than $5 million, and the other half ranges to more than $50 million a year. To get the most from this wide range of experience, participants break into small groups and present a challenge currently facing his or her organization.

"In our study group, there was a gentleman who ran a homeless shelter, a woman who ran a worldwide orphan program, and a woman from Ghana who was doing social justice work there," says Jernigan. "I found that the lens through which people approach a problem based on their own experiences to be quite intriguing. As I presented the challenge that I was grappling with, it really helped me to think it through in a very strategic way."

Collaborative Approach

Despite all the coursework and interactions with the professors, both faculty and participants agree that SPNM is a powerful collaboration and academic experience because of the tremendous knowledge possessed by everyone involved.

"The program is a huge source of data for us about what is going on in the world," says SPNM faculty chair Herman ("Dutch") Leonard, the Eliot I. Snider and Family Professor of Business Administration at HBS. "The participants bring literally hundreds of examples every year to us.

"You hear conversations in class where someone says, 'I've got something sort of like this but I approach it differently,' and those are the inspiration for new cases. Those conversations inform the way we approach the discussion and the examples we use."

It also gives the faculty plenty of ideas for new case studies. It was through such a discussion that Allen Grossman, the MBA Class of 1957 Professor of Management Practice, first heard about the Mexican health-care nonprofit Salud Digna, which he calls "one of the most stunning and efficient nonprofit organizations that I have ever observed."

Salud Digna's CEO, Hugo Moreno, attended one of the School's executive social enterprise programs, and the more Grossman learned of the company and its plans the more he was impressed.

"Salud Digna was expanding rapidly in Mexico, and what was interesting to me is they had plans to open a branch in Los Angeles," says Grossman, who wrote the case study "Salud Digna: Successfully Competing with For-Profit Organizations."

"This is one of very few examples where a nonprofit is scaling into the United States—and it's doing quite well at this point. It turns around the stereotype that it is the North always helping the South. It was a real revelation not only to me but to the other participants as well."

SPNM creates this sort of virtuous circle as executives come in, learn ways to better their own organizations, and share information that the faculty then turns into program improvements. The program also gives the faculty an unparalleled knowledge not just about running nonprofits in general but also about the challenges they face today, which are very different from even a few years ago.

"I could tell that Dutch Leonard had spent his life thinking about how to build organizations," says Mike Marriner, the cofounder of Roadtrip Nation. "He has the mind of an economist and the heart of a social worker."

Performance Enhancements

SPNM began in 1995 as one of the first major undertakings of the Social Enterprise Initiative, which had been launched two years before. In those early years, SEI's research focused on helping nonprofits operate more effectively by adapting private- sector management practices. SPNM was developed both to share that information with nonprofits, which could test and refine these methods, and to provide faculty with insights and inspiration for their research.

Leonard, who also serves as cochair of SEI, says one of the biggest changes he has seen since becoming chair of SPNM in 2004 is an ever-increasing focus on performance assessment. It's no longer enough to have good intentions; funders want to see tangible, quantifiable results.

"Our view today is that good intentions are a start, but they have to be followed by careful, hard-thought plans about how to achieve the purposes that you've set out and by constant learning about how to achieve and a focus on performance," notes Leonard.

This kind of real-world information resonates with SPNM participants.

"I learned as much from how Dutch said things as from what he said," says Marriner. "He showed us not just how to deal with a particular problem but also what questions to ask, or how to look at any problem."

Marriner and Roadtrip Nation are practically a case study on the importance of a program like SPNM. After graduating from college, Marriner and two friends cofounded the organization, which runs project-based learning opportunities that let students broaden their understanding of what they can do in the world by hitting the road and interviewing leaders across the country. The trio had no experience in running a nonprofit, but they did have a lot of experience in actually helping people.

"We needed to prove what we were doing was having an impact," says Marriner. As a result of attending SPNM, Marriner helped Roadtrip Nation become an organization that delivers on that goal. The group's experiential curriculum—known as the Roadtrip Nation Experience—has since undergone a literature review by outside evaluators, which gave the leadership team an opportunity to get a better grasp of their goals for the organization.

In particular, this helped the team develop an operational mission—something Marriner learned about at SPNM. "In five years, we want to have 1 million students building their own road trip projects," he declares. "Just saying you want to do good doesn't give you enough direction. An operational mission does."

Sometimes the things that had the greatest impact on participants were far less concrete than this.

"If there was one moment or one session that sticks out to me, it's the one that was led by Frances Frei," says Jernigan of KIPP Metro Atlanta. "Her lecture really challenged us with the notion that if you are going to be excellent, you have to have the courage to be bad at something. As an executive director, I am often tempted to create an organization that does all things for all people really well. While that is a noble attitude, Professor Frei helped me understand that such an approach is the reason that many organizations never push beyond mediocrity. I now feel emboldened to say no to certain priorities, and recognize that by doing so, I am protecting the organization in the long run."

While SPNM informs and shapes the participants, they, in turn, are continuously improving SPNM. "The conversations we have with participants help us to stay centered in where their life is and how it's changing," notes Dutch Leonard. "There is a continuous influx of inspiration we get from their work. It comes from the energy they bring and the willingness to keep working on things that are really complicated in a funding environment that makes life difficult for them."

—Constantine von Hoffman covers business and finance for CBSNews.com and IT security for CIO magazine.

HBS Clubs Make the Connection

Nonprofits are among the most streamlined of organizations because they must make the best of limited funding. While that has always been true, today it is more important than ever. Nonprofits rely on corporations, foundations, philanthropists, and ordinary citizens for funding, all of whom have far less money for donations than they did prior to the financial meltdown.

The donors understandably want to see every dollar go to fulfilling an organization's mission. Unfortunately, this means that some priorities—like staff development—go unfunded. Fortunately, the HBS alumni clubs network is helping to address that. More than 22 alumni clubs around the world have provided and continue to provide fellowships that make it possible for many of the thousands of local nonprofit executives to attend the SPNM program. Since 2004, clubs have funded the tuition for more than 400 SPNM participants.

Funding is actually just one of the many ways alumni clubs have stepped in and helped make SPNM a success. Clubs assist SPNM in finding organizations that might otherwise have been overlooked. They also make it a little less daunting for organizations' leaders to apply to the program, sometimes by finding exactly the right person for an applicant to speak with. Mike Marriner, cofounder of Roadtrip Nation, says he first learned about SPNM and the fellowship when someone forwarded an email to him about the program. He knew right away that SPNM had what he wanted.

"It sounded great. I was a biology major, and I didn't have any formal training in how to run a nonprofit," Marriner says. Faced with a tight bud-get, though, he sought assistance from the HBS Association of Northern California—in particular, Nancy Huang (MBA 1996), executive director of the club's Community Partners program. "I started emailing Nancy and was just blown away by her enthusiasm. She was like a guardian angel," says Marriner, adding that the alumni club—which awarded a total of four such fellowships last year—provided another essential piece of help. "The fellowship was a big deal, because it was hard to justify spending $5,000 from our budget." Huang adds that while she helps all applicants as much as she can, they are ultimately the ones who make it happen.

"Since Mike reached out to me early in the process, I was happy to help him think about ways he could better present Roadtrip Nation to our committee through impact numbers and adviser recommendations," says Huang. "But really, Mike did it all himself with his incredible story of how they've transformed a fun idea into a mission to help kids."


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