When Mark Alston-Follansbee, executive director of the Somerville Homeless Coalition in Somerville, Massachusetts, needed advice on how to make the nonprofit more cost-effective, he might have considered attending business school. But he didn’t have to. Harvard Business School came to him in the form of alumni who have helped him develop a new strategic plan and refocus his efforts for greater impact.

The alumni came courtesy of the Community Action Partners (CAP) program organized by the HBS Association of Boston. Through CAP, alumni work in teams of four to six over several months to provide Boston-area nonprofits with organizational development, marketing, financial planning, and general management consulting services — all free of charge.

“The five CAP volunteers assessed our agency carefully and gave me the kind of information I hadn’t had before,” says Alston-Follansbee. “They helped us realize that what we do best is provide services once clients move into permanent housing, so we’ve shifted our focus.”

The CAP program was established by the Boston HBS association in 1993 and has since served more than 150 nonprofits with a variety of missions, including the environment, education, housing, health care, and the arts, says CAP cochair Barry Horwitz (MBA ’88), an independent strategy and marketing consultant. In that time, approximately 550 CAP volunteers have donated nearly $7 million in consulting services. This year alone, fourteen teams of HBS alumni will donate an estimated $1.1 million in services.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the HBS Association of Northern California (HBSA/NC) has been providing free consulting services to nonprofits since 1986. It was also the inspiration for other HBS clubs nationwide to start similar programs. The Bay Area Community Partners program is now one of the largest nonprofit service providers in the San Francisco area, having served more than 250 nonprofits and providing consulting services worth approximately $1.5 million annually, says HBSA/NC president Sean Jacobsohn (MBA ’98).

Nonprofits across the country are under increasing pressure to professionalize their operations and sharpen their management skills. That’s where the CAP program comes in, says Horwitz. HBS alumni in Boston are currently working with the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence to develop a long-term plan and a marketing strategy to turn the grassroots organization into a global force for change in the Asian community. They’re also helping the Lena Park Community Development Corporation, which provides housing and human services for inner-city residents, to create a business plan for its new initiative to build a multiservice residential community. And they are providing guidance on financial planning, marketing, and benchmarking to an art museum, a local YMCA, and a philanthropic organization.

Alumni volunteer for CAP projects out of their desire to go beyond a simple donation to a good cause. “They want to be involved in the community,” says Jacobsohn. “It’s a great way to meet and work with other people from HBS, and many use the experience to help them transition to the nonprofit sector or to prepare for work on nonprofit boards.”

Horwitz adds, “Through CAP, alumni have a chance to get to know an organization and go deeper into an issue. We bring our analytical skills to bear, and help organizations change the way they think or solve a problem. In this way, we can really make a difference.”

— Margie Kelley


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