Scaling Nonprofit Impact Through Consulting
Article originally published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in collaboration with Ventures. Written by Catalyst Kitchens Director Renee Martin, Jen Hughes, Director of Programs at Ventures, and Will von Geldern, Director of Advocacy and Communications at Ventures.
In the quest to scale their social impact, many nonprofits strive to leverage their success by advising the work of other nonprofit, for-profit, and government partners. Indeed, consulting can enable nonprofit organizations to serve more communities while also generating new revenue. The Skoll Foundation has highlighted success stories across the United States, Zambia, and the Middle East, and other examples abound. However, without a clear game plan, consulting work can take critical resources away from direct services or other efforts that serve an organization’s core mission and goals. In some instances, staff members may not have the skills necessary to succeed at consulting despite deep experience in their sector.
Our nonprofits, Ventures and FareStart, both have growing consulting practices, and we recently looked back at what we have learned so far. In 2016, Ventures set up the Ventures Network to help other nonprofits and government agencies create economic opportunity in low-income communities through small business development. As a part of our overarching strategy to improve organizational sustainability, that consulting practice has since grown from two consulting projects to a total of 13. FareStart meanwhile launched its Catalyst Kitchens program nearly 10 years ago to provide higher-quality job training in the food service industry. Today, Catalyst Kitchens generates nearly $300,000 annually in consulting revenue.
We have faced many obstacles along the way. At times, both of our organizations have struggled to define our consulting offerings and build adaptive models that get the results we want. However, six strategies have served us well:
1. Start From Strength
As much as possible, organizations should consult based on one or more of their core strengths, focusing on the proven methods and tools that make them uniquely effective in accomplishing their mission, rather than on pilot programs.
FareStart’s experience with both job training and social enterprise development, for instance, allows it to advise on setting up a self-sustaining model of social change—ideal for nonprofits that want to further develop their programs without additional fundraising. In 2015, Downtown Hope Center (DHC) in Anchorage, Alaska, hired Catalyst Kitchens to help expand its food and housing programs for individuals experiencing homelessness to include food businesses that provide job training. As a result of this collaboration, DHC will soon have the capacity to train hundreds of individuals each year through its baking and culinary training programs.
2. Keep It Lean
A “lean startup” mentality is essential to getting started, because it allows organizations to experiment without overcommitting time or resources to unproven methods. When something works well, it’s worth weaving it into the next iteration; when it doesn’t, don’t.
In Ventures’ partnership with the Food Innovation Network (FIN), for example, Ventures provided just two hours of coaching to six active microenterprises. That might not seem like much, but the business owners had never had the opportunity to work with a coach before, and a few hours gave Ventures enough time to teach the basic but essential principles of food business ownership. The project also helped lay the groundwork for long-term, mutually supportive collaboration that includes coaching and training for entrepreneurs in FIN’s new food business incubator.
One size does not fit all. Although replicable project models can be a good starting point, customization is paramount; each program will have a slightly different focus, depending on the organization’s specific needs.
For example, the Tacoma-Pierce County Department of Public Health engaged Ventures to teach micro-entrepreneurs in small grocery stores how to provide healthier food options. In the beginning, Ventures delivered our eight-week basic business training course directly, but after meeting with both the entrepreneurs and agency staff, it shifted its strategy and began teaching agency staff how to become good coaches so that they could serve entrepreneurs beyond the timeframe of the consulting engagement.
4. Never Stop Building
As consulting projects start to come in, it can be easy to focus narrowly on your short-term goals without thinking about what comes next. Nonprofits should strive to continually upgrade their consulting offerings to make each project more effective than the last.
Catalyst Kitchens, for instance, started out with an informal process for consulting based on ad hoc requests. Over time, however, it shifted from an organization-to-organization model to a membership-based, network model that has significantly amplified its reach and effectiveness. Today, Catalyst Kitchens provides impact reporting and benchmarking, cost-saving resources, and professional development support to member organizations. This loosely federated, collective impact-type approach empowers member organizations to respond independently to local needs, while sharing the model and standards of efficacy, and contributing to collective outcomes.
5. Tell Your Story
Sharing stories about consulting projects with staff, board members, and outside stakeholders is a great way to market the services you provide. Providing regular updates to your community through case studies and stories can help other organizations understand your consulting services and how they could fit in with their programs.
In 2017, for example, Ventures applied for and won an innovation award for its consulting work. The application shared the most compelling aspects of Ventures’ story, including the executive director’s personal journey and partnerships with beloved, well-known local organizations. The award included an article featuring Ventures and the Ventures Network, which helped establish its credibility in the Seattle-area market.
6. Track Outcomes and Celebrate Wins
Another aspect of storytelling, of course, is data. Tracking key performance indicators, such as total training hours and the impact of that training on people’s lives, allows nonprofits to communicate the impact of their consulting. Tracking outcomes through existing software or evaluation tools, and sharing those outcomes with the evaluation, communications, and program teams, builds awareness of ongoing projects and helps everyone involved maintain their excitement about the work.
As of 2018, the Catalyst Kitchens network trained and supported the job placement of more than 12,400 individuals. The organization has continually reported its progress both internally and externally, and thanks to a partnership with the Tableau Foundation, can now dynamically visualize its collective impact, analyze trends, and benchmark members’ progress against national standards. Tracking the outcome of this high-level indicator of success has enabled FareStart to continually justify its investment in the Catalyst Kitchens program.
Consulting comes with unique challenges and risks, but it can be an excellent way for nonprofits to increase their impact and diversify their revenue sources. Ventures and FareStart have grown our consulting portfolios out of a combination of need and opportunity, and we hope that these strategies will allow other nonprofits to do the same—ultimately contributing to a stronger, more collaborative sector overall.