Nonprofit Solutions: MBA Nonprofit Case Challenges – Everyone Wins!

February 20, 2013

UCLA’s MBA Team, Kiara Barrett, Diana Lin, Ana Pena, Alisa Sommer and LACLJ Executive Director Hellen Hong

By Hellen Hong

In November 2012, a California Community Foundation staff member suggested that I apply to UCLA Anderson School of Management’s 2013 Net Impact Nonprofit Consultant Challenge (NICC).  NICC is a blend of a consulting challenge and case competition in which a team of four to six MBA students work with a nonprofit to consult on a strategic issue the organization is facing.  This is one of those often sought but rarely found examples of when everyone benefits; students have the opportunity to get real-life experience and nonprofits receive free and valuable insight into how to address a current issue.  The result was a triple jackpot win – for the students, organization and the community.

Within a short two week time period, a team of UCLA Anderson MBA students meet, research, organize and present recommendations for the organization and to a team of judges.  As a lifelong nonprofit advocate and lawyer, I had never worked with MBA students and did not know what to expect.  At the same time, as an executive Director, I am keenly aware that running a nonprofit is just like running a business yet, most key players in nonprofits have very little business expertise and cannot afford a team of consultants to help solve major issues.

LACLJ was fortunate to be one of the 17 organizations selected to participate in the case challenge.  LACLJ presented our issue of branding to donors when we have many different programs including stopping domestic violence, preserving safe housing, supporting teen parents, and making sure our judicial system is accessible to low income and immigrant families.  LACLJ utilizes a holistic approach to legal services, direct representation, education and advocacy to provide critical and much needed services to families.  With a modest annual budget of $1.5M and a staff of 20, nine of whom are attorneys, LACLJ focuses its efforts to further family stability and safe and healthy housing.  Although LACLJ’s extensive and holistic services provide a high impact for clients, they can be complicated and cumbersome to explain to donors and foundations.

I was blown away by our team and by the results.  In two weeks, LACLJ’s NICC team comprised of Kiara Barrett ‘13, Diana Lin‘14, Ana Peña ’13 and Alisa Sommer JD/MBA ‘14 conducted a site visit, staff and client interviews, performed secondary research, analyzed our donor data and created a donor survey.  They were enthusiastic, professional, genuinely interested in the work and dedicated to uncovering as much data as they could (as demonstrated by their 2:00 am emails – ahh, I do not miss graduate school).

Our team compiled key findings of LACLJ’s donor demographics, rates of giving and suggestions on how to fundraise more successfully.  Unlike standard classroom assignments that are based on hypothetical situations, the NICC team’s insights will actually have an impact on LACLJ’s future efforts to attract and retain more donors.  More importantly, their recommendations were supported by our historical data, their secondary research and feedback from our donors; (My colleagues know – all the stuff you say you will review and analyze when you have time, right next to the pile of papers under “To Read”).  Some of their recommendations included a donor segmentation strategy based on population, training for board, staff, and volunteers to be brand ambassadors, and focusing on storytelling not on legal outcomes.

Kiara, Diana, Ana and Alisa did a phenomenal job with their presentation on the day of the competition and not surprisingly, ended up winning the competition! They are generously donating 10% of their prize money to LACLJ and will present their findings to the Board of Directors and continue to volunteer to help implement their suggestions in the spring. Not only did LACLJ get incredible consultants, we also found four new donors.

Partnership opportunities like NICC that pair the nonprofit, educational entities, and future business sector actors have the potential to make a real impact for organizations. I am confident that our NICC team will move on to be great future board leaders and continue to volunteer their time in the public sector.  Ultimately, these efforts will help all organizations better accomplish their missions to the benefit of the communities that we serve.

Not every team can win, but based on my conversations with other groups at the event, everyone received a major benefit from participating in NICC.  And like any other volunteer project relationship, before you commit to participating you need to choose a discrete project that can be addressed within the time period and prioritize your time to work with the volunteers.  Hopefully others will hit the jackpot too.

Hellen Hong is the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice a nonprofit legal services organization that supports low-income families and children by providing direct representation, advocacy and education to increase family stability and security. and

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