Liz Katen-Narvell is a second year MBA at The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Liz Katen-Narvell is a second year MBA at The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

While I'm based in the North Carolina cohort of Inspiring Capital's summer MBA fellowship, the client I am consulting for is based in Atlanta, Georgia.

When I found out that I would be working remotely this summer, my first thought was, “excellent, now I can work from home and wear pajamas every day.” My second thought was, “Why would I move 400 miles south to sit at my computer by myself?” I quickly realized I was wrong about both of these points.

First, the learning opportunity of Inspiring Capital trainings and getting to know NC's Research Triangle region have made the move worthwhile. I've gained a close understanding of how the Triangle has capitalized on its advantages (such as its high concentration of top-notch universities), as well as how its struggles differ from the cities to which I am accustomed (rural food insecurity looks different than the challenges of urban poverty in New York). Secondly, while I do not need to dress up for client meetings, the co-working space we operate out of is not quite pajama-casual. I say “we” because I am lucky enough to be working with the Raleigh cohort of IC fellows, and building our community has been a huge joy in my summer experience.

That said, the challenges of working remotely are real. Without face-to-face interaction, it is harder to get to know my clients. Requesting input from staff members feels more formal because I have to set up a phone call, compared to a casual 15 minute drop-by at their desk. Most importantly for me, it is hard to stay motivated when working completely solo.

While I might simply be a bad-habit procrastinator, I would argue that my experience points more broadly to one of the challenges of consulting for nonprofits: you are (at least) one step removed from the mission. Coming in as an outside support person, consultants work on a discrete project that is not core to the direct execution of the organization’s mission. My client, Welcoming America[1], helps communities become more welcoming towards immigrants, refugees, and all residents. Their mission could not be timelier to events taking place in this country. Yet I did not find myself constantly fired up by my day-today project (which was my unrealistic expectation coming into social impact work). The challenges I have faced have taught me a lot about my own energy management, but have also revealed a few lessons on social impact more generally:

1.     The challenges of feeling removed from a nonprofit’s mission reveals a somewhat dull truth: that nonprofits are organizations like any other. Their struggles are often the same as private companies: how do we balance current operations with investments in our future? How do we engage, retain, and invest in staff? There's still a lot of spreadsheets and business operations, and not all of it feels close to the end beneficiary.

2.     Passion and dedication to the mission won’t be enough to make social impact organizations successful or even functional in the long run. Having a really powerful mission or a staff highly dedicated to that purpose is not sufficient to build effective, sustainable organizations capable of delivering on that mission. Good intentions are not enough to make a meaningful impact -- they have to have practical strategy and implementation behind them.

3.     Understanding the balance between mission delivery and sustainability is also a challenge in allocating (and attracting) funding. Individual donors and grant-makers love to spend their time and money on serving people. However, there is also a need to invest in capacity building to do that well. (The Ford Foundation is one example of a foundation reacting to this gap[2])

Recognizing these challenges can actually be encouraging. Yes, nonprofits operate in a more resource constrained environment. Yes, many nonprofits face significant challenges in operations and execution.  However, if some of their challenges are the same as those of the private sector, then some of the solutions could be the same too. By learning to view themselves as organizations that need to consider and invest in sustainability, nonprofits can learn something from the private sector, magnifying their impact in the process.

And by learning to work remotely, both physically, and at a theoretical distance from my client's mission, I developed a better understanding of both my own work, and my ability to apply those skills toward the needs of social impact clients.

 

[1] https://www.welcomingamerica.org/

[2] https://www.fordfoundation.org/work/our-grants/building-institutions-and-networks/