What MBAs Can Expect When They Consult for Nonprofits

Published on July 21, 2010

An experienced business professional and educator offered some advice to future nonprofit consultants: Know your limits.

“You have people with a lot of passion, but they’re being pulled in multiple directions at once, ” said Linda Darragh, director of entrepreneurship programs at Chicago Booth and clinical associate professor of entrepreneurship. “One of the most important things is that you’ve got to take control. You need to lead the agenda or your client will continually try to expand your project scope.”

Darragh spoke to students July 21 at an event organized by Local Optima, a student-run group that puts students from the Evening MBA Program and Weekend MBA Program on small consulting teams. By offering strategic and operational advisory services to local nonprofits for projects that last four to six weeks, students get real-world consulting experience.

It’s important for students to explain to nonprofit staff members what they bring as consultants, since many have not worked with MBAs before, she said. Darragh also suggested students define their limits so that they don’t end up doing tasks outside their job description.

She also warned about the temptation of getting too involved with the nonprofits. “Don’t get cozy with them even if you love their mission,” she said. “You’re a consultant.”Among those glad to get Darragh’s advice was Lisa Tallman, an evening MBA student who works on a Local Optima consulting project called the Bottom Billion Fund, is helping the social enterprise startup expand its microfinance investment funds to include people who live on less than a dollar a day.

“It was really good to hear what she had to say,” Tallman said. “It’s about the process of being clear with the client, about defining the scope so that there are no surprises in the end.”

Local Optima members are working on two other projects. The Cara Program assists the homeless and poor by providing job training and placement. And Hyde Park Village, a group of Hyde Park residents including the Older Women’s League of Hyde Park, is working to provide assistance to the elderly who want to remain in their homes as they age.

Cherry Chen, a Local Optima officer and student in the Full-Time MBA Program, said Darragh’s talk generated some buzz among other students, many of whom asked about joining. Local Optima will meet early in the fall quarter, and all consulting teams will present their work. Darragh plans to offer more training sessions with Local Optima every quarter, Chen said.

—Shane Graber