Update from Colombia: CCC and Nonprofit Consulting Models

Already at the halfway point in my internship at Compartamos con Colombia (CCC), I’m overdue to share more details about the organization itself and the work I’m doing. Compartamos has a unique model—leveraging private sector expertise to solve social sector challenges. What makes it different from other market-based approaches is its multi-firm arrangement. The organization was founded as the corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy of fifteen companies in Colombia (many of them multinational) with expertise in strategy, finance, law, and other professional services. Volunteers from these firms work as consultants on a pro-bono basis on specific projects for Colombian nonprofits.* The role of CCC is to connect the nonprofit and private sectors, adding value through strategic analysis and producing the final consulting deliverables. Compartamos’ projects fall into three categories: capacity-building (its core), CSR, and social innovation.

From day one at Compartamos, I was assigned to a capacity-building project, working to support an organization in the healthcare and disability space that is looking to reevaluate its strategic focus, financial sustainability, and corporate governance as a family foundation.
Lesson 1: Consulting forces you to learn about new things. 

This may sound obvious, but as my first foray into a consulting environment, I was pleased by the nature of project development. The first phase of the project is diagnostic, involving desk research and extensive interviews with stakeholders and informants to understand the current state of the organization. I had no background in healthcare or disability, and even less so on the Colombian healthcare system. However, my initial research for the project proved a much-welcome introduction to the Colombian context. Healthcare is guaranteed to all by law in Colombia, but there are of course technicalities that mean self-employed workers pay three times as much, you must be affiliated with a health care provider for a designated period to receive certain types of care, etc. As the U.S. Congress fights to reverse the Affordable Care Act, Colombia is going through a healthcare reform of its own—replacing its list of enumerated guarantees for a broad-based approach with limited exceptions. 

Lesson 2: All nonprofits are (sort of) created equal.

A colleague shared this Nonprofit Organizational Life Cycle, which I found helpful in categorizing NGO development. Though organizations vary vastly in their focuses and cultures, they often have more management-level characteristics in common than not, and identifying where they fall in various categories can help streamline solution creation. In preparing the diagnostic, I referred to previous projects developed for other family foundations and healthcare organizations, which shared notable patterns and insights. 

This was especially true for the corporate governance component of the project, in which the organization faces the familiar challenges of transitioning from its founding members—whose differences of opinion are very personal as brothers/parents/uncles—to an independent board of directors. Though it doesn’t quite translate, I found one interviewee's explanation of moving the board from the dining room table an appropriate image. This frankness surprised me, though it demonstrates those we spoke with are deeply invested in the organization’s work and not afraid to share its flaws in order to help fix them.

Lesson 3: But business solutions do not necessarily equal NGO solutions. 

The multi-firm model has the potential to avoid the pitfalls of many nonprofits, but presents its own challenges. The strategy is based on principles of competitive advantage—if each firm contributes its professional expertise, CCC can provide top-tier consulting services to nonprofits at an affordable price, helping to advance the professionalization of the nonprofit sector in Colombia. However, this same arrangement means that firms (and more specifically volunteers) who are trained in and spend the vast majority of their time working on for-profit issues may have trouble translating that knowledge to the social sector. This apparent paradox is much-debated, and notably criticized by Michael Edwards, author of Small Change: Why Business Won't Save the World and formerly of the Ford Foundation (itself founded as a family foundation). 

One of the greatest challenges with this project has been working with and aligning expectations of private firm participants. They are all recognized as top in their fields and have previous pro-bono experience, but may be accustomed to auditing multi-billion dollar energy companies or analyzing investment deals. Finance is finance, but context matters. If anything this has affirmed the value of my degree (a Master of International Business specializing in business for social impact) as distinct from that of an MBA, and has made me wonder whether a more rigorous selection and/or training process for volunteers is necessary for an organization like Compartamos to generate efficiencies and scale.

While nonprofit capacity-building remains the core of Compartamos’ work, as the organization celebrates its fifteenth anniversary, it is broadening its scope to include more CSR and social innovation work according to the changing social sector landscape. Internationally, “social innovation” is all the rage, and while there will always be nonprofit management challenges to solve, these new focuses present opportunities for CCC to innovate both internally and externally as it and the sector mature.
Next time, an example of social innovation in action. 

*I use nonprofits loosely here to refer to the social sector.