Livia Luan, an intern at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership, recently met with Nikhil Mendiratta, a student at Georgetown University and a member of Hilltop Consultants – an undergraduate-run organization that works with nonprofits across the world. Hilltop aims to “ignite social change by providing nonprofits and socially-oriented enterprises with remarkable strategies to help them exceed their goals in bettering the world.” To fulfill this mission, the organization works with six to seven clients per semester to assist them with developing innovative and sustainable solutions that maximize their impact.
Each client is assigned to a Hilltop team that is comprised of four to five consultants and led by a Project Manager. Nikhil currently serves as the Project Manager for a team paired with American Rivers, a river conservation nonprofit organization. Throughout this semester, the consultants have been working on a project to assess and scan for best practices in revenue forecasting, in order to help American Rivers reevaluate its corporate and fundraising performance and goals.
After speaking with Cathy Yi (Spring 2015 Certificate Program alumna and Senior Director Director of Development, Foundations & Corporations at American Rivers) about her experience working with the consultants, Livia met with Nikhil to learn about the partnership from the consultant end. He shared not only information about the team’s weekly responsibilities, but also broader lessons learned from consulting for nonprofit organizations.
How has your experience been working with American Rivers so far?
It has been great. From the onset, Cathy and the American Rivers team have been very clear about their goals and expectations, and they seem very happy to be working with us. It has also been interesting to observe American Rivers’ mission in action and to feel included in it. (Several members of the team volunteered at a Potomac River cleanup event on Theodore Roosevelt Island in October 2017.) Our participation has improved the experience for the consultants, especially for the younger members of the team. After observing firsthand what the organization does, they have an extra incentive to work hard because they have realized that river conservation is a very real issue – the work has become much more personal.
How does Hilltop Consultants choose organizations to work with? Once they are selected, do consultants have a say in the kinds of projects that are assigned to them?
I am not involved in all of the details, but I have a general understanding of the process. The baseline requirement is that the mission of the organization aligns with our mission. The second factor is the specific work that the organization wants us to accomplish. Do we think that the project is viable and that it represents something through which we can make an impact? We’re looking to influence a larger strategy or goal.
Each semester, the Hilltop board asks the consultants to identify their dream clients. Hilltop Consultants has previously worked with large organizations like Make a Wish, Teach for America, and Red Cross, so we’re encouraged to dream big. Consultants aren’t really involved in reaching out to clients, but their interests are taken into account during the selection and team-building process.
The project seems very technical and specific to nonprofit fundraising. How did your team build the skills to tackle this project?
Research is the foundation of our work, and thankfully a pretty good amount of academic literature about fundraising exists out there. I think it’s also helpful for the team that I have a background in finance. I’m a finance and accounting major, I worked in banking last summer, and I’m a member of the Georgetown University Student Investment Fund. I’ve had pretty consistent interaction with financial statements, and I have some experience with doing revenue forecasting with publicly-traded, for-profit corporations.
Other team members are also interested or involved in finance-related organizations and companies, which demonstrates how the board assembles teams whose skills and interests fit well with the goals of specific projects. This is probably the most technical project that Hilltop Consultants is tackling this semester, but it has been a great experience because our consultants want to work on more technical projects and gain useful skills.
From the perspective of student consultants, how time consuming is the consulting process? How much time do team members set aside in their weekly schedules to work on this project?
Consultants probably devote 4 to 5 hours per week to attending meetings and doing research. As the project manager, I spend anywhere between 5 and 10 hours per week working on the project. I send out emails, plan the logistics, and focus on improving the long-term strategy. Weeks during which we give presentations to the American Rivers team require much more time and effort. This week, the consultants are putting together a presentation. To ensure that it is perfect, I have been working on the presentation deck and consistently sending them comments. I really enjoy it though; I’d rather be working on this than on my homework!
What are some factors that are necessary for developing a productive relationship with American Rivers (as well as other organizations)?
The most important factor for a successful project is a clear project ask, which allows each party to know exactly what the client wants to achieve. There have been situations in which the client doesn’t even know what they want, or Hilltop Consultants isn’t on the same page as the client.
Continuous communication and feedback are also very important. I try to send Cathy an email each week to update her on the work that we’ve accomplished and our general progress. This is essential for not only maintaining our working relationship, but also making sure that she approves of our work. I agree with her comment that “you get out what you put into the process.” At the end of the day, this isn’t our full-time job and we aren’t experts, so direct communication is extremely helpful.
What broader lessons have you learned from working with American Rivers and with nonprofit organizations in general?
The biggest takeaway for me is understanding how nonprofit organizations operate. This project is revenue-based, so I have learned about factors that drive both revenues and expenses, as well as how financials generally work in nonprofits. It’s very different from my previous experiences working with large corporations and analyzing large market cap companies.
In addition to gaining many professional skills, I have enjoyed learning about so many different social causes. As a finance student who wants to pursue investment banking, I find it very exciting to be working with a nonprofit organization that is making a real impact. Where else am I going to receive this exposure? The organizations that I have worked with so far have unbelievable social goals and do so much good in the world.
American Rivers is a perfect example. By working with Cathy and the American Rivers team and participating in a river cleanup, I have learned so much about river conservation. Prior to this semester, I didn’t know just how dirty our rivers are. The organization’s mission is extremely important because our waterways are indirectly connected to our health.
Hilltop Consultants is seeking clients for Spring 2018. If you would like to discuss working with Hilltop Consultants or want to learn more about the organization, please email Jennifer Kozyra at firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday, December 15th or visit www.hilltopconsultants.org.