Certificate Alumna Working with GU Student Consultants

In line with our commitment to community engagement, the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership aims to serve as a bridge between the Georgetown community and a wider network of scholars, practitioners, and organizations in Washington, D.C. As such, we are thrilled whenever our alumni partner with student-run organizations in order to advance common goals.

Cathy Yi, an alumna who participated in the Spring 2015 Certificate Program, currently serves as the Senior Director of Development, Foundations & Corporations at American Rivers. American Rivers is a national river conservation organization that combines national advocacy with fieldwork in key river basins to protect wild rivers, restore damaged rivers, and conserve clean water for people and nature.

Livia Luan, an intern at the Center, recently sat down with Cathy to discuss the ongoing collaboration between American Rivers and Hilltop Consultants, an undergraduate-run organization headquartered at Georgetown University that serves nonprofits across the world. Cathy provided helpful insight on how best to engage and work with student consultant groups.

What project are you working on with Hilltop Consultants this semester? How about previous semesters?

This semester, we asked Hilltop Consultants to help us assess and scan for best practices in revenue forecasting, in order to determine how we should adapt to increase accuracy and create longer-term horizons. They are working to provide recommendations that identify specific practices that we should consider for corporate and foundation planning, as well as recommendations for revising our key performance indicators. In addition, we asked them to measure how our corporate and fundraising performance and goals compare with those of other nonprofit organizations.

In Fall 2015, Hilltop Consultants assisted us in creating a comprehensive corporate engagement package (including marketing and pitch materials) for the National River Cleanup program’s 25th Anniversary. They also identified corporate sponsors and targeted them with the corporate engagement package. Finally, they helped us review and make recommendations to improve the National River Cleanup business plan.

How did you choose these projects?

We identified discreet projects from our workplan that could be effectively “outsourced” to a consultant team. The projects were identified as priorities during our annual planning process, which includes setting goals and identifying ways to make our team’s work more efficient and/or effective.

This semester’s project was one we were going to tackle internally but due to staffing capacity (i.e. family leave, voluntary turnover) we realized it wasn’t one we would be able to dedicate time to but identified as important. Because of our positive experience working with them in 2015, we contacted Hilltop to submit an application.

How has your experience been working with Hilltop Consultants so far?

It’s been great! We are always impressed with the teams’ professionalism, poise, and capabilities. They are also fun to get to know and collaborate with.

I’m personally passionate about increasing skills-based volunteering at nonprofits and my experiences with Hilltop Consultants have exceeded my expectations. Among my goals is to teach my colleagues that it can be successful with the right structure and support.

At the initial stage of the project, the team shared their excitement for both the project and its alignment with their personal, educational, and professional goals. They gave their first presentation to American Rivers staff on October 18. We were pleased with their initial landscape assessment and the direction in which they were going. This increased our confidence in their ability to complete the project to our satisfaction. Our Senior Vice President of Advancement sat in on the presentation and was so excited about their work to date that she wanted to “hijack” the team to work on a project for her.

We were also really pleased that four of the five team members volunteered at a river cleanup event we hosted on October 21st on Theodore Roosevelt Island. Their participation demonstrated their enthusiasm and gave them a real world understanding of our organization’s mission.

How hands-on is the consulting process? How much time do you set aside for working with and guiding the consultants?

You get out what you put into the process. This applies to leading a project or working with staff, vendors, and contractors to complete one. You must have a clear scope of work and the commitment to investing the time and resources required to support successful outcomes.

The main stages include: project identification; application development; contracting; initial consultation and finalizing scope; preparing briefing materials and sharing data/information; weekly check-ins; and three project status review sessions.

The most time is devoted to developing the project scope and providing the necessary background information to complete the work (approximately 4-6 hours). In addition, the ongoing check-ins (writing short weekly emails and responding to others) take about 45 minutes each week, and project status review meetings require 3 hours in total.

How does the experience of working with student consultants compare with the experience of working with professional consultants? Do student consultants bring unique strengths? 

Hilltop Consultants is modeled on a professional consultant practice. Teams are specifically assembled with the capabilities, skills, and interest necessary for completing the project. They also rely on advisors and mentors to guide them through the process.

They have established practices such as: agreement, kick-off, workplan, weekly updates, and project check-ins. These practices altogether contribute to good communication, alignment, and the ultimate completion of the project goals. Similarly, we structure our client engagement and activities so that we are providing adequate information and guidance throughout the entire project period.

Student consultants have unique benefits – low costs, high levels of engagement, and energy. They also produce superior project deliverables that we can use. While I note the attractive cost, it isn’t correlated to what they can contribute or deliver.

While our primary objective is to successfully complete our project goals, I have a secondary objective of exposing the student consultants to the nonprofit sector. It is my hope that they continue to volunteer or consider a job at a nonprofit because of their experience. Often times, limited experience with nonprofits prevents highly-qualified candidates from considering nonprofit jobs. I want them to know that there are innovative, world-class nonprofits doing meaningful work, and that it can be a meaningful professional career path.

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 clients@hilltopconsultants.org by Friday, December 1st or visit www.hilltopconsultants.org.