Experienced strategy consultant Ditlev Schwanenflugel has volunteered his professional skills to three Impetus-PEF-supported charities over the past four years. He describes his experience of working with Impetus-PEF, the overlap that he sees between the commercial and not-for-profit sectors, and what he finds most satisfying about contributing his expertise to Impetus-PEF charities.
You’ve been involved in several Impetus-PEF projects. What is your background?
Well, I am a classical McKinsey-trained consultant. I’ve been working in consulting for 12 years, and also at a large bank as Director of Business Development. In the last couple of years I’ve been working independently, mainly on large corporate strategy type projects, and mostly through Eden McCallum, which is a novel-type strategy firm based on independent consultants. I spend 70-80 per cent of my time on those large projects, and then I like to make myself available for interesting social projects in between. Eden McCallum has a partnership with Impetus-PEF, and over the past four years, I’ve been involved with three of the Impetus-PEF portfolio charities: Naz Project London, (a sexual health charity focusing on minorities), IntoUniversity (an educational charity about access to university education for underprivileged children), and Camfed (which provides educational support for rural girls in Sub-Saharan Africa, to empower them to go on to support their families and communities).
What’s has it been like, working on each of these projects?
On Naz Project London, one of the Impetus Investment Executives met with me and provided some background about the people and challenges they were facing. Then I went out and met the chief exec, Bryan, and we just talked about what he wanted to do with his organisation and what were the broad aspects of his strategy. After a couple of hours, I went away and created a framework for a plan. The way I did it was… I wrote the main headings and subheadings, and then began to populate them. I worked with Bryan to make sure we had the right information. I created some simple graphs, and he put in the text. After about six weeks and maybe a total of a day and a half, Bryan had his strategy presentation. There was a clear structure and story line, there were some compelling facts, decent graphics and a strong call to action. Like with most consulting, the great part of the thinking had already been done – the challenge is getting it down on the page and communicating to others. An important part of the process is also talking about real tradeoffs and choices. Resources will always be constrained, and success comes from making (and being seen by funders to be making) hard choices and focusing on the few areas where you can make a real difference.
What did you do at IntoUniversity?
My work for IntoUniversity was also about strategy, but it was of much shorter duration than Naz Project London. It was a one-day, off site workshop for their Board. And as is usually the case, there were a couple of agendas. One was to explore different issues, both internal external, facing them, work with them to explore their strategic choices, and make some decisions. At the same time, we wanted to think about board dynamics and make sure everyone was engaged. By the end of the day, we wanted to establish a joint perspective on key salient facts about what we are doing and what’s happening in the outside world; consider the decisions and tradeoffs, decide to do x and not y; and also ensure that all Board members were engaged, not just the majority.
It turned out a very good day, and I think the Board felt both energised and aligned at the end of it.
The Camfed relationship has been exceptionally interesting and rewarding. I started off looking at ways of measuring impact, which is both extremely important and also very challenging when you are talking about life outcomes across multiple years and extended families. I’ve subsequently become much more involved with programme design and talent management, and done several field trips to Zambia and Zimbabwe to work with the senior local teams. Camfed is a very impressive organisation, and working this closely with their key people, in town and in the remote villages, was fantastic.
What differences have you spotted, working in the social sector?
There’s a lot of overlap between the commercial and the social sector. Even the least commercial charity faces issues of strategy, marketing, operations etc. and may occasionally benefit from some of approaches of commercial world. But it’s certainly not a one-way learning street. The best charities are hugely entrepreneurial and motivated organisations, achieving great impact on very lean budgets, at least as inspirational as any successful Silicon Valley start-up. The important thing is to not just come charging in with your private-sector learnings as a take-it-or-leave-it package, but to work in an iterative and collaborative way.
One important issue for me has been speed – because I do the pro bono work on the side, I need to be quite efficient with my time. But a high level of focus and quick cycle times is of course what the charity directors want, too. They don’t necessarily want the “thump” factor of a weighty report that often goes hand in hand with traditional consulting. I’ve found that what they want is a close working relationship where we can together build something that may not be perfect, but which is certainly better than what they would have had before.
What would you say to others who are considering getting involved with Impetus-PEF?
I found it incredibly rewarding and challenging, intellectually as challenging as any of the corporate projects. It is also different – it combines elements of commercial world (like strategy, marketing, operations) with public policy challenges you don’t face in the private sector. You will meet a very inspiring set of people – many as accomplished as any in the commercial world, but often in a totally different way.
On a practical level, I’ve really enjoyed the flexibility – I’ve been able to fit the Impetus-PEF work around the commercial work, giving me access to the best of both worlds. I’ve also enjoyed building deep and lasting relationships with the charities; you become a partner not just a one-off problem solver.
Most importantly, there’s the feeling of having real impact, both at a general and at the individual, personal level.