Leadership in Challenging Times: Elaine MacDonald

This article was originally posted on the HBS Social Enterprise Blog on April 22, 2021.

This post is part of our “Leadership in Challenging Times” blog series, which highlights the inspiring work of the HBS community in addressing the health and economic consequences of COVID-19, alongside the fight for racial equity and an especially polarized political climate. In this blog post, Elaine MacDonald (MBA 1998), Executive Director of Community Partners in Northern California, tells the story of how alumni mobilized to help their communities and what she has learned from this year.

Local HBS Clubs around the country organize alumni to provide pro-bono business consulting to nonprofits and social enterprises. This past year saw a dramatic uptick in requests for help as organizations rapidly pivoted their operations, fundraising, DEI efforts, employee health programs, and service models. HBS alumni were (and are) on the front lines of supporting these organizations with critical and timely consulting projects.

Tell us about your work…

I’ve been the Executive Director of the HBS Community Partners program in Northern California for the past seven years now, where I identify social sector organizations that are facing growth challenges/opportunities and connect them to alumni who donate their strategic management skills to address them. I create teams of alumni volunteers to address pressing needs such as scaling, diversifying revenue, or building market awareness to expand impact. It is so rewarding to see the reaction of our clients, clearly transformed by the insights, and to hear how they have executed on recommendations that really moved the needle. It is also personally satisfying to connect alumni to causes they find meaningful, and be a bridge as they explore a more active journey in the social sector space. Many end up staying involved with the organizations they worked with through Community Partners.

How has your organization and your role responded to this year’s challenges?

2020 has definitely been a whirlwind and a call to action for me and my 11-person volunteer Steering Committee. It was clear as early as March 2020 that the pandemic was upending the social impact space, creating havoc on existing models of delivery, generating steep new demand curves, and widening the cracks in the racial/economic divide. I received a record number of requests by nonprofits and government agencies for help. In the first month of the pandemic, most requests centered around how to make decisions during a period of great uncertainty—how can an organization create new service delivery models, raise funding remotely, and plan when the future is so uncertain? Our normal programming—consulting projects and brainstorming sessions—could not be delivered fast enough to meet the needs of these organizations, nor could we possibly serve them all.

So my first action was to rapidly launch in April 2020 a free webinar called Emerging from the Crisis-Planning for Next Year as a Nonprofit to help nonprofits and their advisors immediately think about how to play defense and offense, as well as how to think about raising funds in an uncertain market. Led by seasoned Community Partners alumni volunteers, this webinar provided concrete frameworks, action plans, and ideas for how to move forward. Hundreds of nonprofits from around the country tuned in to learn how they could act during a period of great uncertainty, and I received great feedback on how timely and impactful the webinar was.

Second, many alumni in the early days of the pandemic reached out to offer real-time help. We pivoted away from our traditional programming model and launched a dedicated COVID-19 website that included Individual Service Opportunities, where an alum can sign up to support a nonprofit who had an immediate need for expertise. For instance, the City of San José was seeking a supply chain expert who could help them quickly identify ways to scale food distribution to those in need.

Finally, over the summer, my Steering Committee and I decided to pilot “Sprint” consulting projects that lasted just one month to help provide quicker advice for discrete needs.

What are some memorable and pivotal engagements that took place this year?

We’ve had 300 volunteers advise 50 organizations in 2020, so there were many high impact engagements! A few that stood out:

  • We conducted a project with the City of San Francisco to look at how economic and job recovery can incentivize equitable business and employment growth. A team of alumni defined and created metrics for an equitable economy, along with some key strategies, priorities, and programs. The director for the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development requested a Phase II of this project to commence Feb 2021, focused on helping the city create a small business services framework to enable this community to rebuild and recover swiftly and equitably.
  • We helped a newly created consortium of museums, all who had to close doors during the pandemic, explore whether they should collaborate and together bolster membership and create value digitally. A team of eight alumni analyzed the benefits of moving to a monthly subscription model, and how collaboration to create digital content and pursue new funding could benefit the museums more than if they pursued opportunities individually.
  • We worked with Root Division, a visual arts nonprofit, to explore how it could increase the diversity of its board, a priority that took on new urgency as the Black Lives Matter movement gained support across the nation and institutions reflected on actions they could take to dismantle systemic racism. Alumni helped craft concrete action plans to help the board achieve its DEI goals. The Executive Director is already implementing some of the strategies and tactics identified by the team.

How can someone interested in this area get involved or learn more?

If alumni in Northern California are interested in exploring our volunteer opportunities, they can visit our website www.hbscp.org or contact me directly at elaine@hbscp.org. Community Partners chapters also exist in all major markets in the U.S., so if there are individuals unsure of who to contact in their local market for skilled volunteer opportunities, they are welcomed to reach out to me to connect them to their local chapter.

I truly believe HBS Community Partners is a wonderful vehicle to provide alumni curated volunteer experiences that enables us to use our skills for social good, and enables us to be responsive to the needs of the times. I’ve witnessed the power and collective good we can create together. 2020 was a devastating year along so many dimensions, and for me personally, has been a year that inspired me to step up like never before.

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