“People are funny about money,” said Corinne O’Connell, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia.
On November 3rd, 2018, Fox Board Fellows hosted a workshop to address the struggles of nonprofit fundraising.
As the featured guest speaker, O’Connell brought her twenty plus years of experience in the field of fundraising to share with the MBA students by presenting her strategic thought process when asking for donations.
“The nonprofit world is being challenged,” said Ellen Marshall. As an advisor for Fox Management Consulting and Strategic Clarity Advisors, Marshall has been working in the nonprofit realm for over twenty years, and attended the workshop in order to better understand the Fox Board Fellows program. “For nonprofits to meet the growing needs and address this massive game-changing changes, it can’t be like it was back in the day.”
One of the most pressing obstacles when managing a nonprofit is maintaining financial stability. Money is a very sensitive issue, which makes it especially difficult for board directors when asking for donations and allocations from individuals and large organizations. In addressing this issue, and reinvigorating the purpose of the nonprofit’s endeavor, O’Connell spoke about how she manages to keep her purpose clear and strong while persuading potential donors to believe in her cause.
Her nonprofit Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia was established in 1985 as an independently chartered branch of Habitat for Humanity International, the largest home building nonprofit organization in the world.
“There is never enough money, and there is entirely too much need,” O’Connell said. “To put that need into context, 800 people call us a month. 800 people. We’re right now building 12 houses a year and repairing 100.”
As a member of the board for a nonprofit, fiscal responsibility is central to managing a successful organization, because nonprofits aren’t in business for monetary profit, they fundraise for a cause.
As CEO, O’Connell spends about half of her time asking donors for monetary support. The concept of fundraising is central to the survival of not for profit organizations, allowing them to fully provide for their community.
In her explanation of how to successfully fundraise, O’Connell emphasized the importance of maintaining existing relationships in order to foster strong donor loyalty. She asserted that, for most people, numbers and statistics are not convincing enough to connect them to the cause. There needs to be an underlying purpose that the potential donor can connect to, a cause that they can identify with, reflected in their own lives.
“You know what works? Empathy,” O’Connell said. “You gotta make a connection with people, you gotta create empathy, and you have to have people feel and know that they are empowered and that their gift counts.”
To create these connections, she suggested treating any kind of support with the same level of gratitude as with a large six figure donation. Empathy is the reason people will care about a nonprofit’s cause. “The why. That is why people give,” O’Connell said. “Start with the why, and it’s a personal thing.”
O’Connell’s speech heavily focused on the necessity to create interpersonal connections and build a relationship with the potential donor, in which effective communication and having a strong sense of the organization’s purpose will lead to success.
“She presents Habitat in such a way where she hones it down and says this is how you can help, by supporting this organization and talking about the breadth and depth of what they do, not just that they do it,” Marshall said about O’Connell’s presentation. “Telling that story and talking about what it means to have a passion or drive simplifies that complexity and helps people understand that they can act.”
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, by 2050 the world’s population will have an estimated 9.1 billion people, and food production will need to expand by 70 percent in order to match the increased rate of consumption. The future of food security is in the hands of consumers and producers and what they can do to create sustainable food systems to account for the predicted growth.
On a smaller scale, agriculture in Pennsylvania and the Northeast region is facing some changes to its operations. Design thinking might not be top of mind for agriculture, but approaching solutions through these practices yields some fresh insights for a healthy food system.
Marilyn Anthony, director of business development for Fox Management Consulting, and the Vice President and Agricultural Lending Manager of Ephrata National Bank William Kitsch teamed up to lead an interactive workshop for the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group’s (NESAWG) annual “It Takes a Region Conference” held in Philadelphia October 26 and October 27th, 2018.
Anthony’s and Kitsch’s workshop, “Here’s the Data: Let’s Design the Solutions,” used principles of design thinking to encourage participants to create consumer and user-oriented solutions to obstacles facing farmers and producers. “What surprised me was that everyone found a topic that they are passionate about and wanted to work on,” Anthony said. “We asked our workshop audience to think from the perspective of a user, someone who could benefit from or who could participate in Pennsylvania’s strategic recommendations and to think about how they could connect.”
Anthony and Kitsch presented the results of a research study, led by Temple University’s Fox Management Consulting group, a cohort of OMBA students, and the Philadelphia-based economic consulting firm E-consult Solutions, exploring 10 sectors of agriculture in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) and Team Pennsylvania funded the research project, forming the basis for PDA’s strategic recommendations. The resulting six strategic initiatives focused on improving the branding and marketing, infrastructure of processing and manufacturing, business climate, workforce development and educational opportunities, and diversity of products within food systems in order to create more opportunities for Pennsylvania growers and producers.
Kelly Kundratic, the Manager of Agriculture Policy and Programs for Team Pennsylvania, took an active role in the workshop. “Learning the design thinking process and really stepping back, thinking from a place of empathy, looking at these goals, that’s something that I use now as much as I can,” Kundratic explains. “It can be time consuming, but really reframes how I’ll approach helping government and industry move together to act upon these six strategic initiatives. Trying to be empathetic and use the design thinking model will help me be able to do my job more effectively.”
Emphasizing the core take-away from the workshop, Anthony explains, “what was very valuable and useful was getting people to think about who, other than themselves, might be in that space and to begin to generate some ideas for how they could make an impact.”
Workshop participants brought their experience and perspectives from Vermont, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Many participants actively work to create more accessible and equitable food system as educators, nonprofit advocates, and funders.
Founded in 1992, NESAWG is a network of more than 500 organizations across Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Washington D.C. It works with
organizations and individuals involved in every sector of sustainable agriculture from farming and ecology to architecture and social services to garner awareness and support for the creation of just, sustainable food systems.
Are you interested in learning about sustainability topics? Check out “BlockChain Technology for Sustainable Procurement” in the Fox Video Vault.
Horns blare. A moped pushes its way into the visual anarchy of West Bengal traffic. The sun beats down through a thick haze of pollution. Meanwhile, four Fox School MBA students thread their way onto a side street.
The students stop at a small building in the heart of Kolkata, the international headquarters of Sari Bari. Through Fox Management Consulting they are here to help Sari Bari operate more efficiently and increase the revenues that fund their social mission of helping women who are stuck in, or at risk of entering, the sex trafficking industry in India.
“One of their biggest tasks is workforce development,” says Austin Litteral, an MBA student who worked on the project. “It can take a full year to help a woman rehabilitate physically and emotionally to the point where they can work.” Among other skills, the women often need basic reading and writing skills so they can sign their names and fill out standard forms.
When the women are ready, they are taught to sew to reshape second-hand Saris into brilliantly colored blankets and handbags. Younger women are employed to make the kanthas, traditional Indian blankets sewn from layers of retired saris.
Kantha blankets require long, straight lines of cutting and hand sewing which can be difficult for older women with less dexterous hands. To address this, Litteral explains, “Sari Bari introduced a new line of clutches years ago which required shorter cuts and were easier for the older women to sew.”
Planning new products to better serve employee needs is one of the many adaptions Sari Bari has made in order to balance its social and financial priorities. For the MBA students accustomed to addressing only one bottom line, the project was a lesson in creating synergies.
Litteral recalls, “At one point we suggested to management that they restructure workflow for efficiency, and they responded, ‘If we do that, it will open up more warehouse space for us to hire more women.’ Those were the terms they were thinking in.”
Louis M. Tritton served as the project executive for the Fox MC team, utilizing her years of experience in ecological consulting to offer recommendations and support. She noted that, given the unique demands of Sari Bari’s work, her team couldn’t simply consult from home.
“The Fox team immediately recognized the value of visiting the production sites, talking with sewers and managers, and observing the business in person,” Tritton said. “The trip to Kolkata made their recommendations practical and feasible.”
The team provided Sari Bari with a model for tracking costs and managing outputs more effectively, as well as recommended pricing and process improvements that should allow Sari Bari to meet and grow the sizable demand for their products.
Litteral’s teammate, Dorie Heald, said the project utilized the breadth of her MBA training. “HR, production, marketing, logistics, managerial accounting—we got to use all of that in our project. Plus, it felt good to know our changes would ultimately help Sari Bari employ more women.”
Back in Kolkata, a door opens. The students step into a room filled with women’s voices and brightly colored cloth. Like the women themselves, the students are hopeful that each piece they pull together will help Sari Bari become a stronger, more cohesive whole.
Fox Management consulting has completed over a hundred projects for non-profits, start-ups, and businesses around the world. Connect with us to learn what we can do for you.
Learn more about Fox School MBA programs.
You probably already know Pennsylvania is the mushroom growing capital of the world, that it’s flush with cows and laying hens, and that each year it ships jaw-dropping quantities of potato chips and pretzels.
But did you know the state is the top producer nationwide for export-grade hardwoods? How about that it boasts the top horse breeding farms in the country? Or that it ranks second in the nation for organic farm sales?
A comprehensive new report by Fox Management Consulting (involving 50 students, and 5 advisors) and Econsult Solutions, commissioned by Team Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, examines threats and opportunities facing agriculture in Pennsylvania. With $136 billion in yearly output and over 9-percent of all PA jobs, the future of the sector is intimately tied to the future of the commonwealth.
Changing Consumer Preferences
Customers, like agriculture, are changing. Bill Black, who oversaw the Fox Management Consulting class which accompanied the project, remarked, “I don’t think anyone realized the level of consumer interest in organics and local. It’s just one of the things that crept up on the marketplace.”
Between 2012 and 2016, production of organics in Pennsylvania more than doubled, topping $659 million in 2016. Yet many farmers are still reluctant to adopt organics, unsure if the trend will stick.
Meanwhile, some consumers are moving away from dairy altogether. In the last few years, milk dumping became a major concern for farmers across the nation as consumers moved towards alternative products, like soy and almond milk.
Bill Kitsch works closely with farmers in his role as vice president and agricultural lending manager with PA-based Ephrata National Bank. He worked as an advisor on the project and says the agricultural sector faces unique constraints in adjusting to changing demand.
“Farmers have to make decisions about how many hens to buy or how many cows to bring to milk 18 to 24 months in advance.” Kitsch explains this long time horizon makes it difficult for farmers to be agile as consumer preferences are in flux.
The report also pointed out that Pennsylvania lacks sufficient milk and protein processing facilities. This leaves farmers trucking milk long distances, decreasing its shelf life, increasing costs for farmers, and reducing the economic benefits to the state.
To better support farmers, Fox MC and Econsult recommended increasing processing capacity within the state, education opportunities, and financial support for farmers as they adjust their operations to line up with demand.
Opportunities for Marketing Collaboration
Even as farmers wrestle with organics, Pennsylvania is already well-positioned to respond to another consumer trend. With 88.3-percent of state farms owned by families or individuals and more than half selling less than $10,000 each year, the state is primed to meet consumer demand for traceable and local food.
The PA preferred brand, approved in 2004 and enacted in 2011, already markets the state’s agricultural wealth. The report argues that PA Preferred should shift its brand identity to become even more synonymous with local goods and traceable food.
PA Preferred Brews, launched in 2017, is a subsection of PA Preferred aimed at supporting Pennsylvania’s $5.8 billion brewing industry. To qualify, breweries must brew in, and use agricultural commodities from, Pennsylvania. In addition to providing branding, the program promotes branded taps, handles, and coasters at venues across the state and has partnered with the Penn State Extension to further support local hops growers.
Programs like PA Preferred create increased value for food manufacturers, producers, and consumers. Through continuing to innovate under this brand, PA can bring new growth and synergies to other sectors with agriculture.
Building the Next Generation of Farmers
While marketing, education, and incentives are helpful in supporting farmers, the state faces another challenge. With 75,000 new and replacement jobs opening in the sector in the next decade, accounting for approximately 2-percent of all state jobs, developing a new agricultural workforce is a major concern.
“There aren’t enough young farmers because they see how hard their parents and grandparents are working and they see how little they’re making,” explains Black. “If the Department of Agriculture can help farmers be more profitable, then the industry would be more attractive to younger farmers.”
Increasing automation is driving a need for STEM skills within agriculture. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has encouraged several programs to support education, including the Jobs that Pay Apprenticeship Program for STEM Jobs in Agriculture, introduced by the Wolfe Administration in 2017.
The report also encourages loan forgiveness programs for high-shortage careers like large animal veterinarians, increases in agricultural education in existing STEM programs, and exploration of an ex-offender to work program to alleviate workforce shortages.
From climate change to new technologies, consumer preferences to workforce shortages, this analysis from Fox MC and Econsult Solutions highlights that many things about the future of Pennsylvania agriculture are uncertain. Yet when it comes to the strategic importance of the sector for Pennsylvania, and the significant impact that state policies and incentives will have on its future, the report leaves little room for doubt.
Fox Management Consulting completes multiple high-value projects each year for corporations, SME’s, start-ups, and non-profits. Put our dedicated MBA teams and experienced industry advisors to work on your next strategic challenge.
Jessica Rothstein describes herself in many ways.
“I’m a confident problem solver. I gravitate toward problems that are meaningful to me. And I’m not afraid to fail.”
One word is notably absent from the Fox MBA’s self-description. “I don’t think of entrepreneurship as a personality trait,” Rothstein explains. “Everyone is entrepreneurial these days—it’s what the workforce is calling for.”
Rothstein may not use the word herself, but of all the careers she tried, entrepreneurship was the one that stuck. “I studied mechanical engineering at Lafayette College, and by the time I was a sophomore I realized I didn’t want to be an engineer,” she says. She stayed engaged in her education by designing a water filtration system for a small community . “We tested it with a family in Haiti,” she recalls, but decided against pursuing the project after graduation.
Instead, Rothstein worked as a consultant, helping companies design better products and use their resources more efficiently. “I did that for about two years, and one day I got a call asking if I wanted to play lacrosse for the Israeli national team,” she says, laughing. “Someone was going to pay me to travel the world. How could I say no?”
Israel was an incredible adventure full of new experiences, but Rothstein was still the same problem-solving adept. “The organization that hired me was trying to develop the sport of lacrosse in Israel,” she says. “At that time, they were growing very quickly but their structures weren’t built for that growth.” Rothstein became the interim director of business development and helped the organization restructure to accommodate that growth.
Meanwhile, Rothstein was also working on a personal problem. “I loved Israel but I missed my friends! Social media lets you talk with people, but I missed sharing experiences,” she recalls. Rothstein started sending her friends scavenger hunt-style tasks to complete. After each task they would send her pictures and stories, allowing them to build new experiences together from across the world.
“When I came home in 2016 my friends and I realized we were on to something,” Rothstein says. Bucket was born, a mobile application designed to bridge the gap between digital communication and in-person connection.
In 2016, Rothstein decided to pursue her MBA. “I was looking for places that had resources for a start-up business,” she recalls. Rothstein had heard of Ellen Weber, executive director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute at the Fox School. “Ellen was one of the first early-stage investors in Philly, and she is a leader in the investor scene here,” Rothstein says. “I knew that I wanted to work for her and get to know her.”
Rothstein found the connections she was looking for at Fox. She began working for Weber at Robin Hood Ventures, a network of angel investors that Weber runs. Her team continued developing Bucket, winning the Laura Bush Seed Fund Grant from Temple University and receiving over 1,000 social media likes in one week.
Rothstein has even had opportunities to use her experience to help other companies through Fox. As part of her MBA capstone through Fox Management Consulting she worked with bSafe, a mobile safety application which allows users to quickly notify friends and family when they have safety concerns.
“Tangibly and intangibly Bucket mirrored bSafe. Starting a business always has some of the same aspects and ambiguity,” Rothstein explains. “You are constantly sprinting in one direction and hitting a wall, so you go the other way. You never know what you’re going to hit, so you’re also trying 50 different angles. That’s the mindset you have to have when you’re working on a project like bSafe because the problem will change every day.”
bSafe engaged Rothstein and her colleagues to design a market launch strategy for the app and create an investor deck, which Rothstein was uniquely positioned to do. Through her work at Robin Hood Ventures, Rothstein reviews dozens of new business proposals each week, deciding which projects will pass to the next stage.
“I have exposure to 40+ incredible people in that network who are early-stage investors and take the time to explain their decisions to me, and have trust in me,” Rothstein says. “That has given me some tangible skills that I was able to use with bSafe.”
MBA student teams work with project executives, experienced professionals with specific expertise in each project area. “I’ve worked with two incredible project executives-Nicole Naumoff last semester and Tess Kristensen this semester. In some ways, I’ve learned more from them than from the actual projects,” Rothstein says.
Rothstein has also loved working with her MBA cohort. “The Temple program is not the typical MBA class of former consultants and bankers. Every person in our class comes from a different background and is passionate about something different. That’s the number one thing I’ve really enjoyed.”
This spring as Rothstein graduates she will be entering a rotational program with Comcast and preparing to launch Bucket publicly, but she already knows that more start-ups are in her future.
“My dream is to open a theme park run completely on kinetic energy that serves people with physical disabilities-a therapeutic theme park. Overcoming physical challenges is hard work and I’d like to help people who are on that journey.”
Call her what you will—problem solving, curious, visionary, or entrepreneurial—Rothstein bears watching. Wherever she goes you can bet that innovative solutions to nagging problems will follow close behind.
Hundreds of dedicated MBA students like Jessica Rothstein pass through Fox’s doors each year. Put their energy and experience to work on your next business challenge through Fox Management Consulting.
What do jazz musicians Billie Holiday, Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, and Grover Washington Jr. have in common?
Holiday’s resonant tones were just babbling when she moved to Philadelphia as a toddler. Tyner’s strong left hand, distinctive in his low piano bass lines, could barely depress a piano key when he was born here in 1938. Brown, Gillespie, and Coltrane each made Philly their home during formative years of their adult lives. Washington even called Temple University home, receiving his doctorate in music composition from the School of Music.
These musicians also shared the struggle of being African American in a world that condoned segregation. Barred from Local 77, Philadelphia’s largest musician’s union, African American musicians banded together to form Union 274 in 1935 with distinguished members like Gillespie, Coltrane, and Nina Simone. In 1966, the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts opened as the Union’s social hub, becoming a regular destination for jazz greats Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Max Roach. The Clef Club was the first facility ever designed specifically for jazz, and today continues to preserve Philadelphia’s incredible jazz legacy.Fox graduate Meco Sparks became very familiar with the Philadelphia Clef Club in the spring of 2016 while participating in her MBA capstone project. Through Fox Management Consulting, multi-disciplinary MBA teams are paired with experienced professional advisors to complete strategy consulting engagements for businesses, non-profits, and start-ups. (To complete a project with Fox Management Consulting reach out to us today.)
Sparks looked for team members with diverse strengths and compatible working styles. “My team worked really well together,” she recalls. “Everyone carried their workload, and our meetings always involved lots of laughter.” The team applied to work with the Clef Club because they recognized the project would be rewarding. “We knew right from the beginning that our team would have a big impact.”
The Clef Club engaged Fox MC to design a five-year strategic plan. Sparks quickly discovered a staff that was deeply engaged in the organization’s mission.“They were passionate about music, jazz, and kids,” she recalls. They were looking for help translating that passion into a sustainable business plan. “No one on their staff had a business background,” says Sparks. The Fox MC team provided that background, drawing on career experience in finance, marketing, and management, in addition to their MBA coursework.
Sparks and her team worked to measure each of the Clef Club’s five programs against its mission and revenue needs. Their recommendations included increased opportunities for partnership and funding, guidelines for developing a sustainable organizational structure, and growth plans for crucial programming central to their mission. “The project really pulled in all of my MBA experience,” says Sparks. “We worked with the board, executive leadership team; we got to step back and analyze the problem from a high level.”
Fox MC has completed over a hundred projects in the non-profit sector, but this one remains special. “The thing that was so elating to me,” says Clef Club artistic director Lovett Hines, “was that the students were so interested in what we were doing. It has been a tremendous marriage.”
The partnership with the Clef Club continues. This fall, Fox MC completes their third project with the organization to implement the recommendations made by Sparks’ team. Sparks herself enjoyed the project so much she joined their advisory board at the start of 2017. “We spent a lot of time organizing and visiting. They were very open to us,” she says. “It inspired me to stay involved.”
Fox MC has generated more than $42 million in new donations and grants for the non-profits we’ve worked with. Put our strategy consulting teams to work for your non-profit today.
Nader Ali-Hassan is the executive director of social marketing at Comcast. He recently joined us for a live conversation on improving social media marketing through making better use of data. This event was the first in a three-part series hosted by Fox Management Consulting and the Fox School. Stay tuned next week for part two and learn how to connect the dots between marketing metrics and the bottom line. Our guest will be Andrew Richardson, director of analytics and insights at Elite SEM.
Nader has a wealth of experience in the social media space. Here is some of what he shared when the cameras stopped rolling.
Your role at Comcast is to translate the marketing messaging for the Xfinity brand across your social media platforms. How do you do that?
We do everything from working with divisions to figuring out their advertising needs, measuring and reporting back, and doing the social listening to see what insights we can glean. We are trying to make sure our customers see us in a positive light and understand the work we’re doing.
We recently did an event called the TV Diner at Comic Con in San Diego where we built the sets from three of our most popular shows. Customers could come sit on the “Game of Thrones” set, eat themed menu items like “Direwolf Bread” and take pictures and talk about the show. We helped design a filter for SnapChat to accompany Katie Perry’s recent tour. Tomorrow I’m going to film a mock horror film to talk about home security. We get to do some really cool work.
How does data support your work?
Data lets you go deep into what is driving a particular person. If certain people react to certain pieces of content, how do I take that engagement and try to convert that customer? The data helps me optimize what I need to create on a day-to-day basis, see what’s working about content and who is responding to it, and create a custom piece of content for that person in order to push them down the funnel.
The data lets us see more about the individual than we ever could before. And it lets us track them even before they’re really engaged with us, which gives us a long lead time in reaching out to them.
Can you offer any additional advice for mid-sized firms in building up their social media analytics?
Stay consistent. There is a litany of measurement tools and everyone has a different sentiment. The tools change so much that unless you stay consistent, you’ll never be able to get real macro change because you’re always changing that KPI. Find a path you like, and stick to it.
Put a team behind your data. Have a creative strategist that can take that data and work with a creative team to apply it. The whole team needs to be receptive to it, and that’s a big shift to how people have worked in the past. It’s half creative, half science. That balance is super important; that’s where analytics comes in. There are certain folks that struggle with narrowing their focus to match what the data is telling you. You need to have a team that is flexible, and you as a leader need to know when to fit into the analytics, and when to ignore it.
Be flexible. What you know today is not necessarily going to be the right thing tomorrow, a week from now, or a month from now. While you want to stay consistent with what you’re measuring, the analysis of what that means and how you interpret it is always changing.
The trends change so quickly. People are tempted to take a certain data set and say “this is absolute now. This is law.” The truth is that a week from now, it could be completely different. The doesn’t mean the analytics were wrong. Times change, and people are fickle.
Analytics can be the thing that chokes you. If you only rely on that, you’ll fail. But if you only trust your gut, you’ll fail too. The trick is to find the balance between the two.
Figuring out how to engage young professionals is a popular topic for employers today. Last month, the Fox School’s Fox Management Consulting (Fox MC) spoke with Eugenie George, an expert on the issue who offered tips for companies seeking to reduce turnover of their young professional workforce. This week, George zooms in on the role managers can play. Here are a few ways to improve loyalty and growth in younger employees.
1) To Help Others, First Help Yourself
While young professionals are often famously profiled as needing a lot of feedback, sometimes the managers who oversee them aren’t soliciting quite enough. “If you are a manager, get a coach,” says George. “If you are over other people, get someone to actually help you become a better leader. That is essential.” George points out that this is just airplane safety 101: Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.
Many companies are taking the hint and hiring in-house coaches to help develop their supervisors, but even in companies that haven’t taken this step, managers can seek out mentors. “Find someone in your company that is not in your field to give you feedback,” advises George, “and do your own reflections. Ask yourself: How am I? What personality type am I? What do I need to be an effective leader?” Even a virtual coach, in the form of a leadership book or management blog can be a significant first step in becoming a more effective leader.
Many celebrities and leaders like Oprah and Bill Clinton talk openly about the importance of their life coach. Executive Chairman of Google Eric Schmidt says being told to get a life coach was “the best advice I ever got.” No matter their career stage, getting outside input can help managers become better leaders of their young professional workforce.
2) Make Training Interactive
Last spring, George engaged a Fox MC student consulting team to support her consulting business, The Quarter Design. Among other research insights, the team learned that virtual trainings have become a non-starter for employee development. “Everywhere you go, people are offering webinars and modules,” says George. “HR managers said they don’t want anything that has to do with online.”
While it can be tempting for busy managers to send a link to a struggling employee, or request they sign up for a webinar, these courses overlook a central component of the development many employees need. “A big part of my job as a consultant is teaching soft skills,” says George. Managers working with young professionals should plan interactive training and encourage employees to seek learning opportunities that engage interpersonal skills.
3) Leave Time for Personal Development
The cornerstone of how most companies measure work is hours on the clock. While that metric has its place, many companies now recognize that maximizing employee performance sometimes means allowing them to work less.
George says a good friend who worked at Google benefited from their famous practice of giving employees time during the workweek to pursue their personal interests. “She went on yoga retreats with that time,” George says. “She now leads meditation retreats with people at Google, and it’s very gratifying.”
While not every company can afford to sponsor yoga retreats, managers play an important role in creating space for personal time. Managing workflows, offering flexibility in work hours, and prioritizing employee requests for time off communicates that personal development is a priority. This allows employees time to do the personal work necessary to produce high-quality outputs. While not every company can be Google, managers can benefit from borrowing a page from their book.
Every year, Fox MC completes multiple high-value strategy consulting projects with clients like Eugenie George. To access in-depth research, multi-disciplinary teams, and actionable solutions for your business or non-profit, connect with us today.
Two weeks ago, Fox Management Consulting highlighted the trend of top MBA programs incorporating experiential learning into their curriculum. By integrating coursework with live client consulting engagements, universities train their students to take on business challenges. Students learn to navigate ambiguity and hone their skills in collaboration.
As this trend continues to grow, more and more universities look for ways to give their students experiential learning opportunities. With more than 18 years of experience leading MBA students through high-value consulting engagements, here are some things Fox MC has learned about creating successful experiential education programs.
1) Get the Scope Right
Client consulting engagements are a strange balancing act. Clients need to know that listening to and meeting their needs is a top priority. Students need to feel that both the curriculum and the consulting engagement are delivering a rich learning experience that contributes to their education. The best project outcomes are achieved when both sets of needs are balanced, and clients and students are committed to creating value for each other.
Offering value to both parties begins by getting the project scope right. “Our projects should contain a good amount of research and surround a decision of strategic importance for the company,” explains Dr. TL Hill, Fox MC’s managing director. “There’s a mutual sorting process that happens between Fox MC and the client to make sure we have a project that is a good fit for us.”
Getting the scope right ensures that students are engaged in a rich learning experience, and clients are getting a high-value return on their investment.
2) Monetize Engagements
Early in Fox MC’s history, Hill considered offering student consulting services for free. “We’re fairly rare in charging money for this,” he says. A supervisor was able to recognize the need for payment, and Hill is very glad they chose to go in that direction.
“When we make these paid consulting engagements, everyone takes it more seriously,” says Hill. He acknowledges that students and companies both have a lot of competing priorities. The initial investment in the project helps both sides to sustain the commitment needed to make these projects successful.
3) Provide Oversight
If there is a secret to the incredible success of Fox MC, both in the consistently high quality of their work and in creating significant value for their clients, it is the involvement of project executives in every project. Project executives, fondly referred to as “PEs” by their MBA charges, are industry experts who guarantee that students perform at the highest level.
PEs are “mostly semi-retired, very smart, with long careers,” says Hill. PEs commit to meet together before each class to discuss problem areas in their team, attend each class with their students, and offer industry experience and connections to help move the student projects forward. “We don’t take on a project,” says Hill, “If we can’t find the right project executive with the right expertise.”
To recruit and retain high quality PEs, Fox MC fosters an ongoing community of former and current project executives. “There aren’t that many opportunities to give back that are this intellectually engaging and concretely effective,” says Hill. Fox MC now completes more than 40 projects a year, so there is usually adequate variety to match everyone’s skills and expertise.
4) Believe Adults Learn by Doing
Creating course curriculum for Fox MC capstone projects is a challenge. Every project is unique, the obstacles faced by each client are different, and new obstacles emerge at every stage of the project. This makes teaching the courses that accompany Fox MC consulting engagements fairly complex.
One thing that grounds the curriculum is a firm belief in the philosophy of experiential learning. “We’ve known for years that adults learn better by doing,” says Hill. “In some ways, MBA curriculum is finally beginning to catch up.” Because faculty and PEs understand that the challenges are an inherent and important part of the student learning experience, they’re able to walk students through the process without getting tripped up by the inherent ambiguity of live projects.
Any MBA program hoping to integrate live consulting engagements into their curriculum should be firmly rooted in the belief that these experiences offer a uniquely valuable learning opportunity for students.
5) Pick Client Partners With Care
Client partners are an important part of making Fox MC projects successful. Fox MC has completed multiple high-value projects over their five year relationship with Aquiline Capital Partners, a New York-based private equity firm. We will examine that relationship as a case study for creating successful partnerships in experiential education in our next installment of this article series.
Since 1999, Fox MC student teams have invested, raised, or realized over $420 million in value for non-profits, SMEs, and large corporations. Reach out now to uncover incredible value with Fox MC.
Eugenie George is an expert in the quarter-life crisis. Not only has she spent hours researching it, met the major writers in the field, and started her own business to help young professionals: George herself is a quarter-life crisis survivor.
“A few years ago, I started to feel really stuck,” she says. “I had literally hit every goal I set for myself in my life, and I wasn’t happy.” Restless at work, and aimless about her career, George began talking with friends and came across the concept of the “quarter-life crisis.” Mimicking the mid-life crisis, but occurring in the second or third decade of life, the quarter-life crisis is a period of feeling lost, frustrated, and dissatisfied for no apparent reason.
As it did with George, this crisis often manifests in workplace dissatisfaction. According to one study, 71% of young professionals are not engaged in their work, and 16% are actively disengaged. A study from the Harvard Business Review found that this group was three times more likely to report leaving their job in the last year than other age groups.
George is a high achiever in everything she puts her mind to. She read everything she could on the topic, and eventually flew to London to meet Alice Stapleton, one of the primary writers and researchers on the quarter-life crisis. “We had tea, of course,” George laughs. “I was sharing how frustrated I was that I had to do so much research to get unstuck. I felt like there should be a model to help people through it.” Stapleton looked at her and said, in classic self-starter fashion, “Why don’t you create a model?”
And that’s exactly what George did. Initially reaching out to young professionals directly, she worked with the Fox School’s Fox Management Consulting last fall to tailor her offerings to the needs of companies hiring young professionals. “U.S. companies lose $30 billion every year on millennial turnover,” she says. Many of the strategies for reversing that trend come down to companies simply using their resources better.
Now in her second year running The Quarter Design, George shares a few simple tips for companies looking to keep their young professionals engaged.
1) Put Your Employee Data to Work
Years ago, George worked with a multi-billion dollar company. In her first weeks there, she noticed personality profiles on several of her coworkers’ walls. “The company had taken time during a meeting for everyone to fill it out,” George recalls. “Then simply told them to post it on their walls, and that was it! They never did anything else with that data.”
While it is increasingly common for large companies to invest time in personality profiles, many companies simply don’t know what to do with that data once they have it. This, as George points out, is a big waste of time and data.
“Let’s say you’re planning a meeting,” she says, “and you know many of your employees are detailed-oriented. Before the meeting, send out a detailed email with the agenda.” These employees will feel more engaged with the meeting, and are likely to come better prepared, saving time and increasing the quality of their input.
While many companies don’t capitalize on their employee data, George notes that top companies have been incorporating it into their decisions for years. “Marie Forleo, an entrepreneur and multi-million dollar business owner, asks all of her employees about their love languages,” George says. “If someone’s love language is words of affirmation, it’s easy. But even if someone’s love language is physical touch, you can make your meetings interactive to help them feel connected and engaged.”
Whatever the data, leveraging the knowledge you have about your employees can inform the way you lead and manage, leading to happier, more productive employees and a stronger company culture.
2) Provide Impactful (and Fun) Benefits
Years ago, George recalls hearing someone say that when they gave their employees “free taco Tuesdays,” they stayed an average of four months longer. While she’s never tested that particular claim, George does know that company culture impacts employee turnover.
The problem comes when companies assume their benefits are meeting employee needs without verifying with their staff. “Start with asking your employees what they want, and be specific with your questions,” says George. Simply adding yoga day, or spending money on another free lunch may not make your workforce feel more engaged.
Once you implement a benefit, track data to determine if your benefit is actually having an impact. “If it doesn’t increase employee satisfaction, and ultimately increase your retention, then that’s not the right benefit,” George says.
As with any investment, time and energy should be directed toward employee resources that have a measurable impact, improving company culture and reducing turnover.
3) Ask the Right Questions
While measuring impact matters, how you measure is just as important. “We often ask the questions that we want to get the ‘correct’ responses,” George says. Instead, George recommends asking questions that invite diverse feedback. “Ask, ‘What do you think would be a good use of company time?’ Then list options you’re considering, and have employees rank them in terms of what would be most useful for them.”
As with any survey, George says you have to be careful that you don’t skew the question. If you’re serious about making changes that will impact employees, create space for them to tell you what they really think, and listen to what they say.
Companies suffering the financial and cultural impacts of high employee turnover may fear the cycle is too entrenched to fix. The great news is that simply creating a few new habits in employee engagement can go a long way towards keeping quality employees around.
Fox MC helps professionals like Eugenie George move their businesses forward. For actionable insights, and research-driven recommendations, hire a Fox MC consulting team today.
Education is a bridge—it equips students for the workforce, puts a promotion within reach, or paves the way to a new career. For employers, this bridge ensures a steady supply of committed individuals with the skills necessary to create value for a company.
Lately, that bridge has been looking a little rickety.
Today’s competitive landscape is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. Business students must be adaptable and entrepreneurial enough to spot and capitalize on opportunities no matter what tomorrow (or the next day) bring.
Enter experiential education. If traditional education is a bridge, experiential education is more like Parkour. After years of relying on the case study method, a rhetorical analysis of issues faced by businesses, universities are shifting their approach to challenge MBA students with complex problems in real time. Through working on live projects that compliment their coursework, students blend theory and practice and gain invaluable experience.
The Fox School has incorporated experiential education into its curriculum for over two decades—13 years before the Kellogg school rolled out new coursework and Harvard introduced “Field Immersion Experiences,” Fox students put their MBAs to the test in live client consulting engagements through Fox Management Consulting.
“I went through the Executive MBA in the late 90’s,” Dr. TL Hill recalls. “At that time, all but two of our courses included live projects. It was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since.”
This experience is part of what prompted Hill, now the Managing Director of Fox MC, to seek consulting opportunities for students. Beginning with only a few projects, the program quickly spread across the Fox School, today manifesting as the capstone course for every MBA graduate.
Here are three ways Fox School MBA students benefit from experiential learning, creating a direct path between them and the companies whose jobs they seek.
1) Embracing Ambiguity
The Fox School makes a point of regularly checking in with industry experts about the skills they want from graduates. At the top of the list for many employers is proficiency in ambiguity. The problems facing modern businesses aren’t clear cut, and the most innovative answers often come from outside the business sector. Top leaders have to be able to cut through the fog to determine what steps to take and where to begin looking for answers.
Some researchers observe that young workers particularly struggle with ambiguity, showing a strong preference for structure. Traditional education caters to this desire, but experiential education challenges students to look beyond their comfort zone. “Students are shifting from mastering content in a course to addressing an unfamiliar topic with an unpredictable client,” says assistant professor of strategic management Marilyn Anthony.
Consulting projects do not have a right answer. Much like the problems facing industries today, success is not just reaching the finish line, it is redefining the race.
2) Thriving in Collaboration
While working with others has always been part of the business world, modern technology has embedded collaboration even deeper in the workplace. With teams regularly integrating diverse cultures, skills sets, and time zones, MBA graduates need to be self-aware and collaboratively adept.
Fox MC consulting engagements put students together in cross-functional teams with pressures similar to those they will face in their careers. “It’s a huge responsibility to deliver high quality work in a short period of time,” Anthony says. In addition to being graded, teams work for paying clients, and are well aware that the quality of their work could create an open door or a dead end to future employment opportunities.
Students are also balancing new relationships and working styles. “We had some pretty dynamic personalities on our team,” one former student remembers. “I knew one person on my team, but the other three I had never seen before.” Just like the work world, diverse personalities and working styles can’t get in the way of delivering high quality work for the client.
With more than 350 projects under their belts, through a combination of student dedication and program supports, every Fox MC team finds their way through.
3) Earning Executive-level Experience
An ambitious MBA student will complete their degree and enter the workforce in a mid-level management position. It will take them several more years to work their way into a role where they get to make major strategic decisions.
The Fox MC program pushes the fast-forward button on that timeline. “It can give students an experience 5 to 10 years ahead of where they are career wise,” says Hill. “It allows them to do work that would be beyond their ability on their own.”
Past Fox MC teams have selected acquisition targets for top investment firms, designed new product launches for Fortune 100 companies, and created an investment strategy for a large agricultural cooperative.
One reason this level of work is possible is that Fox MC teams have a robust support network. Each team is led by a project executive with years of professional experience relevant to the project they lead. The professors are industry veterans, curating course content to match industry standards. Teams also meet with advisors who critique their projects to ensure the best product possible reaches the client.
For businesses, experiential education delivers MBA graduates who are ready to lead. For MBA students, it sharpens their skills and prepares them for success. And for business schools, whose product is the leaders of tomorrow, it ensures graduates who are ready for the real world. After all, they have already proven what they can do.
Next year, Fox MC students will graduate and become leaders in the community. This year, for a limited time, you can access their experience, knowledge and hard work for a discounted price. To get their help for your nonprofit or business, leave your contact information.
This post is part one of a three part series. Return next week to learn five tips for making experiential education a success.
Bert Verhoeven is a university professor of the best course you never got to take—students in his courses spend their time writing TV commercials, designing wallets, and interviewing Muffin Break customers.
Verhoeven is part of a recent partnership between Flinders University, in Adelaide, Australia, and the Fox School to teach innovation and enterprise (INNO) curriculum to help Flinders students thrive in today’s competitive landscape.
Pulling from a variety of methodologies, including design thinking and lean start-up, the INNO curriculum challenges students to learn experientially. “Businesses struggle to teach theory,” Verhoeven explains. “Universities struggle to teach tacit learning. The goal of the INNO courses is to bridge the gap between the two.”
The curriculum design team for INNO includes several longtime entrepreneurs like Verhoeven, who has 25 years of experience creating and leading new enterprises. The team also recently welcomed Michelle Histand, director of innovation at Independence Blue Cross, as the new associate director of the Flinders project at the Fox School. Unwilling to let learning stop with the students, the INNO contributors push themselves to think like entrepreneurs throughout the curriculum design process.
Below, faculty from Flinders and the Fox School share five lessons they’ve learned for any institution hoping to apply an entrepreneurial orientation to collaborative course design.
1) Practice Opportunity Recognition
Every entrepreneurial journey begins as an insight. In the case of the INNO partnership, inspiration struck when TL Hill, managing director of Fox Management Consulting, learned that Flinders was instilling innovation as a backbone of curriculum across their university. Hill saw an opportunity to help build an inventive new program while simultaneously honing the Fox School’s skills as a leader in entrepreneurship education.
Recognizing opportunities can begin with some basic questions: What are the pain points in your courses and programs? How do things look and feel from your customer’s perspective? Who is doing it better? Where can you glean insight outside of the academic world?
Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, advises hopeful entrepreneurs to be “opportunistic collectors,” taking inspiration from poems, lyrics, or snippets of conversation. Whatever your sources, practicing opportunity recognition begins with believing that new and better curriculum opportunities exist—and staying on the lookout.
2) Create Shorter Learning Cycles
Thomas Watson Jr., of IBM, famously advised, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.” This saying was born out in the well-known Marshmallow Challenge, a group exercise where teams were asked to build towers of spaghetti and masking tape with a marshmallow on the top.
The challenge gained attention when kindergartners were found to significantly outperform adults, creating taller and more inventive structures in less time. The key to the kid’s success was jabbing the sticky sweet on top immediately. While adults plotted and planned, the tots were busy trying and failing and learning. By shortening their learning cycles, the kids allowed more opportunities for failure and success.
The instructors creating INNO courses are practicing this process in real time. Their initial course curriculum was laid out only a year ago, and is already undergoing its third overhaul. While this pace can be exhausting, it is leading to courses that are quickly becoming some of the best attended at Flinders.
In addition to investing in curriculum adjustment, universities can create shorter learning cycles by sharing projects and ideas earlier. Welcoming feedback into a partially planned course, giving a presentation on a young project, or planning Skype conversations early in a partnership allows course designers to fail quickly and adjust accordingly.
“We keep asking ourselves, ‘How do we learn faster?'” says Verhoeven. The answer? Create shorter learning cycles.
3) Prioritize Reflection
Much like resting your muscles after a hard workout, reflection is necessary to ensure learning cycles lead to genuine improvement and growth. One of the most common ways universities practice reflection is soliciting student feedback. The Fox School has made a practice of broadening that approach to collect feedback from all stakeholders.
The first design of the INNO curriculum was based on the Fox School’s past experience, and on brief conversations with Australian business leaders early last fall. In October, the Fox School sent a team to Adelaide to conduct focus groups and extensive interviews; the next summer, Verhoeven traveled to Philadelphia to reflect after the first full semester of courses launched.
All of this conversation fueled the curriculum rewrites of the last year. Like a cat chasing its own tail, reflection generates new learning cycles which create fodder for more reflection.
4) Cultivate Your Culture
Creating the right culture is essential for new businesses, as Hill explains, “because they’re fighting so hard against the tide. They don’t have time to disagree about everything.” The same can be said for collaborative curriculum designers hoping to push the envelope.
Cultivating culture starts by articulating a clear vision. The INNO team is challenging students and faculty to relearn how to learn. Their motto is “differently think.” Paying attention to that vision, clearly communicating it, helps them stay on track.
A strong vision becomes a helpful litmus test for building a team. “There are many different ways of teaching entrepreneurship,” Hill says. By understanding their vision, and hiring to match that vision, the INNO team is developing a strong culture and paving the way for an effective team.
While culture can feel amorphous and hard to pin down, it is the secret sauce that every successful enterprise has to master. Universities practicing collaborative course design must tend their culture well or risk developing mediocre curriculum or short-lived partnerships.
5) Facilitate Conflict
Once a team is fully formed, it’s time to start storming. The INNO team has some unique challenges, working across universities, continents, and cultures, but any team will have differences. As Verhoeven puts it, “There’s always friction; that’s entrepreneurship.”
One way to ensure that conflicts remain productive is to designate a conflict facilitator. For the INNO team, the facilitator is tasked with paying special attention to all communications, and responding quickly to any concerns that arise.
Appointing one person to monitor group dynamics ensures that all parties feel heard, and nothing has time to fester. This frees up the group’s energy to move curriculum design forward.
Designing courses collaboratively while integrating an entrepreneurial lens is a messy process. Treasured ideas get thrown out, failure becomes routine, and there isn’t time to get comfortable.
Yet somewhere, at the end of all the frustration and pain, is a new idea, a better course, a fresh way of helping students grow their potential. Like a fluffy marshmallow suspended on a tower of noodles, the goal is to leave students with skills and insights that will stand the test of time.
Learn more about Fox Management Consulting.
“I was working as an accounting clerk at a local charter school,” he recounts, “and I started realizing that to manage a school I was going to need an MBA.” After looking around at various schools, he chose Temple University because it was “nitty gritty,” involving students from diverse backgrounds with robust experience, and focusing on real world application of the MBA. “I still tell friends that,” he says with a smile, “if they’re considering an MBA, I say ‘Go to Temple. It’s nitty gritty.’”
It was while working on his MBA that Entezari ran smack dab into experiential education, a movement across universities to get students out of the classroom and working on live projects. Fox Management Consulting is the cornerstone of experiential education at the Fox School, pairing teams of students with professional coaches to complete strategy and marketing consulting projects for organizations across the region and around the globe. For actionable, research-based solutions to meet your company’s needs, reach out to our team today.
For students, the capstone is an opportunity to blend theory and practice. Entezari compares it to a sports tournament. “When you’re actually working on a live project, it’s different. You have to manage expectations from the client, and you take things a lot more seriously. When you practice on the field, you might horse around, but when you step into the game, things change.”
For clients, the consulting engagements provide a unique value too. “The students you work with are super motivated,” says Entezari. “They’ve already chosen to invest in an MBA. Plus, you have five people on a team with experience in accounting, media, logistics—they’re all coming with their own sets of stories.” That diversity of perspectives gives the teams access to solutions from multiple industries.
Entezari first encountered Fox MC while in the Fox Board Fellows program, a partner program to Fox MC that pairs students with non-profit boards. As they complete coursework in board governance, students work with the non-profit to complete a project of their choice.
During his fellowship, Entezari partnered with Gearing Up, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that leverages cycling to help women move through histories of abuse, addiction and incarceration. With his years of experience in accounting and finance, and his education at Fox, Entezari had a rich knowledge-base to offer the organization. “I realized that what I was doing for them-helping them improve their finances and financial stability-was something I could do in the marketplace.”
Entezari’s experience serving as a Fox Board Fellow led him to create Ocean Mint Consulting, a small business consulting service, in 2013. He took on his first clients while studying at Fox, and has since completed multiple projects across a variety of industries, including education, healthcare, and caretaker services.
Shortly after completing his fellowship, Entezari entered his MBA capstone with Fox MC. It was here that he learned several valuable lessons that he still applies across his consulting engagements.
1) Stay open minded
“The ability to imagine is really the starting point for any project,” Entezari says. “You can regurgitate accounting or economics, but to take that and apply it requires an open mind.”
In his project with Fox MC, Entezari’s team worked with the Willistown Conservation Trust, a non-profit land trust located outside of Willistown, PA. The team was engaged to develop a strategy for offering trainings on the trust’s unique sustainable growing method.
Entezari’s project executive, Marilyn Anthony, pushed the team to keep turning over rocks, even when they thought they were done searching. “It was uncomfortable,” Entezari recalls, “but she steered us in directions we never knew existed.”
In his consulting practice now, Entezari sees this drive for better ideas as critical for success. “Sometimes the best solution for a client might be something that they don’t even know-maybe it’s something that no one has tried yet. As a consultant, your job is to help the client learn what they don’t already know.”
2) Use your data to understand new sectors
When Entezari started the Willistown project, neither he nor his teammates were familiar with urban agriculture. In the absence of experience, the team looked to data. Though Entezari has always been a numbers guy, this project was the first time he saw data serving as a universal language.
“We had to immerse ourselves in the data,” he recalls. “It forced my brain to look at things I wasn’t familiar with, and that process in itself has paid dividends.” Now, when Entezari finds himself working in foreign industries, he can use the data to start mapping out the landscape.
Entezari recalls a recent consulting engagement that highlighted the importance of data. By examining when customers used one of his client’s services, and the time they spent in each engagement, Entezari helped the client understand their significant cost drivers.
“Sometimes, the data that seems unimportant may actually be the ‘golden nugget,’” Entezari says. He compares this approach with data to Moneyball- sometimes using data in unconventional ways can help businesses discover hidden value.
3) Packaging matters
The bulk of the course work for the Fox consulting project is creating the client deliverables: a research report and presentation at the midpoint, and a final strategic report and accompanying presentation at the end. The quality and professionalism demanded by professors, project executives and clients is high.
“This project set a bar for expectations of how a project should look from start to finish.” Entezari explains that he was recently asked to help craft a report as part of a team working with a charter school in Detroit. Some of his teammates were blown away by the professionalism and detail of the report. “After going through the consulting capstone,” he says, “that level of quality felt basic to me.”
When Entezari graduated, all of his experience with Fox MC, his coursework and starting his own business did help him land a job as Director of Operations and Finance for a local charter school. He isn’t one to stay still, and after eight years working in various charter schools, just this month he accepted a position as the Controller of Indego, Philadelphia’s bike sharing program.
Though this new role will keep him busy, Entezari says there’s no question that he will keep consulting. “It provides a way for me to get outside my comfort zone.” For Entezari, experiential learning will go on with the classroom or without it.
If you are looking for a diverse team of professionals to offer data-driven solutions for your business, reach out to the Fox MC team now.
The next generation of farmers is here. From vibrant gold tomatoes at ACME to bundles of fragrant garlic scapes at the farmers’ market, today’s consumer wants fresh, local produce and young farmers everywhere are springing up to give it to them. These farmers face a whole host of unique challenges.
Fox MC has worked with various agricultural organizations to support this segment. From economic development corporations to land trusts, non-profits to cooperatives, any organization hoping to support next generation farmers should be aware of the unique challenges and opportunities they face.
The Opacity of Risk
A few years ago, Fox MC consulted for the Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit (MAFC). This cooperative that offers credit and financial services to farmers in the mid-atlantic region has recently struggled to meet the needs of the new wave of agriculturalists.
The challenge for MAFC hinged on risk assessment. In the past, farmers bought large tracts of land, passed down through generations, as collateral to bear on their loans. Today, many young farmers are the first in their families to pick up the spade, renting land or farming on smaller plots that don’t offset the value of the loans they seek.
Risk assessment gets further complicated by the business model used by young farmers. Traditional farmers grew their product and sold it off to a distributor; as long as their potatoes made it on the truck, they got their money, with no further risk involved.
Many newer farmers are selling directly to consumers through Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), farm stands, and other avenues. They assume 100% of their risk, from crop failure to product spoilage, logistics issues to low product demand. With so many more opportunities for something to go wrong, lenders like the MAFC have a hard time determining the viability of a loan, which limits the capital available to young farmers.
Thankfully, MAFC is committed to serving young farmers and, ” target=”_blank”>with the help of Fox MC, implemented an adapted credit model to better address their needs. But for those small farmers without access to a proactive lender, capital remains a significant barrier to growth.
The 24/7 Straw Hat
Marilyn Anthony, an assistant professor of Strategic Management at Fox, has served as project executive for several Fox MC projects within the agriculture industry. She notes that farming is a uniquely comprehensive vocation. “Every small business person wears a lot of hats,” Anthony says, “but they don’t necessarily wear them 24-7. The farmer does.”
Part of the difference for farmers is their set cycle of production. If a baker burns their boule, they make a new one. If a farmer’s crop fails, they may have to wait an entire year to try again. This increases the pressure on farmers during the growing season, and concentrates all their needed resources into a few-month-period each year.
Farming also requires a unique mix of skills. Every small business owner is part accountant, lawyer, handyman, and marketer. But, as Anthony explains, “For small farmers, production itself requires such extensive skill that it leaves very little space and time for all the other business skills.” The challenge for next generation farmers is to either gain business skills themselves or outsource them, leaving them free to focus on farming.
Think Like A Business
For all the things that make small farms unique as small business enterprises, many of their challenges come from not focusing enough on the business piece.
Bill Kitsch is the vice president and agricultural lending manager at Ephrata National Bank. He has spent his whole career in the agriculture industry working with financing.
His story of becoming a passionate supporter of alternative farming methods began not with concerns for the earth or fears about GMOs, but from an ardent desire to see farmers capture more of the value of their produce.
“I was watching farmers invest in the newest technologies,” Kitsch explains. “They’d see an incremental increase in their yield, but no increase in their profits. They were just sending the extra money out to the technology companies. I was watching farm families deteriorate because of it.”
When organics began to take hold in the early 2000s, Kitsch saw an opportunity for farmers to finally capture more food dollars for all of their hard work. “If the consumer is willing to pay more for organic,” he says, “then that’s fine by me.’”
Many green farmers dive into farming, purchasing equipment on credit and choosing a business model that appeals to them. Instead, Kitsch recommends farmers begin like any other small business: assess the need, critically think through strategic steps for addressing it, and only begin investing resources once a business plan is in place.
“A lot of this comes down to record keeping,” says Kitsch. Farmers should know what their expenses are, where they intend to sell their product, and what ROI they can expect.
Farmers also need to think about diversification of revenues. The most successful farmers are selling through a number of different avenues, whether wholesale, to restaurants, through a CSA, or at their own markets.
The takeaway for organizations trying to support next generation farmers is to facilitate access to business skills and resources. Many farmers will benefit from training on the basics of running a small business, and can translate that knowledge into better marketing, planning, and record keeping.
Some farmers do not want to become accountants, or don’t have the skillset to be successful marketers, and even the most entrepreneurial farmer will have limitations. Organizations can offer support services for these farmers, centralizing record keeping, offering consultation in business models or web expansion, and facilitating connection with other business professionals who are knowledgeable in working with and supporting this segment.
Whatever the combination of resources offered, finding ways to help small farmers think more like small business owners is a big step in ensuring their success.
In addition to his work funding young farmers, Kitsch served as a project executive last fall with Fox MC for a team working with the Chester County Economic Development Council (CCEDC) to evaluate the viability of CSAs as a business model. What they learned flew in the face of common farming practices.
Many young farmers kick off their business by starting a CSA. While CSA’s are viable “long-term financial vehicles,” according to Kitsch, they are about the worst initial venture for farmers just starting out.
CSAs are highly complex. They involve 30 to 40 different products, depend on strong marketing skills for creating demand, and have uncertain financial returns. As Anthony puts it, “Why would you start your business at a place with the highest demand for all of these skills?”
Kitsch recommends that new farmers instead begin with a high degree of wholesale and a low degree of marketing. “Over time you’ll reverse that ratio,” he explains, “but the key to every farm is to utilize 100% of your assets, every inch of your farm in revenue generation.”
New farmers running an operation as complex as a CSA simply don’t have time to ensure they’re hitting their capacity, and as Kitsch points out, that’s a critical oversight. “In farming, your return on your assets is only 1% to 1.5%,” says Kitsch. “If you decrease your utilization by even 5%, it’s fatal.”
The most successful farms Kitsch has seen often begin their efforts by focusing on one or two products. They can sell to a few restaurants or at a farm stand, and move up the learning curve at a lower risk level.
This method not only simplifies growing and marketing for the farmer, it also makes financing easier. “If a farmer knows who their market is, I can find a way to finance it,” Kitsch says. Finding a market for a single product is much easier than managing an unpredictable CSA membership base.
For organizations trying to support next generation farmers, helping them determine the best use of their resources and even steering them away from a CSA to start can be a big support.
A final support organizations can offer to next generation farmers is the development of infrastructure. Kitsch gives the example of the mushroom cluster in southeastern Pennsylvania. Several mushroom farmers there realized that their fresh mushrooms were an imitable advantage, and banded together to create a factory for canning, diversifying their revenues and insulating them against risk.
Infrastructure that helps farmers deal with their “seconds,” produce that is not pretty enough for sale as is, helps farmers capture more of their food dollars and get closer to 100% capacity utilization.
Support infrastructure can come in the form of factories, farmers markets, and networks of local restaurants that purchase regional produce, or collaboratives that help centralize distribution. Needs vary depending on the farmer and the region. Organizations should look for the collective benefit farmers in their particular region need and coordinate to provide it.
Next generation farmers have a dynamite product. Kitsch himself regularly benefits from locally raised hogs, sweet silver queen corn, and pesticide free strawberries.
The key for organizations stepping up to support these farmers is helping them get out their product in a way that not only leaves the consumer sticky and smiling, but also fills the farmers pockets to fund delicious edibles for many years to come.
Walker Tompkins knows corporate financial management. With more than 35 years of experience in banking, marketing, liability, and money management, he’s learned a lot about the ins and outs of making it in the industry. He brings that expertise when leading MBA students in client consulting engagements through the Fox Management Consulting (Fox MC) capstone course at the Fox School. Since Tompkins retired as President and CEO of American Express Credit Corporation (AECC), he has been a project executive for the course, providing 150+ hours of oversight to each Fox MC project team and ensuring that the consultants deliver top quality work.
Tompkins did not earn the title of President and CEO overnight. It took years of learning, listening, working with multiple bosses, and taking on challenges. That is why he’s a fan of the Fox Management Consulting program. “There’s nothing like a real-world problem to show you how the stuff in the textbook really works.” Tompkins described Fox MC as an excellent way for business students to learn to present, expand their skill sets, and take on projects outside of their comfort zones to become effective entrepreneurs and business leaders.
Tompkins recently distilled his luminous career into five tips that shaped his success as a leader in corporate financial management. In addition to offering great industry advice, he has a penchant for creative idioms that help his lessons stick.
1. Know Your Product (Eat the Cake You Bake)
Success begins with a strong knowledge of your products and the regulatory environment in which you operate. Managers who immerse themselves in their products make stronger financial decisions, increasing their company’s profits, reducing their financial risks, and improving their return on capital. Part of becoming a subject matter expert (SME) is understanding things from a client perspective. As CEO at American Express Credit Corporation, Tompkins intentionally spent time in customer service, personally taking trades from customers. Seeing your business from a customer perspective is akin to “eating the cake you bake,” he says. Tompkins attributes much of his success to his willingness to get his hands dirty.
2. Deliver a Quality Product (Be Error Free)
One of Tompkins key objectives was to produce a quality product for which customers were willing to pay a premium. Often, adding value begins by prioritizing seamless services that are error free. Customers should find it easy to make transactions, and easier still to reach you when something isn’t working. Tompkins once advocated a three ring rule, where every customer call had to be answered before the fourth ring. Over time, Tompkins recounts, his product and service were known for their quality and customers weren’t hindered by the cost.
3. Guard Your Assets (Don’t Be A Pig!)
Tompkins described a manager as the “keeper of the business,” tasked with the privilege and responsibility of tending the company’s assets. Diversifying your portfolio, though a somewhat tired axiom in financial management, is nonetheless paramount. Whether working with investments or products, diversifying prepares you for the unexpected. “Leave some cushion,” Tompkins admonished, “So that if the Black Swan appears, you will not be the first to self destruct.”
Tompkins also advised financial professionals to maintain a healthy respect for regulations. This safeguards you against scrutiny from regulators, and keeps you ahead of competitors who many not be as scrupulous. As Tompkins put it,“Bulls make money, bears make money, and pigs get eaten.” The best strategy is to make sure your business is healthy, sound and firmly within the bounds of regulation.
4. Understand Key Metrics (Take Your Temperature)
Even the best leaders can’t keep their eyes on everything at once. Developing accurate benchmarks to track company performance internally and against industry standards can flag problem areas and opportunities before they’ve grown wings. “If you construct them properly, drifting in or out of a metric will alert you to a shift in the business.” Tompkins equates it to “checking the temperature of the company.” Monitoring these metrics keeps leaders ahead of problems and aware of opportunities.
5. Up Your Automation (Make a Smaller Haystack)
Tompkins advises that you seize opportunities for automation. Automation can make it easier to find problems. “You’re making the haystack smaller, so you can find the needle,” Tompkins says. It also reduces errors and inefficiencies, and frees employee time up for more pressing business. “Even a system generated dashboard at the end of each day can be very telling,” he said.
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