Strapped Causes Get a Hand From Retired Execs

Executive Service Corps helps nonprofits strengthen management and fund-raising

In its 68 years of offering free legal services to the poor, the nonprofit Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) has faced many foes. But its latest challenge is particularly daunting. Even as it faces losing three-quarters of its budget, record numbers of clients are flooding in.

But LAFLA is not easily slowed down. Like many other highminded but low-funded nonprofits - often with little fund-raising experience - it is turning to Executive Service Corps (ESC), a self-styled emergency service for newly needy nonprofits.

This volunteer consortium of 175 top retired executives represents a veritable Yellow Pages of southern California businesses. For a modest fee to the nonprofit ESC, former bigwigs from some of the top companies in town donate tough business plans and hands-on direction. The goal is to realize a leaner, more efficient operation - a profile that in turn makes the nonprofits more attractive to potential donors.

"We want to bring a business management perspective to help them do their work better, but also to make them appear worthy of further help," says Megan Cooper, ESC's executive director.

The national ESC is an offshoot of International ESC, founded 30 years ago in New York by David Rockefeller and Frank Pace. For 15 years, the Los Angeles chapter of ESC (one of 47 nationwide) has helped more than 500 nonprofit agencies, ranging from the American Red Cross to the Vietnamese Community of Orange County.

Many nonprofits, like LAFLA, are facing cutbacks as a result of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. A recent survey by Independent Sector found that during the fiscal years 1996-2002, nonprofits will face a $254 billion cumulative gap in funding.

ESC offers management consulting, brainstorming sessions, a board development program as well as a talent pool for board candidates. For agencies with budgets of $1 million or more, ESC offers a year-long retainer partnership program through which consulting services in all managerial areas are available.

Start with brainstorming

Marianne Haver Hill is executive director of Meet Each Need With Dignity (MEND), the most comprehensive poverty center in the San Fernando Valley. In January 1994, she invited ESC in for a brainstorming session. Five consultants spent an afternoon discussing ideas and investigating the agency's operations. They interviewed board members, staff, and clients. "It was very productive and we got some useful tips just from that single meeting." But, she says, one member of the team perceived a need and went even further.

Although he was impressed with the efficiency of MEND's operation (93 percent of the $3 million budget is spent directly on client services), Bob Rains, former executive vice-president of public relations at Universal Studios, felt the agency needed a better public profile in its own community. So he decided to draft a series of recommendations.

"I thought they needed to communicate their success stories to their constituency, to help them get support where they are," observes Mr. Rains. He recommended they create a newsletter with personal stories from clients, in addition to sponsoring community events such as a raffle that would pull in sponsors and new faces. Ms. Hill says Rains took several months to complete the report and then delivered a presentation to the MEND Board. "We were impressed. He'd created a list of potential projects as well as assessing all our current activities." Since then, Hill says MEND has done a raffle and a newsletter. "Both have worked well," she adds.

Rains, who has worked with ESC for 4-1/2 years, says he does it because "I needed to feel appreciated. Retirement is not all it's cracked up to be."

The former PR man says that after retirement in 1978, he found himself with too much time and not enough to do.

"You can only go to so many lunches and movies," he says with a laugh. After a friend recommended he look into ESC, "it's been full-time, part-time ever since."

Ms. Cooper observes that although the former heads of companies who are in her ranks are not paid (although they can file for mileage if they choose), "the psychic rewards are huge. Many of these people feel that they've had their successful careers and now it's time to give back to the community."

A typical volunteer will work on one or two projects for a minimum of a half-day per week and usually in a team. The two will set up a consulting plan with specific objectives and timetables.

Under the management-consulting program, the team will follow up at three and six months with whatever adjustments or further recommendations are needed.

Going the extra mile

Although there are no strict guidelines, some volunteers will go the extra mile. Hill says Rains actually helped MEND type press releases and directed her to the outlets. "He really made sure we understood how to implement the ideas he was giving us. He didn't just suggest and leave."

Cooper says ESC has gained clients primarily by word of mouth. It's hard to find a dissatisfied customer, although recommendations often take longer to implement than projected by the initial consultation.

But Cooper says she sees a whole new era opening up for her services. As government funding is drying up, "we're hearing a lot of pain and fear out there in the nonprofits." Cooper points out that in one day during the past week, ESC began six new projects. "Just a year ago, we used to start six to eight a month."

Adds Susan Smith, assistant professor at the University of California's School of Social Work, "ESC has a great service to offer agencies who are going to have to scramble to do organizing and fund-raising that they've never had to do before."

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