In the fall of 2018, Dream Volunteers cofounder and executive director Brian Buntz was stuck.
The Bay Area-based nonprofit organization provides education to underserved youth in developing countries, and brings U.S. students on service trips to those same countries. The group was coming off its most successful year yet, but problems with branding, scaling, and funding threatened that momentum, and Buntz was overwhelmed.
“We’re very small, incredibly lean, and at the time I was the only full-time person working in the organization,” he says. “To take the time to handle all of these issues was impossible. I was putting out fires daily and in reactive mode at work, rather than being able to think strategically or long-term. Problems kept getting pushed down the road.”
“You apply for a grant, but instead of hoping to get funds, you hope to get human resources,” he says. “Really high-performing, talented, smart resources that come in and help you develop a critical project and move you along on a spectrum of growth.”
Focused on Social Impact
The growth — and transformation — of Dream Volunteers is just the latest chapter in ACT’s 32-year history of being one of the largest pro bono resource providers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nonprofit organizations accepted into the ACT program are teamed with alumni volunteers from Stanford GSB’s MBA, MSx, and Executive Education programs to receive help in strategic planning, organizational growth, marketing, financial stability, and other areas. Each project is customized to the organization’s needs and ranges in length from one to six months.
The business plan for ACT was written as a class project led by Debbie Cohen, MBA ’87. Cohen and Alison Elliott, MBA ’84, further developed the program, which to date has sent 1,500 GSB alumni into the community, donating an estimated $75 million in consulting services to 700 organizations of all sizes. More than 880 projects have been completed, including 80 at various schools, departments, centers, and institutes at Stanford University. In addition to the Bay Area, ACT is active in both Monterey and Pasadena, California, as well as the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“ACT volunteers are people with a passion to use their business skills to increase the impact of the social sector,” explains ACT Program Director Susan Austin. “They like working with other alumni, getting to know an organization deeply, and knowing they’re having an impact. Nonprofits benefit from this infusion of talent and the expertise of these individuals, which then helps the organization be more effective and the community stronger.”
The team assembled by Austin to work with Dream Volunteers was led by Karen Carter, MBA ’94, who had participated in a previous ACT project a decade ago. An independent marketing consultant, Carter joined with Karen White, MBA ’96, director of product management at Khan Academy; finance and investment professional Rosa Estrada, MBA ’90, who had just finished leading another ACT project focusing on juvenile justice; and Patricia “Patty” Soriano, MSx ’18, vice president of marketing and product management at G-Coin and former CEO of animal welfare startup WUF, based in Lima, Peru. The four clicked from the beginning.
“Each of us brought a slightly different experience set to this that turned out to be remarkably complementary,” White says. “Rosa has really deep finance experience, and Patty has international experience. I was able to drive our voice of the customer initiative and roll that up into a messaging platform, which was really fun for me, because it was an adjacent area I don’t usually get to work in. That’s something that’s really appealing about these projects; you bring your functional experience to the table, but the way you contribute is not limited to your functional resume.”
ACT in Action
The team first met with their client in fall of 2018 to define the problems plaguing the organization. There was an identity crisis; the group operated under different names on multiple platforms. There was a lack of focus; in an attempt to reach more children in need, the organization was erratic in its attempts to scale into different countries. And then there was Buntz himself — like many nonprofit founders, a talented, motivated, but overcommitted leader who was trying to do everything himself.
“Any time he saw a need, he’d attack that need,” Carter says. “He needed some help focusing that passion.”
Over the next five months, the team set out to learn everything they could about Dream Volunteers, which has an annual operating budget of about $800,000 and runs two broad programs. The first provides scholarships for secondary education to youth in underdeveloped countries — teens who normally would have no access to education after the sixth grade. To support that program, Dream Volunteers also operates service and gap-year trips to those same countries for students from the U.S. and Canada. The programs work in conjunction to encourage both groups of students — those traveling and those receiving scholarships — to engage with each other, broaden their worldview, build cultural bridges, and discover how their abilities can help others.
Carter and her team interviewed Dream Volunteers’ staff, scholars, service trip students, stakeholders, and coordinators around the world; combed through social media platforms; performed competitive research; evaluated the organization’s historical and forecast financials; and created a quantitative survey that was also translated for use in India and Central America. They developed a dynamic financial model to run economic sensitivities around different initiatives and to help with prioritization decisions. They even created a pie chart to show Buntz how he actually spent his time.
“Seventy-five percent of his time was going to things that others could do,” White recalls.
Helping Buntz to both relinquish personal supervision over every aspect of his organization and adopt a more disciplined approach to scaling would prove to be two of the team’s biggest challenges, Soriano says.
“When somebody asks for your help, and you know you can help them, how do you say no?” she says. “He knows so much, but resources are limited. How do you have a strategy that will help you scale up in a sustainable way? That’s where our added value came in. We were having tough conversations with him about situations in which he was definitely helping but not helping scale up the group’s impact.”
At the end of five months, the ACT team made its recommendations. They include a five-year financial plan and sensitivity analysis, a rebranding of the organization with the sole name “Dream Volunteers,” and a new tagline: “Open Up Your World.”
“We felt it was such a powerful statement that conveys the impact Dream Volunteers is having on both the American and the international students,” Soriano says.
They also suggested a more competitive pricing structure; the elimination of local chapters; the use of a webinar as an information source for parents; and exploring additional revenue sources, such as adding Spanish language courses, that would not distract from core activities.
“We also came up with a ‘Now, Next, Later’ map of the areas where they should be putting their energy and focus,” White says. “Everything from ‘You should fix these bugs on your website’ to the expansion into new countries in future years; how they might think about a strategic presence in Asia, for example, versus an opportunistic partnership in Vietnam.”
Dream Volunteers intends to implement all of the team’s recommendations, a factor that contributed to Karen Carter earning ACT’s Outstanding First-Time Project Lead Award. The honor is given to those who successfully blend inspirational leadership, project management skills, teamwork, and client satisfaction into an approach that has a demonstrable impact on both the nonprofit client and the volunteer team.
“We’re really happy with the results,” Carter says. “I think we were able to provide a lot of insight and a lot of value, a better tactical framework for going forward, and a clear take on some areas they should invest in and others they should divest from.”
Buntz agrees. The project forced him — finally — to take the time to consider the long-term viability of his organization.
“I don’t think this project was critical to our survival, but it was absolutely critical to our future success and sustained growth in a healthy way,” he says. “We would have succeeded scratching and clawing and keeping balls in the air versus having the really specific, well-thought-out roadmap that we’re now starting to develop.”
The project was a valuable experience for both the client and ACT team members, said Estrada, who’s participated in three previous ACT projects and likes the idea of the business and nonprofit sectors working collaboratively. Estrada is committed to supporting at-risk youth, which is why Dream Volunteers’ mission to help educate and inspire potential young global leaders in both the U.S. and developing countries resonated with her.
“Things today can be very divisive, but people need each other, and organizations like this bring tremendous value by allowing people to meet others from different walks of life, rather than be limited to making assumptions about others,” she says.
For team member Soriano, a project designed to help others reignited her own aspirations.
“Joining ACT was a way to remind me of why I came to Stanford and of what I wanted to do next,” Soriano says. “But I wasn’t expecting that Karen, Karen, Rosa and I would have such great dynamics and complement each other’s skills, or that Dream Volunteers would serve as such an inspiration of what you can do if you want to pursue something meaningful to you and that will impact others.
“As the project unfolded, these two elements recharged me,” she adds. “It was a combination of inspiration, of learning from my teammates, and of gaining an element of happiness and fulfillment.”
— Beth Jensen