Stanford ACT Celebrates 30 Years of Pro Bono Impact

Hundreds of Stanford MBA volunteers donate more than $3 million of consulting value annually.

June 23, 2017


ACT executive directors in chronological order of their service, from right: Debbie Cohen, MBA ’87; Meimei Pan, MBA ’79 (not pictured); Anne Hamner Rosales, MBA ’90 (not pictured); Sandy Scott, MBA ’91; Erica Richter, MBA ’79; Laura Moon, MBA ’96; April Gilbert, MBA ’88; Alison Elliott, MBA ’84; Susan Austin. | Stacy Geiken Photography

A kitchen that gives low-income people job skills and jobs — and makes food for the hungry from ingredients that would otherwise go to waste. Training for budding civic leaders. A program that helps elementary and middle school girls build life skills through running.

These are just a few of the hundreds of nonprofits that have benefitted from the expertise of Stanford Graduate School of Business alumni volunteers. The Alumni Consulting Team (ACT), which matches teams of alumni volunteers with the specific needs of nonprofits, celebrated its 30th year with a reception and presentation at the Graduate School of Business on June 7.

Since the program’s inception in 1987, more than 1,400 volunteers have done 780 projects for 620 different nonprofit clients. ACT has supported 71 projects at Stanford alone, in 44 different schools, institutes, centers, or departments. Through its volunteers, the program donates $3 million of consulting value each year.

Although ACT works primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is also active in Monterey, Calif., Dallas-Ft. Worth, and Pasadena, Calif.

“My vision was to encourage MBAs to volunteer pro bono services like doctors and lawyers do,” said Debbie Cohen, MBA ’87, who wrote the business plan for the program as a class project with some classmates.

Debbie Cohen, MBA ’87

Debbie Cohen, MBA ’87

Alison Elliott, MBA ’84, joined with Cohen to build a program to help alumni donate their business knowledge to nonprofits. With support from an active team of alumni volunteers and the Stanford GSB Alumni Office, the organization blossomed.

John Carlson, MBA ’74, and chair of the ACT Management Board, said many of the ideas in the business plan are still part of the program. “It’s a testament to the original idea and how it has maintained itself over time,” he said.

Many of the projects involve helping nonprofits be more effective at the work they do, said Tony Ramsden, MBA ’70, who has been volunteering as a project leader with ACT since he retired from technology consulting in 2002. He is also a former member of the ACT Management Board.

Ramsden led a project for Coro Northern California, for example, in which the team helped identify opportunities for the nonprofit to generate revenue and thus be less dependent on donations. Coro offers a yearlong leadership program for recent college graduates each year. The ACT team helped the group expand to offer leadership training, for a fee, to government agencies and other nonprofits.

“That gave them an additional revenue stream,” Ramsden said. As a result, more people are receiving leadership instruction — and the Coro Center itself is in a more stable financial situation.

Several teams of ACT volunteers have helped Hidden Villa, a nonprofit organic farm in Los Altos Hills, Calif., that offers educational programs, move from being a family farm to a successful nonprofit that serves 50,000 people per year.

GSB Dean Lewis & Debbie Cohen

GSB Dean Jonathan Levin and Debbie Cohen

“Our first ACT team came in to solve one key issue for us, which was cash flow,” said Ellen Lapham, MBA ’79, former board chair for Hidden Villa. “We have a seasonal business on a farm. The ACT team, being creative, came up with a solution: Why don’t you have a year-round breeding program, so that the demand on the part of the schools and teachers for the educational experience the kids get with the baby animals could be experienced through those winter months? That was a major shift, because it helped us start professionalizing our thinking.”

One of many ACT projects at Stanford helped the School of Engineering restructure its engineering research administration function, which helps faculty members submit research proposals and manage contracts. The faculty found the existing centralized organization frustrating.

“The faculty’s unhappiness with this was growing in proportion to the research volume,” Jim Plummer, John Fluke Professor of Electrical Engineering and former dean of the School of Engineering, said at the 30th anniversary event.

The ACT team recommended that the school keep the function centrally managed but distribute the administrators physically so they were working close to the faculty members they served. After the implementation, Plummer recalled, he received a note from a faculty member praising the new system, saying it was helping build a sense of teamwork in the school.

For volunteers, the program offers a way to give back — and also to stay connected to the school and fellow alumni.

“I think it’s a fantastic, structured way to give back to my community that leverages my business skills efficiently,” said Cynthia Dai, MBA ’93, a strategy consultant. “It’s a great way to meet like-minded, community service-oriented alumni.”

My vision was to encourage MBAs to volunteer pro bono services like doctors and lawyers do
Debbie Cohen, MBA '87

Dai was on a team that helped Girls on the Run of the Bay Area develop a growth strategy, and she saw firsthand the program’s impact – impact that can be extended when the organization is able to grow.

“The program teaches girls about healthy eating, it teaches them about anti-bullying, it tries to instill a sense of community service,” Dai said. “It’s a very holistic program, and running is the common activity.”

Grace Yuan, MBA ’03, an independent consultant, board member, and volunteer, has similarly seen the impact of ACT’s work while helping an Oakland-based nonprofit called Food Shift, which focuses on reducing food waste.

“Food Shift has a lot of excess raw produce, but to match that to someone who can use it right then and there can be difficult,” Yuan said. “By processing that food into a meal or making something that could be frozen to extend the shelf life, you can better utilize that excess produce to help hungry people.”

The ACT team helped Food Shift with the financial model for a kitchen that would address several problems at once: reduce food waste, employ local residents to help them build job skills and earn money, and feed the hungry with the food the kitchen made.

Yuan, who ultimately joined the group’s advisory board, has worked alongside the kitchen’s interns as they learn job skills.

“I can see the tangible impact of the project on the growth of the organization and on its clients,” said Yuan, who also serves on ACT’s Management Board.

At the 30th anniversary event, attendees heard a sobering assessment of nonprofits in the Bay Area, where ACT volunteers do most of their work.

“We’ve had a decade of extraordinary economic growth and wealth creation” in Silicon Valley, said Heather McLeod Grant, MBA ’99, a social entrepreneur and the keynote speaker. Despite Silicon Valley’s reputation for greed, she said the region outpaces the rest of the country in individual giving, the number of private foundations and donor-advised funds created, and corporate giving.

However, “about 90 percent of this money is leaving the region,” McLeod Grant said. Much of the 10 percent of money that stays local is going to large institutions such as hospitals and universities, which have large marketing teams and relationships with donors. “Not a lot of this money is making its way to organizations that are serving the local community.”

The skyrocketing cost of living in the area also means that more local residents are struggling. Local nonprofits report increased demand for their services, which they cannot always meet.

McLeod Grant said ACT volunteers are ideally suited to bridging this gap.

“You are MBAs who have had experience in business, but you also care about giving back,” McLeod Grant said.

ACT volunteers, she said, could explain to donors the importance of giving operating support and supporting efforts by nonprofits to collect and evaluate data. They could also help nonprofits: “You can help nonprofits by working with them to develop a strategic plan they can invest in, focusing on impact and results, and using multiple means to get there,” McLeod Grant said.

Continuing the momentum into its fourth decade, this August ACT will begin recruiting alumni for a new set of projects that begin in September.

— By Margaret Steen

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