August 4, 2017

Scaling SVA Consulting: an insider’s perspective

As SVA Consulting marks its first 10 years, Executive Director Olivia Hilton reflects on what brought her to the organisation and the principles that have shaped and guided its growth.

Founding SVA Consulting
Four of the key players behind Australia’s first dedicated non-profit consulting business for the social sector tell the story.

Listen to Michael Traill, Rob McLean, Greg Hutchinson and Duncan Peppercorn recall how SVA Consulting began. Read the article.

In early 2009, Olivia Hilton was drawn to Social Ventures Australia and its fledgling consultancy firm by a shared purpose. Her experiences in both the corporate and not-for-profit worlds – in particular, a recent stint volunteering in Africa – had left her determined to create a smarter social sector. In SVA, she found an organisation ‘hell bent’ on doing the same.

SVA Consulting had launched just two years prior offering tailored advisory services to non-profits and funders to help them understand how to grow and scale their impact. By the time Hilton joined the team, the new business was starting to make some headway.

Led by Duncan Peppercorn – who brought extensive consulting experience and a passion for the social sector – and working mainly with small to mid-sized delivery organisations, there were early indicators that its support was producing major changes for clients. Despite this, Hilton could never have envisaged how the next eight years would unfold.

From small beginnings, SVA Consulting has now delivered more than 650 projects for over 300 organisations. It has grown from an initial staff of two to 40, and established the SVA Quarterly online publication, with close to 7000 subscribers to share learnings with the sector. It’s been a phenomenal team effort, says Hilton, but in her various roles running business and development alongside the initial leadership team and now co-leading with Stuart Lloyd-Hurwitz, there’s no doubt she has been integral to the organisation’s success.

… both inside and out, it demonstrates the change it wants to affect in its clients and the sector more broadly.

In this interview, she shares her experiences, providing insights into how the business has scaled as well as some of the key obstacles encountered along the way. Her story also highlights how throughout its expansion, SVA Consulting has always maintained a focus on purpose; regularly reflecting on and refining key areas of the business to maximise resources and increase its impact; and ensuring that, both inside and out, it demonstrates the change it wants to affect in its clients and the sector more broadly.

Tell us more about the path that led you to SVA and what you’d learned in the process. 

Olivia Hilton
Olivia Hilton: “I did what everyone who’s mad with the corporate world does…”

My journey to SVA was a pretty bumpy one… I started out in the corporate sector in strategy and product management roles both here and in London. Back in Australia in 2005, I joined an IT start-up focused on developing mobile applications, initially as COO and then CEO. We did pretty well; we grew the company from just three to 100 employees, we set up offices in five different countries and launched on the Australian stock exchange. But my role became less about growing and improving the company and the team – which I was more interested in – and more about ensuring the share price continued to tick up… it just didn’t feel right and after some challenging times I stepped down.

I then did what everyone who’s mad with the corporate world does: I did a lot of yoga, I read Eat, Pray, Love and I went to Africa!

I volunteered for Technoserve in Mozambique, a US not-for-profit not dissimilar to SVA, trying to empower communities and increase their average income by identifying opportunities for economic development. I loved the work and could see how my skills were making a difference but I was appalled by the depth of poverty and the wasted money: so many development organisations and foundations but such little progress. Most of them were really well intentioned but they didn’t have clarity of purpose, they didn’t understand the issues they were trying to address or what would get the best outcomes, and no-one was really measuring what they were doing.

… it’s where your talents meet the needs of the world that you’ll find your true purpose…

I was also dumbfounded by how funding decisions were made, particularly how money was being spent on programs that weren’t working or didn’t have any evidence base, rather than being allocated to the things that were achieving great results.

On returning home I was surprised to learn that not only did the same problems exist here but they were probably worse. I wanted to do something about this and use my skills for greater good. As Aristotle says, it’s where your talents meet the needs of the world that you’ll find your true purpose – and this really resonates with me.

After lots of conversations with people in the not-for-profit sector, all roads led to SVA.

What were your first impressions on meeting Duncan Peppercorn and SVA-founder Michael Traill, and what excited you most about their plans?

When I met Duncan for the first time, he came clad in his trademark black eating a thick slice of cheese piled high with peanut butter!

But despite the quirks, he and Michael both sold me on the vision they had for SVA Consulting.

That vision? To provide high quality advisory services, influencing organisations and funders to be more effective in working together to create lasting social change.

With the existing staff all based in Sydney, I was also super excited to help build the Melbourne team. And I looked forward to working with a large variety of clients from funders to service delivery organisations across different areas to understand the challenges and opportunities they faced and how common they were.

In your mind, coming into the organisation, what was it that really set SVA Consulting apart from other consulting firms at that time?

Firstly, the people. From day one what struck me most was the commitment everyone had to the mission. This meant that there was no ego, no competition. We all just wanted to help one another do the best for our clients. I was also impressed how the senior team always prioritised our learning and development despite limited resources

Secondly, the business had a clear theory of change right from the outset: the premise being that in supporting non-profits to be more effective and efficient at delivering services and making funders more effective and efficient in using their funds strategically, it would support better outcomes in the sector. This was clearly encapsulated in a framework developed by Duncan. Based on the cycle of continuous improvement, he determined that if you could bring smart money to great organisations, this would lead to sustainable social change.

… the product offering… was high quality and rigorous, tailored to the non-profit sector and its most critical needs.

Lastly, in contrast to other consulting firms at that time, the product offering – primarily strategy development and measurement and evaluation – was high quality and rigorous, tailored to the non-profit sector and its most critical needs. Recognising the unique challenges faced by non-profits as well as the complex environment in which they operate, Michael Traill believed that this was essential to differentiate the offering from the start.

Can you touch on some of the key ways the business evolved during its first two years and some of the challenges it faced?

SVA Consulting was carving new ground in Australia. The biggest challenge was demonstrating to the sector the value of this ‘new’ work without compromising on quality. Duncan and the advisory group had identified a few key challenges in this period:

  • In terms of the client mix, the small team initially worked with SVA’s ventures and other smaller non-profits, mainly via word-of-mouth referrals and SVA’s learning and leading workshops. While early results were positive, generating the impact as well as the income required was challenging. Non-profit clients had limited funding, so delivering quality work within the budget and timeframe – often a short two-week period – proved difficult. The clients’ time constraints and the complex issues they faced compounded the problem. The team also acknowledged the need to increase their efforts around helping funders identify how they could be more strategic with their funding. While this client group was proving harder to influence, they recognised a more effective funding environment was critical for generating impact in the sector.
  • Based on a flat rate, daily fee, the pricing model was also problematic. While it typically represented a huge discount compared to for-profit advisory services, it was still relatively expensive for many non-profits. The structure also meant there was no recompense if the team went over time or there was scope creep, which occurred in most cases. All of these issues spoke to the need to prove the value of the work.
  • The emphasis at the start was on strategic planning, helping organisations get clear about their focus, set targeted and measurable goals and understand how their program was resulting in outcomes. But over time the team had become more engaged with clients to set up measurement processes and understand how to measure the impact they were creating, not only to help them improve their outcomes but understand how to communicate their impact in value terms to funders. Of course, compared to the corporate sector, this was a much more difficult task: rather than dealing with concrete, measurable outcomes like profitability they were helping clients define less quantifiable mission-driven outcomes, that often take a long time to eventuate.

What did you pinpoint as a priority when you first joined the team and what core tasks were you assigned?

By the time I arrived there was already positive feedback from the organisations they were supporting, the team had built a solid set of tailored tools for the social sector, and the business was covering a significant proportion of its costs through fee for service revenue.

… doing a strategy for a consulting business that specialises in strategy, there were many views to balance!

Of course, being such a young organisation, there was a real lack of business processes and policies. Without overwhelming people, I knew we needed to start getting these into place if SVA Consulting was to reach sustainability and really have an impact on improving social sector performance. To that end, when I first came on board I took on a lot of the work around coordinating project allocations; business development and staff learning and development.

While I started as a consultant, given my experience with the IT start-up, Duncan and Michael saw potential for me to assist with scaling the business. To this end, I was tasked with coordinating the development of a new five-year strategic plan, working collaboratively with the team and the wider SVA executive. This was not an easy task: doing a strategy for a consulting business that specialises in strategy, there were many views to balance!

Could you describe some of the key elements of this strategic plan and how they were implemented?

Through the work we did with clients, we knew that we initially needed to get clear on what success looked like for SVA Consulting in five years’ time; to understand this I had lots of one-on-one and group discussions reflecting on the work done so far. We also had discussions with clients and researched the main challenges and opportunities in the sector to inform our position. The ultimate question we sought to answer was: ‘how do we scale and maximise our impact?

… we would now focus just on issues supporting disadvantaged Australians.

To address this, we first refined SVA Consulting’s initial program logic and mission. We knew we needed to continue supporting non-profits to be more effective at delivering services and at the same time better support funders to ensure funds went to organisations that had demonstrated with evidence they were making a difference, but in line with SVA’s updated mission, we would now focus just on issues supporting disadvantaged Australians.

Of course, all this had implications for the strategy, for instance:

  • To increase the impact we were having on disadvantaged populations we needed to work with larger non-profits and with government: the largest funder to social sector organisations. We wanted to continue our work with smaller, nimbler organisations – staying close to where the action is, and to cutting edge thinking, but at the same time attract those clients that serve the largest populations and have the most resources. The concern the team had with this new focus, however, was in ensuring these clients were genuinely committed to change versus a tick in the box exercise. To guide our selection of larger clients, we came up with a clear set of criteria, including the level of engagement the senior team had in the project, the organisation’s ability to act and effect change, as well as the potential for significant social impact. Our work with Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) illustrates this approach. Supporting PM&C – Indigenous Justice Programs in the Community Safety Branch, we were asked to conduct SROI analyses of four small Indigenous justice prevention programs in rural Australia. What appealed most about this program was the client’s desire to not only understand the difference they were making but use this information to make future funding decisions and help build their capabilities in impact measurement along the way.
  • Working with larger organisations and funders also meant we needed to think how to enhance our product offering. We knew that disruption in the sector, for example with the NDIS, would require organisations to re-think the way they worked with the end users. We saw the opportunity to support them to identify partners to collaborate with to help them increase their impact as well as reduce costs. As a result, we needed to build our own understanding and associated tools and models to support organisations to collaborate effectively.
  • Impact measurement was another key area of focus – we’d developed a strong reputation in this area but were concerned with the emphasis on measurement for measurements’ sake rather than on using data as an input into strategy and decision-making to continuously improve. Attending a conference in the US, I could see our approach was aligned with the philosophy behind outcomes management – and that this required a focus on the cultural shift needed and ensuring that the client’s leadership was engaged from the outset.
  • The other key pillar of the renewed strategic plan was an investment in knowledge sharing and thought leadership. We were sitting on so much knowledge and so many insights we felt an obligation to find a cost-effective way to share these learnings, and provide an Australian alternative to international publications. To execute on this strategy the SVA Quarterly was born. The first dedicated not-for-profit consulting management journal, this would publish long form articles drawing on local examples of effective service delivery and funding.

What were some of the obstacles to success during this growth period and what did you find most challenging on a personal level?

One obstacle that we focused more on during this period was measuring our own impact. As we don’t work directly with the beneficiaries – those living in disadvantage – how do we measure the contribution we make through a project to achieve better outcomes for disadvantaged people? We do this in a number of ways: immediately post project we measure how satisfied a client is with the support we have provided and in particular their level of confidence in knowing how to implement the changes. We also try to check in with clients 6-12 months later to see how they are doing. This has also led to us looking rigorously at our own effectiveness which has contributed to the development of the SVA Fundamentals for Impact (see below).

Historically, getting senior level consultants who could run project teams has also been pretty tough. Typically, they’re focused on building their careers and making partner; coming to SVA also involves a pay cut, which can be hard.

… we’ve been particularly focused on ensuring we retain the values and culture we worked hard to build.

In the early days, we made efforts to access the small pool of senior people who were growing dissatisfied with working in the corporate world creating more profits for already wealthy shareholders. As we developed our strategic direction and needed to at least double the team’s size, we made greater efforts to tap into SVA’s broader network of funders and supporters and to promote SVA Consulting as a place to work. These days, with our work’s higher profile, we’re finding it easier to attract senior staff and in the last two years have added a number of fantastic new directors to the team, all with extensive strategic consulting experience and a deep commitment to improving the lives of people in need.

Of course, managing a growing team presents challenges of its own and we’ve been particularly focused on ensuring we retain the values and culture we worked hard to build. We developed a rigorous recruitment process to ensure candidates have a shared set of beliefs, for instance, that they’re humble; have empathy with clients; are ambitious; open to learning; collaborative and committed to the sector and to seeing change happen. We find ways to openly recognise individuals for demonstrating particular values and to connect and share, both in and out of the office… the team is a big fan of karaoke!

We also work hard to provide learning and development opportunities for our staff on a small budget…

We also work hard to provide learning and development opportunities for our staff on a small budget, including regular academy sessions where we seek contributions to project work, off-sites to focus on skills development, and we invite in a range of speakers from the sector to share different perspectives on recent trends.

What do you think have been SVA Consulting’s biggest achievements over the past 10 years?

We now have 40 incredible staff in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth and have delivered hundreds of projects for clients across the social purpose sector. We’ve also published more than 80 articles in the SVA Quarterly to share learnings and highlight best practice. But, of course, those numbers are meaningless if not grounded in the actual impact we’re trying to influence. To this end, I think some of our biggest achievements include:

  • Our work in Indigenous Land Management led by Simon Faivel and now Brendan Ferguson; starting six years ago with a small organisation in the Western Desert, Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa, helping them to prove the economic, social and environmental value of their program, to now working with PM&C and playing an influencing role in how they make investments in Indigenous Protected Area Programs;
  • The work we are doing with Lifeline led by Susie King and Jon Myer to help them better understand and meet the needs of beneficiaries as they design their new technological services;
  • The work Nick Elliott and Ben McAlpine led in supporting the Paul Ramsay Foundation to focus its $3 billion of assets in areas of key need;
  • At a sector level, the work led by Simon Faivel identifying how to support organisations to measure their effectiveness using tools like SROI and putting outcomes management on the map;
  • The work we are doing now to think beyond individual projects, to how projects connect and how we can play a role in activating more collaboration for greater systems change in the sector; and
  • The SVA Fundamentals for Impact: a framework we’ve developed – and will be sharing imminently – to ensure we and the organisations we work with have a common definition around what effective looks like. This will enable us to do more rigorous assessment against a set of characteristics that address three areas: client centred, effectively run and engaged with the ecosystem.

Given all of SVA Consultings’ achievements to date, what are you most proud of?

The team. I love my work and part of the reason is I’m collaborating with incredible people: people who took risks, leaving higher paying jobs in the corporate sector, jobs with well-defined career paths and development programs, who have a higher ambition than just making money – as clichéd as it sounds, they really want to make the world a better place.

… everyone has had their own journey to SVA Consulting, but from day one has invested in the business like it’s their own.

From permanent staff, to contractors and our interns, everyone has had their own journey to SVA Consulting, but from day one has invested in the business like it’s their own. And everyone continues to leave their mark: questioning regularly whether we are creating as much impact as we could be; whether or not we are maximising the resources at our disposal to create that impact, be that working with the right client mix or developing and using the right tools and approaches.

We recently did a reflection on our culture and asked everyone to summarise in a few words what SVA Consulting meant to them… the one that resonated most with me was ‘it feels like coming home’ and that’s exactly what I feel!

What are the key areas of focus for SVA Consulting over the next 10 years?

We are incredibly proud of the business and the impact we’ve created; more non-profits, philanthropists and governments are seeing the linkage between building strong effective organisations and great results. However, disadvantage still persists in our community and with some population groups is getting worse.

With this in mind, we need to make sure we are truly having the biggest impact we can. Building on progress to date we have set another bold plan for 2020. Key to this will be:

  • Developing greater specialisation in specific issue areas to understand what it takes for real systems change
  • Moving from responding to project tenders to putting forward project ideas to our clients, based on knowledge and evidence, that we believe can really transform outcomes for disadvantaged individuals
  • Using the SVA Fundamentals for Impact framework to share our definition of what effectiveness means to help us and other organisations improve how we work
  • Understanding how we can get the more than a quarter of a trillion that’s due to come into the sector from baby boomer philanthropists over the next decade to be more effective: ensuring it flows to the right organisations and the most impactful programs
  • Playing a bigger role in connecting partners for greater collaboration to create bigger and longer-term change.

By reflecting once again on the impact we’re having and the lessons we’ve learnt, we hope to continue to maximise our potential to accelerate positive change for disadvantaged Australians.

For my own part, the day I started at SVA Consulting truly marks the first day of the best job I’ve ever had and, as many of my friends and family would say, the making of me. I’ve been given guidance but also a lot of independence to use my initiative, propose ideas and pursue opportunities. I’m genuinely excited by the possibilities that lie ahead as we move towards 2020 and beyond.