An Englishman in New York (and San Francisco and London…)

When we launched SVA Consulting in 2007 I was strongly advised – and supported by Macquarie Group Foundation – to take the opportunity to visit those more established overseas organisations from whom we might learn more about consulting to the non-profit sector.

As it turned out, it took me three years to find the opportunity, but eventually in mid 2010 I cleared my diary with determination, and headed to the US and Europe for three weeks.

If only there was a quicker (and cheaper) way to meet up with our colleagues around the world! Telephone calls and Skype just don’t do it: you need to see the maps and pictures on the walls at the East London Business Alliance, negotiate the claustrophobic woman trying to reach the Hope Program in Brooklyn without using the lift, see the streets in lower Manhattan where the Low Income Investment Fund makes loans, or listen to the story of the A2 Dominion housing trust over a bowl of soup in a West London pub, surrounded by their property developments.

However, while the opportunity to understand and experience what our peers are doing worldwide is immensely stimulating it also demonstrates that we should be very proud of what we are achieving at SVA, and in the Australian social sector more broadly.

We are not alone in wrestling with the challenge of impact measurement, at SVA or in the consulting business. We are certainly “excellent practice” in the way SVA focuses on funding growth plans, with clear deliverables and metrics. Furthermore I met with no non-profit consultants who are completely comfortable with their own impact measurement tools.

People were astonished to hear about a social investment on the scale of the GoodStart Childcare syndicate’s acquisition of 650 plus ABC Learning centres.

A few funders spoke of a slight backlash towards “engaged” and “strategic” philanthropy, which was concerning. The biggest funding entities appear to be becoming bureaucratic in their operations and less concerned with funding strategic goals, and more with tracking whether their money is spent on the specific item for which they believe it is intended. Indeed, at one point we decided that the distinction between “program” and “capacity” funding needs to be obliterated — funders must concentrate on funding organisations (and their strategic plans) holistically. We seem to be making good progress on this in Australia, with both private and public sector funders.

I spent a lot of time talking with service organisations about how they manage information and knowledge. Even for the very best of them it is still a journey of discovery (“we capture 85 per cent of our learnings, but only use 40 per cent”). This is not an area where someone has the answer, we have to learn from our colleagues but create our own innovative approaches.

But in other areas Australia has a lot to learn, particularly about social enterprise. In New York I was told about for-profits partnering with local government and non-profits to put supermarkets selling healthy food and employing local long-term unemployed into disadvantaged areas. We have to find ways here to better engage the profit motive with social ends, and to create taxation structures that simultaneously incentivise both.

Listening to the history of Jumpstart, who have re-invented themselves from a university-centered mentoring program in pre-schools to a community based program, was remarkable, inspiring and potentially very valuable to our clients and colleagues who are focused on cracking the “community challenge”.

And the opportunity to meet with FSG-Impact, Bridgespan, Monitor Group and New Philanthropy Capital really challenged our strategy at SVA Consulting. Whilst there are some areas in which we are doing well – our work with boards, for example, and the underlying quality of our strategy work – there are many difficult questions to address. For example, our fee structure still only allows us to serve a tiny percentage of non-profits. Is there a mechanism to change that? How about that thorny challenge of sharing our learning with the sector in other ways? Furthermore, what should we share? Everything? Or should we hold out for the “million dollar insights”?

No shortage of questions, then!

But, beyond the pleasure and challenge of the many meetings with inspired and inspiring people, I also fondly recall the memorable personal moments…in the previously mentioned pub; walking back from a meeting on the outskirts of San Francisco through a park, looking at the skyscrapers in the distance garlanded with clouds; trying to recharge a phone at Radio Shack in one of the less salubrious corners of Brooklyn; ejecting a “Grammy award-winning musician” from a conference room in an old suburban community centre (also in Brooklyn!); a bagel in a deli behind Times Square at midnight…

It’s a huge privilege to be able to take a world-wide study tour like this, but not as great a privilege as working with our determined colleagues in the sector here in Australia.