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Harvard Business School alums pair with nonprofits for supercharged results

Updated 5:10 pm, Monday, February 11, 2013
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What do you get when you combine the compassion of a charitable nonprofit organization with the private sector acumen of the Harvard Business School? An efficient, effective force for good, or so hope the members of the Harvard Business School Club of Connecticut Community Partners program.

The program, which is in its 11th year, groups volunteer Harvard Business School alumni to work as consultants for management and operations projects for nonprofit organizations. The program has helped several Darien and New Canaan organizations, including Person-to-Person, The Community Fund of Darien, Waveny Care Network and Arts for Healing, by teaming with the nonprofits' employees and board members.

Community Partners co-Chairman Stuart Ferrell Weismiller explained how the group works and the necessary criteria for choosing a nonprofit.

"Usually, a nonprofit contacts us, and we have a meeting to try and understand the problem at hand, what are they looking for, do they have an executive director, and are they a viable organization," she said. "Assuming everything is a go, we then look at the project as a board and send an email out to all the alums in Connecticut talking about the project and soliciting volunteers. That list is about 2,400 (people)."

New Canaan and Darien boast 349 Harvard Business School alumni, according to Community Partners board member Tom Heckel. Heckel, a retired Darien resident, became involved with the group after volunteering for Person-to-Person in Darien, a nonprofit that has worked with Community Partners.

"It's an intellectually stimulating way of working with nonprofits," he said. "I get a great deal of satisfaction from hearing from clients."

Weismiller, who has worked in financial services for American Express, Merrill Lynch and Accenture, and Heckel, who worked in marketing his whole career for IBM, agreed that their Harvard Business School and private sector backgrounds fill a gap for the nonprofits with which they work.

"On the whole, business acumen is not at the forefront of the skill set of the nonprofit sector," Heckel said. "They do need strategic thinking help."

One project included New Canaan's Arts for Healing, which provides art and music therapy focused on children and teens with special needs. In recent years, the organization, which was founded in 2000, has found it more difficult to fund its programs.

"We've lost a lot of grant money that we'd had in the past, so we had to find new models and improve our efficiencies," said acting Executive Director Holly Doherty-Lemoine. "We had a great need in conducting a strategic plan. We felt that we had not been tapping all the resources for marketing available. With the help of HBS, we were able to spend several months taking a critical look in the mirror at increasing client numbers and the benefit of music therapy and doing so in a way that is financially sustainable in the future."

The team recommended more efficient use of office space as well as increased marketing and partnerships with other organizations. The group built a medium-term strategic plan, which the organization now uses.

Ceci Maher, executive director of Person-to-Person, said her organization's experience with Community Partners has been incredibly valuable.

"They did just a phenomenal job," Maher said of the 14-person team that worked with P2P for four months in 2009. "They looked at every aspect of our work and wrote a report offering suggestions. They were just remarkable. The information they suggested really kind of drove the work of the agency over the next 18 months and then we developed a strategic plan based on their work. They had a huge impact on our organization."

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; @Woods_NCNews