Saturday, May 5, 2012

Pro-Bono Consulting

Yesterday wrapped up the end of my semester-long volunteer project. I have alluded to it in past posts, but this is dedicated entirely to the experience. I, along with five other classmates, provided pro-bono consulting services for a Pittsburgh non-profit.

Pro-bono consulting is an opportunity offered every year to first year students. The faculty in charge solicit consulting projects from various non-profits across Pittsburgh, some of whom are new clients and some who have participated in this program before. The projects are reviewed and vetted with the faculty. Students are expected to get into groups of 5 and expected to dedicate 10 hours a week on the project. It goes from the start of Mini 3 til the end of Mini 4 - a semester-long project.

Let's start from the start.

Late last year, an email went around asking people to volunteer for this initiative. Many touted how good an experience it is, especially to bring up in interviews. Why not, thinks I, and I gather a group of four others. We're given a list of projects, asked to rank them all in preference, and given dire warnings that this project is expected to have a commitment of 10 hours a week. This commitment got emphasised over and over again until right at the last minute three of my teammates seemed to get cold feet and dropped out, citing concerns about time management. This was, I believe, the end of Mini 2.

The organisers were generous enough to let me then choose either the team or the project I wanted to join. I chose a project involving GTECH Strategies. This non-profit beautifies urban locations by engaging the community to plant sunflowers. They harvest the seeds from the sunflowers at the end of the summer and were looking for a business plan in which to sell the seed packets - that was our project.

Getting started was somewhat tough. We met with the CEO at the beginning of Mini 3, and he had this energy and enthusiasm about his ideas that was infectious. We were also assigned a 2nd year mentor, a faculty mentor, and an outside consultant mentor. Although we had those resources, we did the vast majority of the work ourselves.

Since we were to develop a business plan, we did some research and found what pieces of information were needed: customer insight, competitive insight, market insight, and strategies for marketing, sales, and the finances. Operational considerations were discussed, but it wasn't necessary for the project. Essentially, the CEO needed something to bring to his Board to convince them to let this seed selling business go through.

I was in charge of the meat of the project - the customer insight and competitive insight segments. I spent a lot of time looking at the various competitors out there (people who provide sunflower seeds to plant), their prices, the amount of seeds in the packet, channels of distribution. Then I built a survey, called a number of nurseries, and just talked to people about the product. That was really awkward; I'm not used to randomly going up to people to solicit information. Unfortunately, the strategies and financial model really couldn't get going until I had done this piece of the research, so once that was done (the week after Spring Break), the momentum just built up and got going.

It was a great experience. Although I complained about the workload during my time, the fragmented ideas that our team started off with, and other things, now looking back on it, it was a good time. It makes me really want to take a Market Research class. It made me understand pricing strategies more than the class itself taught me. And I got a real sense of what it's like to herd cats - i.e. project management.

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