February 15, 2022 -- Leah Reisman
Strategizing for social good: How consulting shapes the nonprofit sector
The use of consulting firms is widespread in the nonprofit sector. In the context of a dramatic global expansion of management consulting, a market valued in 2017 at more than $250 billion, a 2015 Foundation Center study found that one-third of surveyed foundations had used consultants in the prior two years. At all levels in the nonprofit sector--from grassroots organizations to multinational NGOs and major foundations--consultants craft ideas about and strategies for nonprofit and philanthropic practice via services like strategic planning and program assessment.
Drawing on two years of qualitative research with consultants, in this talk I will examine the day-to-day work of strategy consultants to nonprofits to show how consultants’ work processes and recommendations influence the nonprofit sector. Practitioners and academics alike often assume that consultants in the nonprofit sector deliver one-size-fits-all solutions across clients, a notion that stems from the example of highly-visible multinational consulting firms that consult primarily to corporations.
My analysis shows that in reality, consultants—especially small and medium-sized firms--go to great lengths to customize their work to their nonprofit clients’ particularities. I argue that consultants’ role in institutional fields cannot be reduced to agents of homogeneity or mere protagonists in the spread of standard corporate knowledge across fields, as current scholarship suggests. Instead, stemming from consultants’ positions between the for- and nonprofit sectors, their work is both customized to individual organizations’ needs and reinforces existing power dynamics and hierarchies in the nonprofit sector. In discussing these findings, I will highlight implications to improve nonprofit practice and our understanding of the sector at large.
Leah Reisman is a sociologist, ethnographer, and nonprofit leader. As a Research Fellow at New York University’s John Brademas Center, Leah is contributing to a Mellon Foundation-funded study of the relationship between arts engagement and social wellbeing in California, and a book project exploring art’s value in society. Leah conducts independent research as an Affiliate at Metris Arts Consulting, with clients including the Wallace Foundation, the Local Initiatives Support Coalition, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. She is also an experienced nonprofit leader, serving as Health & Wellness Director at Puentes de Salud in Philadelphia and on the Board of Directors of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. Her quantitative and qualitative research on nonprofit strategy consulting, Philadelphia’s arts philanthropic ecosystem, cultural philanthropy in Mexico, and professionalization in arts nonprofits has been supported by the National Science Foundation, published in peer-reviewed academic journals, and featured in such publications as the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog. Leah holds a B.A. in anthropology from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University.