October 3, 2010 10:25 pm

Capturing the hearts and minds of MBAs

Cerrone Lundy had not thought too deeply about his post-MBA career. He anticipated returning to advertising in a more senior role. But at a recruiting event he met a partner at Bridgespan, the consulting group for non-profits affiliated with Bain, the management consultancy, and promptly changed his mind.

“The partner told me about all these projects he was working on – these super complex, difficult problems – and how he was coming up with solutions that helped non-profit organisations not just financially, but really change peoples’ lives. I decided that’s what I wanted to do too.”

Mr Lundy, a native New Yorker, earned his business degree at NYU’s Stern School two years ago and has been a consultant at Bridgespan’s New York City office ever since. He has worked on projects ranging from improving the efficiency of an organisation that works with inner city kids who have dropped out of school, to helping a microfinance organisation find entrepreneurs to grant potential loans.

“I like working for a non-profit,” he says. “I like knowing that what I do has a positive impact on the world.”

The desire to use a management degree to do good works has become an oft-repeated sentiment on business school campuses, as a small but growing number of MBAs look to find jobs at non-profits.

And Bridgespan, which has just celebrated its 10-year anniversary, has successfully capitalised on this trend, having evolved into an elite brand for MBAs to launch their careers. It is also a place where Bain consultants – about half of whom have MBAs – burnish their resumes and learn “soft skills” that they bring back to the for-profit world through the company’s six-month rotation programme.

Bridgespan consults mainly for non-profits that work in areas of education, community development and environmental sustainability and has grown into an organisation with more than 175 employees round the world and annual revenues close to $31m.

John Fernandes, president of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the US accrediting body, says that the new generation of students is more environmentally and socially conscious than previous generations. That, combined with the downturn in the economy that had a disastrous impact on the number of jobs in corporate sector, is why “there are more MBAs going to non-profits,” he says.

While the MBA Career Services Council does not keep statistics on business graduates entering non-profit jobs, many schools have witnessed rising interest in the sector.

For instance, in 2007, only 2 per cent of Thunderbird School of Global Management grads accepted jobs at non-profits, while in 2009 that had risen to 10 per cent. In 2003, 1 per cent of MBAs at the Yale School of Management went into non-profits or the public sector; last year, 9 per cent did.

According to Net Impact, the global group that promotes socially and environmentally sustainable business practices, 57 per cent of new MBAs say they are rethinking their career objectives because of the financial crisis. Of those, 15 per cent say they are more interested in pursuing a career in the non-profit sector than they were before the financial crisis.

“Even though these jobs don’t offer the same upward remuneration that the for-profit sector does, they tend to have better balance of life and they speak to the desire of this new generation of MBAs to do good with their business degree,” says Mr Fernandes. “To many of these students the measure of success is not income, it’s more holistic.”

Indeed, despite a stark discrepancy in pay – at the junior level, a Bridgespan consultant generally earns between 20-50 per cent less than a Bain employee and at the partner level, Bridgespan workers earn about 50 per cent less – jobs there have become extremely competitive. In 2006, Bridgespan received 350 applications for 20 available slots. This year it received 2,000 applications for 20 slots, which is on par with Bain. About half Bridgespan’s consulting staff has an MBA.

While Bridgespan’s services are not free for non-profits, the group charges only its costs so that it may break even. Bridgespan also raises money philanthropically. Over the past 10 years, Bain has given about $5m to Bridgespan.

Although separate entities, Bain and Bridgespan do collaborate particularly in Bain’s rotation programme. Each year, the company sends 10-20 of its top-performing employees on a six-month stint to Bridgespan to work on projects there, giving Bridgespan an opportunity to tap into Bain’s talent pool, whilst helping to deepen and diversify Bain employees’ professional experience.

The bulk of Bain employees who have gone on a rotation come away with a greater respect for the complex problems non-profits face, according to internal surveys, with employees saying they’ve honed a new set of soft skills in the non-profit sector including increased prowess in people development, collaboration, persuasion and listening. Bain employees take a pay cut for the duration.

For years, the corporate sector has lent its practices and expertise to the non-profit sector, but there is an increasing awareness of what the non-profit world can teach its for-profit counterpart, according to Stacy Blackman, a consultant on MBA admissions and careers who is based in Los Angeles.

The ability to fundraise and operate on a tight budget – two attributes of non-profits, are particularly relevant in a down economy, she says.

“As companies big and small need to scale back, employees need to be more flexible,” says Ms Blackman.

“Often in a non-profit, individuals pitch in where they can and are not necessarily tied to a specific role,” she says.

“Being able to wear many hats and adapt quickly will be helpful if you are seeking a new job, and have to reinvent yourself.”

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