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NeXus program links ‘business minds’ to social missions

BY SHELDON GORDON | JAN 09 2012

A few years ago, when the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir saw its attendance stagnate and its subscriptions fall, the vocal ensemble asked a quartet of MBA students at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management for advice on a turnaround.

“We did a deep-dive examination of their customer base and found the subscribers were mostly 45-plus years in age,” recalls Ellie Avishai, then one of the students. “We recommended that the choir expand the range of music it played in order to capture more of Toronto’s demographic diversity.”

Cynthia Hawkins, executive director of the choir, recalls: “The recommendations were based on sound research and were well thought out.” She implemented the proposals over the following two concert seasons.

Score another satisfied client for Rotman NeXus, a student-run management consulting practice that is dedicated to advising non-profit organizations, including arts groups and social services.

The Rotman NeXus mantra is to “link business minds with social missions.” For the past seven years, the program has tapped the business smarts of second-year MBA students to help more than 20 non-profits and social enterprises to write business plans, adopt governance models and build capacity. Clients have included the National Educational Association of Disabled Students, the Centre for Social Innovation, the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, and Eva’s Initiatives, which aids at-risk youth in Greater Toronto.

Each year, NeXus hires four students with experience in business and volunteerism. It then turns them loose to find clients – often by cold-calling – and to do consulting projects during the summer. NeXus ostensibly charges $75 an hour, although the fee is less for most clients.

Rikki Bennie, one of the 2011 consultants, initially worried the non-profits would lack confidence in student gurus. “But the clients trusted us,” she says. “We didn’t meet any skepticism. Our having the Rotman name behind us helps.” And it’s not just the name – the students can bounce ideas off faculty advisers and alumni mentors.

The consultants have to adjust to a culture that differs markedly from a business setting. For one thing, decision-making in the non-profit sector is more inclusive and therefore takes longer, says Ann Armstrong, director of the Social Enterprise Initiative at the Rotman school.

Another common challenge concerns marketing. “I’m always amazed at how well non-profits do with very little money,” says Dr. Armstrong. “I think, however, they have a discomfort or lack of knowledge about marketing. Terms like ‘market’ and ‘competition’ are uncomfortable words for them.”

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