Executive Service Corps extends help to RI non-profits

In his business life, Edmund Marshall became an expert in finance, mentoring, and management – experience he could parlay into a lucrative consulting career, if he wanted.

But Marshall, a retired Textron Inc. vice president, decided otherwise.

Instead, he tackles projects. Working with nonprofits, he spends months at a time studying their industry, reading documents, interviewing board members, and, ultimately, giving them the direction they need to improve. He does all of this for free. And he enjoys it.

“We interview all the board members, all key staff, some clients, and even some funders,” he says. “The whole process might take a month – and usually a lot of travel.”

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Marshall is a volunteer for Executive Service Corps, a Boston group of executives that assists nonprofits with everything from strategic planning to MIS analysis. Since 1987 it has served eastern Massachusetts organizations.

And now, Executive Service Corps is coming to Rhode Island.

A team of Rhode Island executives is forming a branch office here, having won a $25,000 grant from the Rhode Island Foundation to get started. And with more than 1,000 nonprofits in the state, its services should be in demand.

“It’s task-orientated,” explained Barnet Fain, an executive service volunteer who is coordinating the Rhode Island expansion. “(It) goes in to solve a particular kind of problem.”

Fain himself is a problem solver. An executive with experience with Carpet Giant and New York Carpet World, Fain has assisted Rhode Island nonprofits as a volunteer for the Boston office. He is among a half dozen ESC volunteers who have consulted in Rhode Island, working with groups such as The Music School and Amos House, a Providence soup kitchen.

But his experiences convinced him that Rhode Island needs its own presence. So, he got permission from ESC to form a branch office, and got his startup grant in August. Now, he’s looking for more volunteers.

Volunteers must be “open to new experiences and (willing) to help community-based organizations do their jobs better,” Fain said. “It’s an attitude issue more than a skills issue.”

ESC started in Boston with former HP Hood Inc. executive Ezra Merrill. About 140 executives now work with nonprofits in Eastern Massachusetts and parts of Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. It charges clients a fee based on their ability to pay.

Volunteers take a training course on how to consult nonprofits groups. When a nonprofit requests ESC’s services two executives are dispatched – a senior and junior volunteer, usually – and the sides meet. If the volunteers and nonprofit believe they can work together, the project begins.

“Many of the skills that people learned in the business world are eminently applicable to the nonprofit world,” said Annette Rubin, president of Executive Service Corps in Boston. “This is viewed by many of our volunteer consultants as a second or third career.”

A career of consulting nonprofits on board development, strategic planning, and fundraising. Though ESC has clients as large as the Museum of Science in Boston, most are small to mid-range groups.

Often, these organizations work with tight budgets. And as often, their members lack the time and expertise to handle issues like strategic planning appropriately.

That was the case with TechACCESS, a Warwick group that provides information and resources on assistive technology – equipment, devices, and services that help disabled persons improve their functional capabilities.

TechACCESS needed help in establishing its benefits packages, personnel policies and its strategic plan. Working with Fain and Charles Hutc-hinson, a former CVS executive, starting in 1994, it accomplished those tasks. Now, Hutchinson is helping Tech-ACCESS develop a communications plan.

“It was fabulous. A lot of people who work with nonprofits don’t have the kind of business background that would be helpful,” said Director Paula Olivieri. “We were pretty much a brand-new agency and we really didn’t have much experience with the administrative portion of (running the nonprofit).”

For volunteers like Marshall or Fain, a project is a serious commitment. It means board and subcommittee meetings, reading bylaws, documents, and financial reports. And it means immersing yourself in a new industry.

“It’s a very exciting process; it provides tremendous challenge and satisfaction,” Fain said. “It forces you to be mentally agile.”

And it forces the nonprofit to recognize its issues. Often, Fain noted, a nonprofit will come to ESC saying that it has trouble marketing itself, when in reality the problem runs deeper. Often the problems have to do with board members’ ability to communicate.

“Ultimately, most of the problems we deal with are people problems. That’s true with any management.” Marshall said. “It’s how they work together – or don’t work together.”

The amount of work volunteers commit to clients is what impressed Foundation officials when they were deciding this summer how to distribute $1 million in funds. It received more than $5 million in requests, said Ron Thorpe, vice president for programs.

“(The thing) that set them apart from the normal ‘executive on loan’ was that this was a much more permanent working relationship,” Thorpe said. “There are a lot of nonprofits in Rhode Island that could use some help and can seldom pay for it.”

ESC receives much of its funding through corporate donations. That is the goal for this enterprise as well. Next year, the Rhode Island branch will have to compete for its Foundation funds all over again – with the evaluations of its nonprofit clients playing a key role, Thorpe noted.

But based on the response from clients thus far, it appears that the organization has a place in Southern New England.

“I think what they have to offer is top-notch people who are leaders in their field,” said Charles Maynard, president and chief executive officer of The Providence Center, an ESC client. “What I find unique is that they don’t have an ax to grind – they’re coming in purely to help a nonprofit.”

A weakness in ESC now, Fain noted, is that nonprofits – more so than for-profit institutions – are often run by women and minorities. Fain said he would like have more women and minority executives volunteer. Marshall, a six-year volunteer who works from 1,000 to 1,200 hours per year on it, is himself in on the recruiting mission.

“They (volunteers) find it stimulating to face new problems,” he said. “It keeps the mind active.”

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