One group described a venture capital model that helped allocate resources. Another examined the benefits of mergers and acquisitions. The role of board members came up often.
These subjects have all been discussed for generations at Harvard Business School, wrapped in case studies that help prepare students to become future captains of industry and finance.
A very different audience took up those topics on the business school campus this week. More than 150 chief executives running nonprofit organizations spent the week analyzing business-world concepts that could help them make a difference.
In its 18th year, the Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management program at Harvard attracts presidents and executive directors from around the world. A third of participants come from other countries, including Great Britain, Singapore, and Australia.
One of this year’s international participants, Thulani Madondo, founded Kliptown Youth Program in Kliptown, South Africa, about half an hour from Johannesburg. He has been recognized around the world for his work and earned $50,000 for the group when he was named a CNN Hero in December.
“I’m interested in taking my organization to the next level,” Madondo said about his interest in the Harvard program. “Most of my senior leadership does not have formal management training.”
With a staff of 17, Madondo’s group serves around 400 school children with academic and sports afterschool programs, as well as meals. With his CNN prize money, Madondo built a computer lab for the children in his program and for community members who want to learn computer literacy skills.
In addition to attending the week’s class instruction, Madondo spent time getting to know other people facing similar nonprofit challenges. By Wednesday, he had met another South African nonprofit leader and the director of an organization that helps underperforming schools in America.
“We have a lot in common,” he said. “Getting to know the other people and learning about what they’re doing — it’s something you can take into the future after this week is over.”
Organizations represented in this year’s program address social issues from health care to disability assistance and children’s charities. Their annual budgets range from less than $5 million to $50 million, according to program manager Keri Santos.
Over the last decade, nonprofits have evolved to become more businesslike, said Herman B. Leonard, a Harvard Business School professor who has taught at the nonprofit management program for 10 years and is cochair of the school’s Social Enterprise Initiative.
“There was frustration with the nonprofit world being not very efficient” in the past, he said. “The idea was that nonprofits were filled with nice people trying to do difficult things, and we couldn’t expect much from them.”
Increasingly, nonprofit executives report pressure to not only address social problems but manage an organization well. Many of the case studies discussed this week at Harvard revolved around management skills such as decision-making and leadership.
One case study conversation about fund-raising soon turned to the venture capital world. Participants dissected aspects of venture funding, usually reserved for risky start-ups, that could be applied to nonprofits.
“The nature of the discussions has changed,” said Laura Moon, director of the Social Enterprise Initiative, which runs the Harvard nonprofit program. “A few years ago, that case brought up a lot of anxiety.”
For Kathleen O’Brien, the executive director of Walden Behavioral Health Inc., a counseling organization in Maryland, finding different ways to solve social problems is a part of moving her nonprofit forward.
“I came here because the world is changing, and I want to know how I can lead my organization through the changes,” she said.
But perhaps one of the best lessons the participants practiced was how to be quiet.
“I’m usually running the meetings,” said Rimma Zelfand, the chief executive of Jewish Family & Children’s Services, a Waltham-based nonprofit that offers human services programs. “It’s a luxury for me as a CEO to listen rather than talk.”