Consulting across the for-profit/nonprofit divide

People often assume that nonprofit jobs have greater impact than private-sector jobs due to motives focusing more on impact than profits. Mike Wallace is director of the Global Reporting Initiative’s Focal Point USA. Its mission around corporate transparency is daunting, and has the potential for tremendous impact in how companies operate. I recently sat down with Wallace for a conversation about impact, and to compare this and other nonprofit jobs to positions he has held in the private sector.

Ellen Weinreb: What is your current role at GRI?

Mike Wallace: My role is to increase the uptake and the quality of sustainability reporting across the United States. Two years ago, I took on this assignment while based in Amsterdam at GRI secretariat.

Weinreb: What steps did you take in your career to get here?

Wallace: My college degree and my career choices took me to San Francisco, where I became involved in more traditional environmental work with ERM. The work entailed the environmental assessment, clean-up and transfer of large real estate holdings (i.e., Bay Area Naval bases) and corporate entities (i.e., mergers and acquisitions).This led to an opportunity to transfer to ERM’s Australian offices, where they worked more closely with government agencies on planning and growth issues. While I had certainly heard of sustainability during my time in San Francisco, the Australian work back in 1997 actually involved tangible sustainability projects relating to forestry, land use and city planning. I was sold.

Upon my return to San Francisco I decided to find my way into the sustainability field, but most of the action was happening in the NGO space. I leveraged the combination of experiences gained from ERM and took an assignment with the Center for Creative Land Recycling (CCLR), which focused on supporting brownfield redevelopment across California. It was my first true nonprofit job.

From CCLR I moved to Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), where I gained invaluable experience in the area of financial services and sustainability ratings. I then hung my own shingle and started my own boutique consultancy, which I ran for roughly five years. I consulted to both for-profit and nonprofit clients.

Weinreb: What is your perspective of consulting to nonprofits versus consulting to for-profits?

Wallace: I really enjoyed the mix and made it a point to develop services for both types of clients. For the private sector, I did strategic sustainability work, helping companies develop integrated sustainability programs. My M&A background and the financial services experience enabled me to work closely with the CFO, investor relations and sustainability teams to address the growing demand for reporting. For nonprofit clients, I helped with network development, corporate collaborations and program development.

Weinreb: What fostered your interested in the nonprofit sector early in your career?

Wallace: I liked the mission-driven approach and the idea of doing things for the betterment of society. I also appreciated the model of a foundation-supported organization that was given the time and space to examine the issues, problem-solve and share results beyond just a single client.

Next Page: Which jobs have more impact?