Consulting across the for-profit/nonprofit divide

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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.

Weinreb: So would you say that nonprofits jobs have greater impact than private-sector jobs?

Wallace: It depends. If you are in a private-sector job with the ability to influence a large number of entities or people, then yes, the private sector job has a tremendous impact. Take supply-chain management, for example. In this role, a single person can affect the sustainability awareness of tens of thousands of suppliers with the creation of a new procurement policy. That is a very high-impact role inside a company, or within a government agency where procurement is also a big factor. This person and their influence can send a significant ripple through an industry, or through a large part of the economy.

For an organization like GRI, there is a global recognition of GRI’s neutral and non-commercial role in the field. This enables GRI to gain unprecedented access to unique corners of the global economy, from regulatory bodies to stock exchanges to multinational corporations and associations. In the U.S., for instance, we’re strategically engaging with industry and professional associations to enhance our respective roles. By doing so, we are helping associations address the growing needs of their members in relation to sustainability demands, while simultaneously multiplying our own outreach through membership groups that sometimes number in the tens or thousands. The specifics of this are best described in Using Associations to Leverage Change in Sustainability.

In essence, by working collaboratively with associations, we’re able to add a new and relevant dimension to their content through their newsletters, webinars and conferences.

Weinreb: What do you get out of having an impact career?

Wallace: I gain a lot of intrinsic satisfaction from this type of work because my personal beliefs are so aligned with the mission of GRI. I believe in the concepts of sustainability, but to really understand our footprint on this planet we all need more information. As consumers, shareholders and citizens we have the right to information that has a direct impact on our current and future health and well-being on this planet. Therefore, the measuring, managing and reporting of sustainability information is core part of my professional and personal belief system.

Weinreb: Is this the most impactful position you have had, and why or why not?

Wallace: The experience at GRI has definitely been the most impactful role I have had to date. I couldn’t be more proud than to carry forward GRI’s mission here in U.S. GRI’s global recognition, uptake and impact has a unique way of opening new doors. For example, within the first six months at GRI, I had met directly with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, had presented to the European Commission and had met with the White House Council of Environmental Quality about sustainability reporting.

Weinreb: From your vantage point, what are some unique job opportunities that exist given the ripple effects of GRI?

Wallace: While the words and acronyms in our field will undoubtedly change, the underlying concepts of sustainability will always hold true.

Within corporations it is important to realize that sustainability is a cross-functional, horizontal role. Identifying and then connecting the sustainability dots with a view toward the bottom line is the key.

Nonprofits will always play an important role, but the models need to be sustainable and should strive to help us all reduce, reuse and recycle. Solution-oriented nonprofits that grow and support unique new networks are the future. Industry and professional associations will never go away, and these organizations need help in embracing, implementing and disseminating sustainability-related solutions.

Of course, at the federal, state and local levels there is growing activity around sustainability. In all cases the roles are somewhat similar, yet different and there is a lot of opportunity for those interested and ready to think outside of the box.

Weinreb: What advice do you have for other professionals?

Wallace: Just as sustainability reporting emphasizes accountability, responsibility and transparency, these tenets hold true for anyone who wants to succeed in this field. Be true to yourself and be true to your word.

Image by bbay via Shutterstock.