How Consulting Can Be Good for the Soul

Question-How do you help a visionary with a great idea to preserve as much open space as possible?

Answer-We have some clues… only time will tell.
On April 30th, 2001, five other members of Section F and I met with our client to discuss this very issue. Our client was the Shelter Island Fund, a local Massachusetts non-profit dedicated to preserving open space in the rapidly urbanizing eastern part of the state. Our visionary was Jedediah Mannis, a Massachusetts attorney with a passion for the outdoors.

Three months earlier, the team had formed with the goal of doing something a bit different. We had survived first semester, but we were anxious to add a bit more spice to the second. Although claiming that we “wanted to give something back” might sound a bit trite, we were inspired to do something useful and worthy and put some of our newfound skills into practice.

Having learned about the Volunteer Consulting Organization (VCO) through the normal channels-spam email, cluttered Aldrich boxes, and the club fair-a couple of my fellow Frogs thought to build a team. Jonathan Hodgson, Robin King, Alex Mandl, Sunny Jongsaritwang, Sarah Jacoby, and I agreed to form a group and undertake a VCO project.

We chose Shelter Island Fund (SIF), a small group headed by a lawyer with a mission-to use his knowledge of Massachusetts tax and property laws and regulations to preserve farm and forest land as open space. His model was simple in principle-for land owners thinking of wholly selling out to developers, he could exploit the law to make it equally attractive to do the following: donate part of the land and claim tax deductions, and subdivide the remainder of the land into more valuable lots to sell to other purchasers.

His problem-how to use his limited resources to apply this model to preserve as much open space as possible.
His solution-us!

After meeting our client and understanding the value model, we got to work. Over the course of the semester, we conceived a plan and then interviewed landowners, city officers and city assessors, land trust administrators, watershed administrators, environmentalists, former SIF clients, and everyone else we could think of.

Then, based on our research, we developed some hypotheses, such as what target markets to approach (most of the categories of people we interviewed), how to determine the good ones and the bad ones, what to say to them, what not to say to them, what to expect from them, and what rules about PR we should set in all the target markets. We also gathered demographic data on various locales and sliced and diced it to come up with some metrics on where to focus.

In the process we strongly reinforced our section bonds and also did some other things. We learned how to function well as a team of equals (maybe we learned something from Crimson Greetings and LEAD-then again maybe not), how to divide and conquer, how to listen to each other, and how to drink scorpion bowls (although I think some of us already had that one pegged). All this within the professionally safe cocoon that is HBS.
In the end, we delivered a Marketing Strategy Paper giving them advice on how to best focus their limited resources. We gained the knowledge that the skills we had picked up in the first semester were actually useful, and that, with the intuition we had developed, we perceived things that were not painfully obvious to everyone outside an HBS classroom. We also earned the praise and that our work was “phenomenal” (who knew?), along with the knowledge that we had done something that our client could have never done himself.

Needless to say, it was a great experience. And who knows, maybe one day we might proudly say, “see that nature reserve over there-I helped make that happen.”
For more information on the VCO, check out the club website