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Student consultants turn non-profits by 180 degrees

15 Apr 2011

Student Group1 Nathaniel had the original idea for 180 Degrees Consulting about four years ago when he asked himself about the possibilities of mobilising his fellow business and law students to provide pro-bono consulting services to not-for-profit organisations.

So when the new consultants met this week (120 from Sydney University and 70 from the University of New South Wales) it was clear Nathaniel's "little idea" had developed into a business reality.

"I believe students have more to offer than simply collecting money for worthwhile causes," said Nathaniel who completed his honours year in Economics at the University of Sydney in 2010. Later this year Nat will travel to Oxford UK as the winner of the 2011 Rhodes Scholarship.

"There were really talented, enthusiastic students all around me who wanted hands-on business experience and on the other hand you had these not-for-profits crying out for thoughtful business advice." So, Nathaniel decided to play matchmaker.

"I have always been interested in charity work but it was only when I got to Uni that it dawned on me that the effectiveness of funds is just as important as the level of funds. The default response to problems should not always be to raise funds but rather to try to address the internal dynamics that drive those problems."

Offering a pro-bono consulting service seemed to be the answer for Nathaniel. 'With consulting, students could help charities improve the way they operate. At the same time, students could develop valuable life skills that would ultimately help their careers."

Student Group2 180 Degrees receives pecuniary and in-kind support from various organisations including the University of Sydney Business School, The University Union, investment bank Goldman Sachs, and an internationally renowned consulting company.

Each semester, program participants are required to undergo an extensive training program run by a leading international consulting company to prepare them for the rigours of the projects. This session covers, among other things, business plan development, marketing and presentation skills. The involvement of an independent consulting company is important because it establishes a high standard for all participants and gives the program credibility with companies benefiting from the consulting experience.

This year 120 University of Sydney students were chosen from 214 applicants to be a part of the program. (The split is usually 65% undergraduate and 35% postgraduate.) After going through the rigorous selection process, students are allocated to certain projects based on their area of expertise. For example, an engineering student may be selected for a project if there is a need for design ideas and implementation.

Students meet in consulting teams on a regular basis, and have frequent contact with the not-for-profit organisation they are assigned to.

There are many happy 180 Degrees clients including the internationally recognised names of the Red Cross and Youth Off the Streets. The clients aren't just providing lip service about these projects. In a recent assignment for a Hong Kong-based company, 26 of the 39 project recommendations were implemented. "We are incredibly grateful for the help of the 180 Degrees team, which was made up of intelligent and creative individuals. Since implementing their recommendations we've met significantly more of our KPIs," a staff-member for that organisation commented.

180 Degrees has also worked with AfriCap in Mauritius on improving microfinance programs, with A21 in Ukraine on reducing sex trafficking, and with Viola Vitolis in Bangladesh on combating arsenic poisoning. "In non-profit organisations like these you often find very enthusiastic personnel who are desperate to help others but who have limited business knowledge and cannot afford to pay for expensive consulting services," said Nat. "They benefit from having student consultants come in with fresh eyes to offer creative solutions to challenges they are facing."

Nathaniel's primary role as International Director involves managing the six international offices around the world but he still loves getting involved with specific consulting projects where he can. Sydney is the largest office, undertaking 40-50 projects this year. Other offices experiencing growth are in Russia, Sweden and Mexico.

And as for that original idea, Nat said he never dreamed it would get this big.

"I believed in the idea from the start so it is rewarding to now know that we are making a meaningful difference. The way I see it, not-for-profits have nothing to lose and potentially a lot to gain from the consulting work we undertake."

It is perhaps a testament to the work of 180 Degrees that Former OECD Secretary-General Donald J. Johnston remarked, "The world needs more ideas like those developed by 180 Degrees Consulting, and more people like them with the social conscience, passion and ability to make change happen."

For more information, visit 180 Degrees Consulting