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Understanding the Business of Helping Others

November 15, 2012

Public service groups and MBAs need each other to improve society’s bottom line, according to Eric Weinheimer, ’94, president and CEO of The Cara Program, and winner of the 2011 Distinguished Public Service/Public Sector Alumni Award.

Speaking at the Net Impact conference on October 20 at Gleacher Center, Weinheimer said nonprofit and for-profit service organizations are facing a dramatically shifting labor market that reduces job opportunities, an education system that fails many students, and growing concerns over health care costs and access. Tackling those issues will require the same best practices and innovative thinking that drive success in businesses. About 150 participated in the daylong conference, which brings together students and the representatives of the social service sector.

“The only way we’re going to figure this out is if we reach out to really smart, really talented, driven business people who are passionate about making change in the world and reel them in to this sector, get them mobilized,” Weinheimer said.

The Cara Program was founded in 1991 and, through training and guidance, helps the poor and homeless find and retain jobs. It was among the first social impact organizations to use data-driven metrics to measure its performance, such as the number of job placements, retention rates, and social return on investment. Cara publishes performance updates twice a year, including how well it meets goals and its impact on the community.

Social workers have the passion to help others, Weinheimer said, but they often lack the ability to measure results and apply the metrics that can quantify the value of their efforts. Weinheimer said that when he joined Chicago-based Cara he had no experience in the social impact field but was hired because of his MBA and experience in corporate banking.

Such skills are sorely needed because philanthropists no longer give money simply because they believe in a cause, he said. Now, they also “demand impact and want to see the social returns on investment. An organization will have to give those results if it wants to get funded.”

Weinheimer was introduced by dean Sunil Kumar, who noted that a key mission of the Social Enterprise Initiative that was launched in spring 2012, is to apply contemporary business practices to the social impact sector.

“We felt this was a sector where people manage more from their hearts than from their heads,” Kumar said, and the sector “could benefit from some hard-headed Chicago-style thinking, which, for example, starts with performance measurement. I see this sector growing and having substantial impact, but to do so it must be clear-eyed about how it measures itself.”

Weinheimer said professionals no longer are willing to settle for the material and professional success versus significance of purpose. Now, many say, “I also want to make a difference, and have purpose in my career. Our society needs this movement now, today, more than it has at any time certainly in the last century.”

Breakout sessions after Weinheimer’s keynote address delved into topics such as impact investing, leveraging an MBA in the public sector, international development, and education.

In a session on corporate social responsibility strategies, Thomas Maguire, public policy director for Verizon Communications Inc., discussed how corporate philanthropy is evolving at his company.

Verizon believes in “shared value,” in which economic activity also should address society’s needs and challenges, he said, adding that the company has incorporated that thinking into the philanthropy of the Verizon Foundation. One initiative enables nonprofits to fund trials of products, giving them access to the latest technology and helping Verizon gain valuable field experience.

“Part of our thrust here is to see if we can make markets, do well by the community and prove our value back to the business,” he said. — Rick Popely