Flashbacks to client service!!

Here are a few takeaways from our time in DC:

1. Members of the Incubator are bringing a lot of passion and experience…

One of my favorite parts of our time in DC was when eight of us from the Incubator poured out of the Flamboyan Foundation into a cool, dry Fall evening in DC to walk to CPA’s annual event a mile away. Juan Francisco and I chatted about our parallel work experiences. Others paired off, discussing the workshops we’d just left and telling their meet cute stories of Felipe. The group felt energetic. I was inspired to see the way a group of people who had met online just weeks earlier, and many met in person for the first time, were coming together with a shared excitement to build on the work of CPA.
When I asked, Juan Francisco shared in detail how he’s able to fit in the work the Incubator: “Writing a blog post after a day of work and while my family is gathering for drinks before dinner without me.” Wow. His energy and commitment is inspiring. Sheila share with me more of her extensive professional background in social work, organizing, and teaching. We learned we took the same organizing class at Harvard a few year apart!

2. …and people are bringing a lot of questions


A memorable part of the workshop was when we discussed what it looks like for CPA to work with its member institutions. Michelle asked something like, “What if they want to know about composting services? I don’t know anything about that. What do I have to offer a member institution on that?”
What Felipe shared was insightful. He said in that scenario he would get smart on it real quick. He’d call 3 composting companies and get quotes, ask about their billing practices. He’d ask the company for references, and call them to learn what the service is like. Then he’d call that member institution back and share what he’d learned.
When Felipe told us this, people had more questions. Paul, I think, asked about “Well what about HVAC? I don’t know anything about HVAC, but many property managers at large institutions do. What can I tell them about HVAC they don’t already know?” Felipe’s response: “Joe spent a year learning about HVAC systems, even though he primarily works on solar. He had to learn a ton of stuff. And now he’s the expert on HVACs, and helps lots of institutions figure stuff out they didn’t know already.”
3. CPA is a business service organization
It’s clear to me following our time in DC that CPA revolves around solving concrete problems facing member institutions – who both spend with CPA and exercise governance through their role as member owners. Felipe’s composting example revealed that to me.
That commitment to member institutions reminds me of my years in private sector consulting. Client service was a big deal. We went to incredible lengths to bring the best analysis to clients – traveling everywhere at the drop of the hat, late nights, endless conference calls. Delivering what the client needed was the whole reasons we existed.
I don’t see that same relentless drive in the nonprofit sector. I can think of a few reasons why that may be the case. One is the profit motive is lower. There’s no big payday when a nonprofit organization gets it right. Two, and perhaps more convincing, is the lack of clarity around who is the ‘client.’ While the consulting firm I worked gets paid by the same person or org to whom we’re responsible to deliver our findings, nonprofit orgs can have many more stakeholders beyond the person they will work with day-to-day. Funders and volunteer board members, for example, may each offer competing visions of what the work should look like.
I think CPA has that clarity, and I’m guessing that to make CPA Cleveland work, our team here must approach the work with a client service mentality.
Thank you for the comments! Generous indeed! I really like the idea of parsing out the desirable / undesirable parts of private sector consulting, and leaving behind the bad as I move to CPA. I left the consulting job because I wanted to run to work in the solidarity economy; I also left because I wanted to run from the bad parts of my old job. Here are two pernicious parts of consulting I hope do not show up in CPA. 
Unbalanced life. The commitment to client service plus insatiable requests for work on internal projects and to sustaining the institution itself led to super healthy lives. The month I left the firm I worked at, my two closest friends in the home office at emotional breakdowns. The stress accumulated in their bodies until they shut down. At least one left the office sobbing. CPA LETS NEVER DO THAT TO PEOPLE WHO WORK HERE.
Both rolled of their clients and took a few weeks off. Now they’re back on the job. That’s wild.
Compromised values. One Friday afternoon as I was between clients the person who staffed me on projects asked me if I would join a team doing client service at a big tobacco company. She knew enough about my politics that she couched the request like “No pressure, but would you consider…” NO! I would not consider that.
But big tobacco is profitable, and the firm I worked at was all about profit. That led them to do all sorts of terrible things I’m not proud to have been part of, even if I said no to the most egregious of them. I hope I never say that about CPA.

5 thoughts on “Flashbacks to client service!!”

  1. It was great to be with you. I’m wondering about the expertise questions in each of the areas like composting and HVAC. How does that get shared, how much does one need to “reinvent the wheel”. How can expertise and wisdom be shared.

    I was also intrigued and amazed at the client service aspect. There were so many stories of how CPA made all the difference. But what constitutes service? Is it just solving problems? Is it being part of something greater? Is it the way people are treated and listened to?


  2. Hey Jonathan!

    I very much enjoyed my time with you and the team as well! So enriching even at a spiritual level.

    I really appreciated how you e so succinctly laid out the differences we have seen in consulting vs the nonprofit world.
    I have found a similar dissonance in my line of work of social impact consulting, but mostly because the people I work with don’t have that background. For better or for worse, this experience, drive, focus and commitment is a big chunk of our value-add.

    My reflection fodder question to you is: how else can you harness your former consultant life and put it to the service of your community? What obstacles do you foresee and how do you think you’d adapt, given the new stage you are living?


    1. Hi! I’m just going to tag along to Juan’s questions and add: What was it that made you leave the work of consulting? How can we ensure that we are taking the good but not migrating the bad of that world/space into the work of CPA as we build it out? What are the hard and soft lines you image for yourself and your work after having been in and left that consulting space and walking into the CPA space?


  3. Hi! I’m just going to tag along to Juan’s questions and add: What was it that made you leave the work of consulting? How can we ensure that we are taking the good but not migrating the bad of that world/space into the work of CPA as we build it out? What are the hard and soft lines you image for yourself and your work after having been in and left that consulting space and walking into the CPA space?


  4. Hi Jonathan – so grateful for this post. One question for you:
    When I read this (and some of your other posts), I feel a sense of distance from the work. It almost reads as if you’re coming from a kind of consultant’s posture. A dispassionate observer of the process & reflecting back what you’re seeing. This is a huge gift. however, as you start diving deeper into building Cleveland, I wonder if there’s anything about how you might want to shift that?
    I think your client service mentality reflection shows you captured a key piece of what I believe we try to bring to our members — and I trust you will bring that to the work. But what about the heart side — the inter-personal relational side, where you’re vulnerable and in response to your vulnerability, other people share theirs and there is this gradual deepening of relationship and participation in a meaningful network of relationships — requests & offers — care and support — exchange of time and resources…
    What might a more vulnerable reflection on the past week or your experience in DC look like?


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