Mary Vradelis, Executive MBA Program ’08, and Professor Jyoti Bachani published Strategy Making in Nonprofit Organizations: A Model and Case Studies in 2012. Ostensibly it’s a book that attempts to bridge the gap between for-profit and nonprofit business models, but at its core it’s largely about conducting business—regardless of type—with values, purpose and a mission.
Vradelis had enrolled in the Saint Mary’s MBA Program with over 20 years of experience in nonprofits. Bachani is a Fulbright scholar with a strategy consulting background. The two met in 2007 when Vradelis was a student in Bachani’s strategy class.
During her time in the classroom, Vradelis began to wonder how she was going to be able to apply what she had learned in business school to her nonprofit work. Afraid that much of what she had learned wasn’t applicable, Vradelis began an extensive conversation with Bachani which, five years later, resulted in their book. The School of Economics and Business Administration (SEBA) caught up with the two to discuss the origins of the book, the cultivation of their relationship and what the future holds for the two of them.
SEBA: In the introduction of the book there is a passage that describes Mary’s decision to enroll the MBA program because of “growing pressure to operate nonprofits like a business.” What were those pressures specifically?
Mary Vradelis: [At the time,] there were a lot of questions around return on investment at my organization, which was difficult to quantify in a nonprofit. I think the other pressure, simply, was being able to develop revenue streams.
For example, I ran a tutoring program, and the question was could you not only offer free tutoring to the people who needed tutoring, but also charge people for tutoring as a revenue stream? There has been a lot [of conversation] around the social enterprise in nonprofits. Nonprofits are looking at different ways of developing revenue streams while keeping focused on their mission. It can be a challenge.
SEBA: Jyoti, what were your first impressions of Mary as a student, and how did the project evolve after your first meeting?
Jyoti Bachani: Just like most of the students in our Executive MBA Program—who are mid-to -senior-level professionals who have lots of experience—Mary was motivated and dedicated. Practice-level information was what she cared about in the classroom. She was thoughtful; she took the material that was taught in class to the world of practice and came back with good questions about how it applied to her situation. She was very good at doing the work that was assigned in a motivated and responsible manner.
The end of the class was when our conversations really started, and she said that this didn’t really apply [to her experience within nonprofits]. She told me that what I was teaching was very good, but it didn’t apply to the nonprofit world, and I would try to convince her that nonprofits are also organizations—maybe they don’t want to maximize profit, maybe they want maximize social good or cut down cost, but they’re still organizations the same as a business organization.
To her credit, she stood up and said, “No, you don’t understand. Here are some things for you to read to understand my world.” Then I gave her some things to read and said, “Okay, look at this leadership literature and read this or that.” And we continued giving each other things to read until we reached a point a year or so later where we realized this was an empirical question. Maybe it’s not just the two of us butting heads over this; maybe there are other people out there. Let’s go out and see what’s happening.
So we set up interviews through her alumni network and another program that mentors nonprofit leaders, to talk to people. That’s when my eyes were opened, that this was a different world and my simplistic assumptions about how the nonprofits functioned were challenged.
SEBA: After reading portions of the book, I always had this vision of it being a kind of friendly competition between the two of you, where each one of was trying to convince the other of their way of thinking. Was it like that at all?
MV: I wouldn’t say it was competition (laughs). Commitment to our experience is more like it. I think we each were deeply committed and enmeshed in what our perspective was and how it applied to the world. It took a lot of back and forth to see where the overlap was—and certainly there were commonalities—and then really trying to understand the differences.
JB: The two things that I would say about our relationship would be curiosity—both of us are curious and good learners who want to know and understand what we’re doing—and mutual respect. She took my word seriously, and I took her opinions and experiences seriously. She knew what she was talking about. I didn’t feel competition ever because we have very different domains, so no, we can’t be competing on the other’s territory (laughs).
MV: Competition, that’s a business word right there (both laugh). Actually if you talk about competition in many nonprofit cultures, they’ll tune you out right there. And by the way, Jyoti, you do work for a nonprofit now at Saint Mary’s (both laugh).
JB: I also think we both like open situations where we can happily cross-boundaries and explore with an empathetic perspective to somebody else’s point of view.
SEBA: Do you feel that is an uncommon relationship? Do you have colleagues that have collaborated in this kind of way outside the classroom?
JB: I have other students that I’ve worked with. I’ve co-authored with another student on telemedicine, and I’ve had two former students of mine who have been recruited by Saint Mary’s to teach as adjunct professors. I often invite former students into my classroom to bring their work experience and do mock interviews with students. I think there are many alums who are part of my larger circle of people I do formal or informal collaborative work with.
MV: I co-wrote a paper with (Professor) Tomas (Gomez-Arias) while I was in the program. The reality is that we have two bottom lines, so you really have to be interested in the joy of the work. I did it because it was an interesting learning experience, and we were developing something that we thought was a service to the field. There’s not a lot of outside support for this kind of work, so you have to be sort of intrinsically motivated.
JB: Both of us are committed to it—both of us see it as something of value to us personally, and also for a greater service. I wasn’t particularly interested in the academic credit from writing the book or the article, and she doesn’t necessarily see windfall in her consulting assignments because of the book, but these are ideas that we thought would be useful to a larger population. We need to have their voices heard and strengthened and give them the language they need to navigate the issues that we were debating.
SEBA: What does that feel like? To feel like you’re contributing to a vacuum in the knowledge?
JB: Vacuum in the knowledge is big phrase. I would say ‘an improvement in the service or improving the world of practice.’ The book is very hands on and practical. There are things that people can take into consultations or workshops with things that organizations can do tomorrow.
Business is a very applied discipline, and if you’re not making a difference in practice then why bother? It’s not a basic science. I’m not advancing a cure for cancer or something; I’m trying to influence practice to make it better.
We want to influence the world of practice. I want to change the word “nonprofit,” because they do so much for the world. To characterize nonprofits as a negative of the for-profit is horrible. It doesn’t recognize their importance or their contributing to communities and civilized life.
MV: People are excited to actually be talking about it and bringing this idea to the surface. People are also interested in accessing what is relevant for them. In almost any nonprofit, people on the board are coming from a business background. This idea of having to adjust to the culture and find ways of working together is very relevant in my day-to-day world of working with nonprofits.
SEBA: What has the feedback been like thus far?
MV: People are excited about having a framework and way of approaching these problems and are interested in what is relevant to them. Several of my consulting colleagues are excited about having case studies because it’s a great way to bring stories to people to really think with and wrestle with, and the fact that they’re real stories makes people sit up and pay attention. I think it really resonated with them.
SEBA: Is there anything Saint Mary’s does to foster this kind of collaborative growth?
JB: Definitely. The most important points to get across are that a student like Mary comes to SEBA’s EMBA program with 20 years of experience already and a prior master’s degree in expressive arts therapy. We have very experienced students and then that leads to collaboration.
I also think it’s because of the kind of students that Saint Mary’s attracts. The small class sizes where you get to know individual students. If I were teaching a class with 100 students, there would be no way I would get to know them as well as I know the students here, so that makes a big difference too. And the interdisciplinary liberal arts, critical thinking allows for the freedom to explore. I don’t have to stick to teaching strategy even though that’s what my expertise is. I can do cross-functional, practice oriented research and think from first principles about solving things. That freedom doesn’t exist at a research university where you’re pigeon-holed into a box. [At Saint Mary’s] the liberal arts tradition frees me to span the boundaries and step outside my little box.
MV: I felt like I had access to faculty, and it was actually a deciding factor for me when choosing from a number of different schools [for my MBA program]. I had talked with an alum who discussed how much they could talk to faculty about, not only the materials that they were working on, but things that were happening in their professional lives, and trying to come up with some strategies to deal with it. That was a big appeal. The faculty paid attention to the individual skills and experience that people brought in, and encouraged that in any of the projects that we were working on.
Also, even though it wasn’t my tradition, the Lasallian vision and sense of community service really stressed values. Even sometimes when I thought I might be butting heads with the professors, I knew that there was that underlying core value based in community service, and that made me feel more comfortable.
SEBA: What’s your relationship like now? Are there any future projects on the way?
MV: I think we’re friends, and I think that we continue to see how we can work together professionally, what other projects we can do. We’re looking at two other writing projects.
JB: It’s important for me to work with people I enjoy being around, and working with Mary has been a pleasure—that’s why we continue to look for opportunities to work together. I don’t think we can go public with the other projects yet, but it’s something we’re discussing.
Bachani and Vradelis will be offering a free workshop that covers many of the ideas from the book on Decemeber 10 at the Foundation Center in San Francisco. The workshop will take place from 10 to noon. For more information, click here.