The Bridgespan Group: An Insider Look Into Non-Profit Consulting

We’re excited to share with you this exclusive interview with The Bridgespan Group, the #1 non-profit consulting firm in the world. The conversation is with Stephanie Kater, a Partner at the firm and co-leader of the firm’s impact investing space. She has a lot to share about the background, clients, projects, and daily life of a Bridgespan consultant. After spending time in for-profit consulting, she brings a unique perspective to the table to compare and contrast the two.

  • What is non-profit consulting?
  • How is it different from “traditional” management consulting?
  • What kinds of projects do Bridgespan consultants work on?
  • What traits is the firm looking for in candidates?

Answers to these questions – and so much more – are inside. Listen here or on your favorite podcast channel. A full transcription is coming soon.

The Bridgespan Group: An Insider Look Into Non-Profit Consulting – Full Transcription

Transcription has been edited for length and brevity.

MC

00:19

We’re pleased to have with us today Stephanie Kater from Bridgespan. Stephanie, of course – fabulous name. Not only Stephanie, but Stephanie K and Stephanie K. Japheth pointed that out earlier, so it’s lovely. As we kick off this conversation, would love if you could just tell us a little bit more about yourself – who you are and your background.

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

01:01

Happy to, Stephanie K. Thanks so much for having me here. I’ll start by saying that I’m a mother of two living in suburban Washington DC. And career wise, I started my career in the for profit consulting sector at a small firm in San Francisco called Webster Pacific and then I pivoted over to social sector consulting from there. I’m now a partner at The Bridgespan Group, which is an advisor to the social sector and our mission is to try to make the world more equitable and just and I’ve been here for a decade now.

MC

01:36

Very exciting. Thank you again for taking the time to join us. I understand that you help lead your firm’s efforts related to impact investing. For our audience, could you brief us a little bit on what is impact investing and how is Bridgespan a player in this space?

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

01:53

Yes, great question. So impact investments are made with the intention to generate social and environmental impact alongside a financial return. And the return target can range from market rate returns to below market rate expectations depending on the investor’s goals and constraints. And the investors that Bridgespan works with include many very large private investors, many of whom are absolutely seeking out market returns, as well as family offices and foundations.

And the ways we support them really go all the way along the lifecycle of an investment fund as you might think of it starting from developing an impact strategy for a fund or potential fund. Moving on to developing standards-aligned impact measurement and management systems, sometimes doing deal level impact diligence alongside commercial diligence that they may be doing themselves or that another advisory firm might be conducting.

And then finally, supporting portfolios downstream to increase their impact. Bridgespan didn’t start out working in the impact investing world. For the first 15 or so years of our 20 year history, we worked exclusively with philanthropists and nonprofits, but we’ve kind of found ourselves pulled into this space as the impact investing world has grown and as there seems to be this need and this demand for people who really do think impact first, to help support that industry to fulfill its potential to do good in the world.

MC

03:18

It seems like you’ve made some huge strides here. I understand that your team, in partnership with other organizations, recently published a list of over 150 funds that seek to direct capital towards advancing racial equity. How did this project come about? And why do you think it matters?

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

03:38

Thanks for asking about that. Yes, we did very recently publish that. And, one of the really interesting aspects of Bridgespan to me is that part of our mission is to share what we learn from working with clients – and we’re privileged at this point to have done well over 1000 client engagements, so there’s a good deal of insight to draw from, which I think is really interesting in that it contrasts very sharply with a lot of my experiences in for profit consulting, where the nondisclosure agreement really is king and we are not sharing insights from any one client to any other client or the world. At Bridgespan, we’re sort of the opposite of that.

A few months ago, the way that this specific article you referenced came about is that we realized, over the course of our work, that we’d come across numerous investment funds that are seeking to advance racial equity with their investing. And at the same time, we were seeing a lot of really positive commitments from corporations and investors to try to make pledges to make an impact on racial equity.

And we were seeing a lot of reports that a lot of them were struggling to figure out where to put their capital. And so we published the list, even though it’s not comprehensive at this moment, and it’s not perfect, we decided to go ahead and publish it alongside our three publication partners, really for two reasons. The first is to debunk that myth that there’s no “product” as its stated in the investment world out there in the racial equity space, as I think the sheer length of our list demonstrates that that is a myth.

And then second, it can be really challenging to get your name out there, especially as a first time fund manager or fund manager of color who may not be well networked yet and we wanted to elevate a longer list beyond the most well known few. So for those reasons, we decided to go ahead and publish.

MC

05:24

For those who may be interested in learning more about this project, or this list of funds, how could they learn more?

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

05:34

If you want to learn more, you can find the article, the title of it is “getting money off the sidelines: a starting list to invest for racial equity.” If you Google that, you’ll find it on Bridgespan’s website. We were fortunate to get a shout out from ImpactAlpha, which is one of the big publications in impact investing and our publication partners have it on their websites as well.

And if you do end up taking a look, I know that this list is not comprehensive, we are welcoming additions to it before we publish one more update early next year. And so to the extent that you say, ‘Wow, I actually know of another fund that’s under the radar, but really could be a good addition to this list and fit the criteria,’ I’d love to hear about it. And there’s a mechanism named at the end of the article for sharing that info.

MC

06:19

Oh, that’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing about that. Now, if we zoom out to Bridgespan as a whole, most aspiring consultants think of you as the industry’s foremost nonprofit consulting firm, the leader. How do you think about that? How do you define non-profit consulting or social sector consulting?

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

06:42

I define it both by who we work with, and then also what we do. So in terms of who we work with, as I mentioned before, all of our clients are either non-profits themselves philanthropists, or impact investors. And then in terms of what we do, in all cases, the goal of our projects is to maximize impact contrasted with a goal of many for-profit consulting projects, which is to maximize profit. So those two fundamental definitions are how I think about social sector consulting.

MC

07:17

You’ve already talked about a couple of the differences of your previous for-profit consulting work and the non-profit space around the types of clients you work with and your objectives. But are there fundamental differences in how the firm approaches non-profit work and non-profit clients, as opposed to your previous life in the commercial space?

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

07:42

That’s another good question. There is a pretty fundamental difference in the questions that clients come to us with, a bit less of a difference in the toolkit that we apply to answer them.

So to give an example. Let’s say a large retail chain might go to Bain and Company, which is the large for-profit firm that incubated Bridgespan before we spun out 20 years ago, and the large retail chain might say, ‘help us figure out how to get more profitable. We want to take market share from our competitors. We want to cut our costs,’ and those types of questions.

By contrast, there might be a large network, like the YMCA, which is a longtime Bridgespan client, who might come to Bridgespan and say, ‘help us figure out how to increase our impact.’ And unlike that retail chain, who thinks about other stores in their vicinity as competitors, the YMCA wouldn’t think of other youth and fitness centers as competitors, but rather would ask, ‘is there a way to partner with them to better serve communities? Can we make them better? Can they make us better? Can we work together?’

And the YMCA might have financial sustainability on their mind too, but some of their most resource intensive offerings might also be the highest impact. And that’s a big consideration in deciding what you pursue and what you continue and what you don’t. It’s certainly the same concept of we’re going to try to help an organization be as effective as possible, but the impact versus the profits as the North Star does impact in a pretty significant and fundamental way the types of questions that we get approached with from our clients.

MC

09:17

And how does that translate to the day to day level – the experience of being in non-profit consulting?

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

09:27

I personally feel, as someone who’s worked in both worlds, that it’s more similar than different. In the day to day at Bridgespan, you’re still meeting with your small project team and conducting expert interviews, doing an analysis in Excel, putting together presentation slides for clients and many of the things that the listeners of your podcast probably associate with for-profit consulting as well.

But to your question about how it can feel different, I do think it can feel feel different. And going back to my examples, a classic analyst work-stream at a for-profit consulting firm or at any consulting firm would be to go talk to customers to get data and insights for a company.

But at Bridgespan, and the YMCA, let’s say, – it is a client I’ve worked for – for me, that meant I’m going to go meet with families at the local Y branches to ask what offerings have made the most difference for their families. Is it the childcare? Is it the healthy cooking classes? Is it the athletic facilities? And so forth, and truly and authentically seek their opinions on what the Y could do more of or a different way to help them.

And that just to me feels different, or has felt different than standing outside a high-end fancy gym and asking customers whether they’d pay more for their memberships if there was, I don’t know, another smoothie bar added inside or something like that. And and I don’t say that with any judgment, because I actually love for-profit consulting and I love most of my clients there too. But to answer your question about how it can feel different in the day to day, I do think that it can.

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MC

11:00

Absolutely, that makes sense. There are probably some people that are listening that are thinking about this space for the first time. And it may be interesting for them to hear that a lot of the toolkit is the same, a lot of the skills are going to need to be the same. But to help them wrap their head around even more of what you do at Bridgespan. Can you share a couple of examples about the types of projects that you work on?

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

11:25

Yeah, I can share some examples. But Stephanie, to get to your point on the toolkits being the same. One of the ways that that manifests, I think, is that some of our trainings are the identical trainings that Bain and Company, our partner firm does. We send people to the same trainings. We also then have our own Bridgespan-only trainings, kind of in alternative places in the training cycle, because there are differences to pull out as well.

But yeah, a lot of the toolkit fundamentally is really similar. Examples of projects: for many years, our bread and butter was a five-year strategic plan for a non-profit organization. We still do a lot of that, we’re really thinking of peers not as competitors, but as fellow travelers in this social sector. We’re really pleased that there’s a lot of other folks who also do that type of work now, and increasingly, Bridgespan is getting more and more complex questions as a result, which is great.

On the philanthropy side, one common project is sourcing and diligence, as we call it, this idea that a philanthropist wants to make a certain difference or difference in a certain issue area or achieve something specific. And they come to us to and say, ‘well, what does that mean in terms of where I might make grants and can you help me really get underneath each organization, what they’re trying to do, and figure out where my money is going to make the most impact difference.’ So that’s a typical philanthropy project for us.

And then in impact investing, an impact measurement framework is a very common project for us. We oftentimes get questions from impact investors looking to raise capital or from prospective partners, and they’ll say, ‘how can we really know impact is being achieved?’  And Bridgespan has experience thinking about that question and putting into practice frameworks that can help the clients fundraise in the sense that they’re sharing this as a way to share how rigorous our approach is, but then also, more importantly to us, really make great use of that capital once they have it because they are able to measure their impact and manage to it.

MC

13:39

Absolutely. Quite a diverse set of of different things that you do and also a lot of diversity with the different types of clients that you work with. You already mentioned, these different categories across non-profit to to impact investors themselves, or philanthropists, etc. Can you speak a little bit more about the different client types that you have?

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

14:01

Yeah, happy to. A lot of our clients tend to be or have historically been some of the bigger organizations in the social sector for the reason that Bridgespan’s business model is a sustainable economic model. We don’t do any pro bono work, we charge at cost what we charge for all of our services, which makes us a lot less expensive than some of the other providers out there.

But also means that it can be a really significant investment to engage a Bridgespan team on a project, and as a result, a lot of our clients tend to be sort of some of the larger foundations and some of the larger not-for-profit organizations, whether in the United States or abroad, some of the impact funds who have raised capital already, for example, and folks like that.

We are really keen to engage with clients who are either smaller or just at an earlier stage or just have had to face barriers to attracting the type of capital that can enable them to hire Bridgespan. And so a couple things that we do in that vein that brings different client types in was that we started a program several years ago now called “leading for impact” in which, instead of having a full on Bridgespan team helping to tackle a big challenge that an organization might be facing, the organization gets in a group model geographically.

So for example, 40 non-profits in Atlanta, and the executive teams identify their issue and go through a group model whereby they themselves are actually doing the work of the project, but they’re getting Bridgespan coaching in a group setting and a little bit one-on-one too in order to do that, thereby strengthening the leadership teams and giving them some great development opportunities and capacity building while also accomplishing whatever their goal at the moment is.

So we work with a lot of smaller non-profits in that way. And then we also – I guess we can’t call them our clients per se – but we really are serious about what we call knowledge and insight sharing that I mentioned. In fact, we raise our own grant dollars to be able to fund that work so that we can take dedicated time from close to everyone who works at Bridgespan, certainly from our advisory folks and folks on the knowledge team, a portion of our time to be able to share that.

And so we try to reach the aspiring non-profit leader out there, or the social entrepreneur with whatever we can to the extent that we can be helpful without ever necessarily having to engage in a paid way together.

MC

16:40

Those going through an educational program and focused on social impact, impact investing, non-profit management, of course, they’ll have heard of Bridgespan as a thought leader and be curious about perhaps working with or working for you in the future. I understand Bridgespan is growing. With that, comes the need to bring more people onto your team. What are some of the qualities and skills that you look for that signal that a candidate is a good fit for your culture,

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

18:01

We are indeed growing! Stephanie, growth in itself is never our goal. We are a non-profit organization and we want to grow only when there’s demand for our services and we think that we need to expand in order to meet them and we hope that we can amplify our impact much faster than we grow our headcount. But all that said, we are growing and we are hiring. I’d say, in terms of your question about the qualities that we look for in a cultural fit.

Having an equity mindset is a really big one. And I think of that as someone who has the mindset that we want to have equity across caste, across gender, across racial subgroups. And Bridgespan, in the last few years, has really leaned into our own values and our mission around equity and creating an helping to create an equitable society. And so that equity mindset is a really, really important quality in any candidate in any of our Bridgespan offices around the world.

And then the other quality that we look for is really a passion for this stuff, a passion for the social sector. We want people who are truly jazzed to get out of bed each morning to support the types of clients that we work with and who see Bridgespan as an opportunity to develop skills, certainly that you could use elsewhere, even outside the social sector, but also just as a place where you can lean into that social change gene that many folks at Bridgespan have and try to, for lack of a more sophisticated way to say it, make the world a better place. So we certainly look for that in all of our candidates as well.

MC

19:51

From the skills angle, is there a specific background and experience, skills in terms of their toolkit – what are you looking for from that angle?

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

20:04

We have detailed job descriptions on our website that can help give a more robust answer. But I think to sum it up for your audience, one of the top skills we look for is the ability to be really analytical in how you answer a question or approach a problem. So when you are faced with a really open ended question like some of the examples I gave: how does the YMCA have more impact in the world?

You are able to be analytical in the sense of breaking that down, thinking about the specific information or data that you might need to get in order to answer it, communicating back what you find in a way that’s logical and make sense to your audience. And so analytical is a big word for the Bridgespan recruiting team. And that’s certainly at the top of the list of things that we look for.

Another skill that we seek out is folks who are skilled collaborators, because, at the end of the day, we are in client services. We are here to serve our clients and we very much believe that collaborating with them is the best way to do that in terms of the end result of a project, not doing work for them and handing it off, but actually sort of collaborating with them and coming to the right answer.

And similarly, where we are a very team-based work environment on our advisory side. So all of our work is done in the unit of what we call a case team, basically a team that works on a project together. And it’s really important that people have the skills to be able to work with the other folks really effectively and collaborate in ways that make each of us grow as individuals and grow as professionals. And also, again, lead to a better answer for the client.

MC

21:51

You’ve piqued my curiosity here, I’m wondering if that leads you to perhaps do some unique things in your interview process, like role-plays or group interviews or something to try and test some of these skills or would a candidate expect something rather similar to a consulting interview with another top firm.

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

22:17

It’s a little bit of both. So we do it for our what we call Associate Consultants and Consultants. So basically, our analyst positions. We do have case interviews in our first round, but they are a little different than what people tell us they see in the for-profit firms that they interview with. We are truly trying to mimic, as much as possible, real-world situations. And so not only does that mean that we use our real clients in them, but in the real world, you won’t be asked to regurgitate a memorized framework or something like that. We have no expectation of that and we wouldn’t want you to do that to a client anyway.

So we make our cases more conversational, as if it really was you talking to your supervisor about how you were gonna break down a challenge, and there’s no wrong answer to any of them.  We also have begun doing some different types of interviews in our more senior hiring positions. When we look to laterally bring in managers or partners, we again try to mimic the real world. So one of the things we’ve done recently is for a manager, a really common thing is you have an analyst and they’ve created a slide loop for you and you need to give feedback.

And so we give you a real analyst slide loop from a while back, and we just give you time to look at it with no interviewer in the room and you just think about what would you share with them? And then have a conversation with that analyst about what you saw and what you would suggest that they do. And in that way, hopefully we get to some of the collaboration aspects too of, how do you work with an analyst to help make something better versus just being purely directive.

We are always evolving a little bit but our goal is to test skills and to give candidates a sense of what it is we do and what you would really be doing day in and day out if you were to come work at Bridgespan.

MC

24:17

I love that. It’s great to get a little bit of insight on the specific flavor of what that might look like in the Bridgespan recruiting process. But our audience has certainly heard us say that these are simulations, these should be engaging discussions, these aren’t skills tests. And you really want to get to know that person and what they would be like in that environment and on your team.

I expect that this conversation has probably piqued the interest and curiosity of a number of individuals. So if folks are interested in exploring more about Bridgespan, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

24:57

The Bridgespan website is bridgespan.org and there’s a section on it for careers in which we have general information about working at Bridgespan and then also specific job openings right now. There’s a number of job openings right now that you’ll see on that website and each has a more detailed job description.

Some of them are in the U.S., some of them are based abroad. We have offices now in Mumbai, Johannesburg, and actually, as of January 1, a Singapore office, which is really exciting for us. And some of them are outside of the advisory space. So for example, we have an opening for a Digital Associate and Director of Marketing right now, a Director of Diversity, Equity, and Impact is on our list.

The advisory positions that you’ll see up right now are for managers. We recruit on-cycle with the academic calendar for our more junior positions – Associate Consultant and Consultant. However, we sometimes recruit off-cycle too. So I’d suggest learning more on that page and then checking back frequently to see if there’s additional postings because we do frequently do some off-cycle analyst hiring as well.

MC

26:07

Wonderful. I would love to pivot and ask a few more personal and fun questions as we start to wrap up. I wonder if you could just speak a little bit more to being a mom of two as a partner at a top firm? What’s that journey been like for you? How have you made it work?

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

26:31

The balancing act question, It’s definitely a balancing act. The nice thing about many consulting jobs is there’s some degree of flexibility. And by that I mean, at Bridgespan we average 50 to 55 hours a week of work. But outside of the nine to five, you can get those extra hours in it a lot of different times or points. And there have been periods in my life where I’ve felt like I have all these things going on after work and I’d rather just spend a Sunday morning at my computer finishing things up before the week starts.

At this point in my life, as a mom of two very young kids, it’s a strategy of, go hard while they’re at daycare and get everything possibly done that I can. And then also, as having been here a decade, I’ve learned that Bridgespan has a number of supports that are available to people like me as we need them. And those include things like an opportunity to go part-time, which I did very briefly at the start of Covid during the 93 days when we didn’t have childcare, not that we were counting.

And as well as support systems in place, we have assigned people who help mentor each of us and who are just sort of our community of folks. And so that’s the other piece of it for me.  But overall, I’ve found that Bridgespan gives me energy – the workday gives me energy. And that is just so important because I think about trying to be present outside the workday to and ending at the end of the day and doing daycare pickup and not being totally wiped from a mental perspective.

MC

28:23

Oh, understood completely. Thanks so much for sharing a little bit more about that. As we’re speaking today, it’s December 2021, the most wonderful time of the year. Do you or your family have a favorite Christmas movie or tradition?

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

28:40

Hands down our favorite Christmas movie is Elf! I’m sure we’re not alone in that. But it is just such an uplifting and hilarious film. So we are annual consumers, if not more frequently, of Elf.

MC

28:55

Oh, I love it. That’s a favorite of mine as well. Fantastic. And we’ll end here with a reflective look back. If you could go back to your mid 20s, what advice would you give yourself?

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

29:11

The advice I would give my mid-20s self would be to not spend too much time on a 10 year plan. There will be twists and turns I would tell my younger self, and the biggest manifestation of that for me is two things. So one, I left for-profit consulting to try to not do consulting. I wanted to go into the social sector, I wanted to make a difference.

I tried working for free for anyone who let me for short periods of time to learn what it’d be like to work more on the ground in the social sector. And I ironically realized that I loved all of that work and I missed consulting and that led me back right back into consulting.

And then the other thing I’ll share is, and you mentioned this in your first question or second question, that one of the hats that I have at Bridgespan is I co-lead our impact investing practice, I didn’t know what impact investing was when I was in my mid 20s. It was not a term I was familiar with and it would not have been a career path that I could have charted out milestones and goals around. And yet, I happened into it.

And the way I happened into it actually is I was supporting a philanthropist at Bridgespan who decided to put some capital in a very mission driven education social enterprise started by ex Teach For America people and and I had to figure out, how do you do that?  And the answer is, you make an impact investment. And it is happenstance like that, and the twists and turns that I think have been most fulfilling for me in many ways. And I wish that I had spent less time trying to chart out a plan in absence of knowing what those fulfilling twists and turns would be.

MC

30:58

Understood. Well Stephanie, it’s been an absolute pleasure getting to know you a little bit more today, hearing more about your firm, and the work that you do. We just want to really thank you again for making the time to share more with us.

Bridgespan: Stephanie Kater

31:12

Absolutely. It’s terrific to be with this audience and I really appreciate all of your questions and your interest in a place that I feel very passionate about.

Conclusion

We loved hearing from Stephanie that they’re looking for the same analytical problem-solving candidates that a for-profit firm is looking for, alongside a passion for social impact and collaboration. If you’re interested in working for a firm like Bridgespan, make sure you’re well-prepared for the firm’s interviews.

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