Morgan Stanley Strategy Challenge: Pro Bono Strategic Consulting for Nonprofits
"I can honestly say it's one of my greatest accomplishments in my career," says Sri Reddy, who works in Bank Resource Management at Morgan Stanley. Sri isn't referring to a promotion or a particularly successful project – she's talking about her team's 3rd place finish in this year's Morgan Stanley Strategy Challenge, the Firm's signature pro bono volunteer initiative.
The Strategy Challenge deploys cross-divisional teams of Morgan Stanley employees in cities across the U.S. and pairs each with a senior Morgan Stanley Managing Director advisor. Teams work together for a two-month period to address crucial strategic business and financial issues faced by nonprofit clients, who apply and are selected to participate. This intensive program leverages the distinctive skills that Morgan Stanley employees normally deliver to clients - rigorous analytics, strategic thinking and innovative solutions.
From 2009 to 2013, Strategy Challenge delivered more than 32,500 hours, valued at $4.9 MM, to 61 nonprofits. As the 2013 winner of the VolunteerMatch Corporate Volunteer Award for Employee Volunteer Program of the Year – Large-Sized Business, it's not surprising that Morgan Stanley runs a successful program at this scale.
While the scope and structure of the Strategy Challenge are impressive, it's the impact the event has on the employees that is most extraordinary. According to Morgan Stanley program managers, Strategy Challenge is a fundamental component of the company's pro bono engagement strategy. The program develops important employee skills, like strategic thinking, client management and communication, and teaches them the power of utilizing their unique expertise toward helping others. It also creates concrete and measurable connections between employees and the company, and positions Morgan Stanley as a place where employees can pursue their desire to serve others with the power of the company behind them (which is a top priority among Millennial recruits, in particular).
Meet a Winning Team of Volunteers
For Sri and her Strategy Challenge team, working together and staying focused on the big picture were the keys to their success, and resulted in an experience that impacted not only their nonprofit partner, Let's Get Ready (LGR), but each of them as employees and volunteers.
Sri, Neil Mukhi, David Kosh and Shawn Woodhull were led by Managing Director Mandell Crawley. Each member of this team works in a different division at Morgan Stanley. And not one of them had heard of their nonprofit partner before the Strategy Challenge kicked off.
Let's Get Ready is a New York-based nonprofit organization that provides free SAT prep and college admissions counseling to low-income and first generation high school students. The Strategy Challenge team quickly rallied around their cause.
"It really hit home for me, personally," Mandell relates. "When I was in high school, I didn't have many examples of people around me who had gone to college. I was one of those kids, so this program was something that resonated with me."
The strategic question presented by LGR was to determine how the organization could expand geographically from their current offices in New York and Boston, and what conditions must be in place to enable and sustain expansion.
The Strategy Challenge team quickly decided how they would structure their research and analysis and divvied up responsibilities. Teamwork was key. "Personalities, experience, skills and other intra-team dynamics were highly complementary among the members of our team, which helped drive a very natural division of responsibility," says David Kosh. Neil Mukhi agrees: "There was never a moment when it didn't feel like a team effort. We communicated frequently and our team chemistry played a big part in our success."
Still, the team found certain aspects of the Strategy Challenge to be…challenging. One element was the short time allotted for the project. "It was difficult at times to maintain our focus on answering the strategic question that LGR asked," says Shawn Woodhull, "Because throughout the project we came upon other problems that we wanted to help LGR solve." There were just so many details to learn in a short period of time, but the team was determined to produce a high-quality, valuable final deliverable for LGR.
Mandell enjoyed pushing his team to be the best. "The week before the Strategy Challenge, I had a group of senior executives sit in on my team's presentation," he relates. "The team was confident of their product and I deliberately brought in the audience I did to conduct ‘surgery' on the content."
"We went into that meeting feeling great about our work," remembers Neil. "It was gutted apart. We left feeling like we accomplished nothing over the weeks prior. That meeting fueled us to take our presentation to the next level." They worked through the night and into the next day to re-vamp the presentation. "I always knew I had a very strong and special team, but that was a defining moment," says Mandell.
The LGR community itself added another inspiring and motivating element for the Strategy Challenge team members. They invited their team to attend LGR fundraisers and events during the course of their project. "One of [the students I met] had never considered attending college before enrolling in LGR," says Shawn. "That student ended up completing the program, taking the SATs and attending Columbia." "The desire, effort, commitment and talents of this group of students, and the reciprocal passion, dedication and expertise of the LGR team were on display and truly inspirational," adds Neil.
A Challenge Met, an Impact Made
In the end, the team placed third in the Strategy Challenge, winning a prize of $10,000 for LGR that they can use to help fund their expansion. Much more significant and valuable than the monetary win, however, is the tangible impact for the organization. LGR has adopted the team's recommendations and is now planning an expansion to Philadelphia using the tools and analysis that were provided to them. "We estimate that LGR could reach over 4,000 students in six years once they expand," says Shawn. Since 92% of LGR students attend college after graduating high school, that's a lot of new students.
As with most pro bono partnerships, the benefit was not all on one side, either. Each of the team members described the experience as eye-opening, educational and inspirational. David sums it up nicely: "Through this project I made great contacts across the company, gained a different view into the nonprofit sector, formed a relationship with an excellent organization in LGR, and developed important professional skills."
"This experience has made me appreciate all the hard work involved in running a nonprofit," Sri reflects. Each of the team members plans to stay involved with LGR moving forward – even David, who will soon be re-locating to Hong Kong, is planning on staying in touch and helping out however he can.
And so after the two months of the Strategy Challenge, a team of disparate employees from across the large company became a cohesive unit, having bonded over an impactful experience that inspired them to become more involved in their community and instilled greater pride in their company.
"I've been at Morgan Stanley 21 years and there are few occasions I've been more proud of the firm than on Strategy Challenge day," says Mandell. Added Shawn, "The Strategy Challenge shows that Morgan Stanley and its employees truly care about their community and are willing to invest both time and money to help make a difference." But perhaps Mandell sums it up best: "There are few special things we do that are this cool."