This blog post is part of our ongoing series highlighting the La Piana team. This week I sat down with Bob Harrington, one of La Piana Consulting’s first employees!
When and why did you decide to dedicate your career to the nonprofit sector?
I decided when I was in college. Believe it or not, I was pre-med, majoring in biology. I began volunteering at a shelter for abused children. It was then, while working with kids who had experienced abuse and neglect, that I realized my interest in medicine had more to do with my desire to work with people than it did with science.
I switched my major to psychology and continued volunteering. I took advantage of a UC Davis program through which you could earn a semester’s load of credits by working in approved setting or learning experience. I worked at residential group home for emotionally disturbed kids. At the end of my semester, they offered me a full-time position as a counselor. I accepted their offer and took a break from school; I guess you could say that I got hooked on working with kids and families in residential settings. Eventually I went back to school, finished my undergraduate degree, and continued on to social work school instead of medical school.
If I’m doing my math right, next year marks your 15th year at La Piana Consulting. In that time, you’ve worked with countless nonprofits on all types of projects. Is there a particular engagement that you are most proud of?
Honestly I don’t think I could point to a single project or client. I am proud of all the work we’ve done. What I like most about my job is that I get to work with a variety of kinds or organizations—from arts and culture to mental health to social services—and explore all kinds of options for partnership.
Speaking of partnerships, in that time, have you seen any changes in the motivations for strategic restructuring?
The motivations for exploring strategic restructuring have definitely evolved over time. When we first started, it was primarily organizations looking for opportunities to expand their programs or geographic scope; these were organizations that were relatively healthy coming together. That’s changed. There are a lot more motivating factors. The changing economy, and more specifically the changing environment for services (also driven by the economy), means that organizations must look at opportunities to accomplish their administrative functions as efficiently as possible. For example, sharing back offices and space is something we’re seeing a lot more of, especially among arts and culture organizations.
Another big motivation for partnerships is the impact of the Affordable Care Act. With the focus on prevention, providers of all kinds must develop partnerships with primary care facilities. There is also a push to provide more wraparound services like behavioral and mental health services with primary care. Services to youth and families have evolved a lot, too, with the decline of residential services and the rise of providing services to clients in their own homes. This, too, has led to new nonprofit partnerships.
I understand that you are a music lover. What was the last concert you attended that inspired you?
All performance inspires me, so I’ll have to say the show I saw last Tuesday night: One Night with Janis Joplin at the Pasadena Play House. I try to attend music events at least a couple of times a month. From blues to rock to classical—there’s just something about live music! Music is a universal language and it brings people together in a unique way. Listening to live music is a special kind of gift that you give to yourself and the musicians.
What advice would you give someone considering a career in the nonprofit sector?
Start volunteering in an area about which you are passionate—arts, culture, youth services, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you choose an area you think is important to give to the community and a role that is a fit for your personality. Whether you are a service provider or an administrator, working in nonprofits requires more than passion. You must develop a broad framework of knowledge around business and understand the mechanisms that support nonprofits as well as the role they play in the increasingly complex world in which we live.