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Consultant coaches groups on the economics of philanthropy
By BRENDA CORNELIUS, Courier Staff Writer

CEDAR FALLS - If there'd been a newspaper job in New York City after Stephanie Clohesy graduated from college in 1970, she might be writing about change in the world instead of making it happen.

"I thought I was going to be a journalist," said Clohesy, now an international consultant, "but jobs were in short supply."

Instead, with luck and great contacts, she became administrative director of a fledgling public policy research center created by a group of prominent social scientists. Their goal was to accelerate the process of getting research accepted by public policymakers and made into law.

Clohesy, fresh from Chicago's Loyola University, learned to create a nonprofit organization, write grants and proposals, work with donors, negotiate with government, build a staff and do payroll. After six years with the public policy center, she moved to another group just getting off the ground, the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Timing played a role in both opportunities. The policy center and NOW were new organizations.

"They couldn't afford who they really needed ... so they hired me," she said, exhibiting the insight and sense of humor that are signatures of her consulting work.

From NOW, Clohesy's path led to a fellowship, then job, with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and international consulting work in South Africa, Eastern Europe, Argentina and Salzburg, Austria.

Since 1992, she's been on her own. Clohesy Consulting is headquartered in the back of the modest ranch-style home she shares with her husband, William, who has taught philosophy and business ethics at the University of Northern Iowa since 1987.

Clohesy's client list reads like a who's who of nonprofits and philanthropy --- the W.K. Kellogg, James Irvine and Ford Foundations, to name a few.

One current project, through the Women's Funding Network, brought women from Nicaragua, Mexico, St. Thomas, the Netherlands, California, Texas, New York and Chicago to her home in August to work on building and strengthening women's foundations throughout the world.

Conducting meetings in her downstairs offices and upstairs board room, which also serves as a family dining room, was "a real bonding experience" for the 20 people involved, Clohesy said. Outside of the intense sessions, the visitors found time to explore the Cedar Valley --- renting bicycles and roller blades. They departed with abundant ideas for organizational development and plenty of Iowa souvenirs.

From Shakespeare to Argentina

A child of the '60s and '70s, Clohesy came to the world of philanthropy armed with an undergraduate degree in English literature. "I was fresh from Shakespeare and Chaucer ... (with) lots of ambition about how to change the world," she said.

By getting in on the ground floor of social change, she was able to take her ideas, and the ideas of others, and form organizations around them.

During her fellowship with the Kellogg Foundation, Clohesy went to Argentina, which was evolving from a military dictatorship to a constitutional democracy. There, she worked with a coalition of 30 nonprofits. The groups, made up primarily of women, aspired to higher leadership roles in political and community life. They needed help to create meaningful and effective organizations around the issues they cared about --- children, welfare, teacher support, rural development, child care and human rights.

Clohesy created programs on conflict resolution, leadership, organizational structure, fund raising and dealing with membership organizations. "It was an open textbook on organizational development," she said.

Learning conflict resolution skills proved a challenge for the Argentineans. "Open dissent" and "spicy dialogue" are important to the health of a philanthropic organization, said Clohesy, but are not primary skills under a military dictatorship where people live under the threat "you could just disappear if you said the wrong thing."

Clohesy's work in Argentina gave her another level of expertise and also formed the genesis of her current vocation. The knowledge she could teach --- intervene --- was a revelation.

"Up until then I thought you just did your work by doing it ... by being the executive director (or) taking a staff role in an organization as opposed to (showing) other people how to do it."

After her fellowship with the Kellogg Foundation ended, Clohesy accepted a staff position. She stayed five years, working on leadership development, with the goal of determining what role a larger foundation could play in supporting the overall development of philanthropy in the United States.

It was the beginning of an upward shift in the economy, she said. "A whole new generation of businesses and people were coming into more mature stages in their own economic health. ... How (would) people turn that into philanthropy?"

The economics of philanthropy

When Clohesy left the Kellogg Foundation in 1993 to establish her consulting business in Iowa, she started with three contracts, one of them an outsourced project from the foundation. She can't recall a year since she went out on her own that she hasn't been "on overflow."

Still, like all entrepreneurs, she worries that there will be enough work. "I always ask the mission question: 'Is this what I'm supposed to be doing with my life?'"

This is often followed, she said, by the economic question. "Is this enough?"

Sometimes it's hard to gauge what is enough.

Often a project that looks like it will take 20 days turns into 40. "It's hard to estimate," said Clohesy. "Almost all people who do this sort of social change work are optimists ... and as a result we all underestimate how long anything is going to take."

For the last five years, she's been assisted by full-time staff member Dylan Arnett, whose administrative work includes finances, technology, scheduling and some research assignments.

Other work is outsourced to researchers and writers, graphics people and consultants, including one in Cedar Falls and two in California.

Clohesy Consulting's services include strategic planning, the startup process, executive coaching, staff and board development, program impact services and the grant-making process. She's a problem-solver --- "a kind of organizational therapist," she said. "I love it when they just hand me a problem and say 'We don't know what to do about this,' or 'We can't figure this out' or 'We need to understand this.'"

A recent project involved a consortium of Minneapolis-based donors interested in accelerating the development of integrative medicine --- a blend of traditional, scientifically-based methods and alternative medicine.

Clohesy conducted a "map" or "scan" of the field which looked at what's happening now, policy issues, how integrative medicine is practiced, how widespread and accepted it is and where change is beginning to happen. The project involved interviews with 30 major players in the field, including Dr. Andrew Weil in Arizona, a best-selling author and world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine.

Clohesy then synthesized all the facts into a report for the consortium. The challenge was to include enough --- but not too much --- information. "It was wildly interesting ... a fabulous challenge," she said, but "almost overwhelmed the client."

Today's nonprofits face complex challenges. "The amount of work needed inside an average nonprofit in terms of their organizational development --- strengthening them in terms of an organization --- is huge," Clohesy said.

They strive to be "a magnet for good ideas," she said, so must structure themselves so those ideas come to them for funding.

Locally, Clohesy's clients have included Opportunity Works, which is developing a 10-year plan to increase opportunities and reduce poverty in the region. She also works with the Chrysalis Foundation in Des Moines, established in 1989 to improve the lives of Iowa women and girls.

Whether local or international, Clohesy sees one common attribute among nonprofit and philanthropic organizations. "Their visions are very idealistic and very ambitious ... and the resources --- no matter how wealthy the foundation --- pale to the need they can document."

 

 

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