iMahal Interview Series:
Jim Thompson
June 26, 2000

iMahal:  To many people, the MBA and the non-profit seem an unlikely pair. Yet at the Stanford business school you led a decade-long effort to make this pairing not just likely, but invigorating. What is this Public Management Program, and how did you get involved with it?
   ... I noticed that many of my [MBA] classmates had "an unmet need for altruism." They took jobs that paid very high salaries but many of them seemed unsatisfied at some deep level ...
Thompson:  During my two years as an MBA student at Stanford I noticed that many of my classmates had what my wife refers to as "an unmet need for altruism." They took jobs that paid very high salaries but many of them seemed unsatisfied at some deep level. I had always worked in jobs that paid modestly but were high in "psychic income." So it was interesting to see people making more money than I had ever dreamed of making, and many of them just weren't that happy or fulfilled.

I also knew from first-hand experience that nonprofit and government organizations could benefit greatly from having more people with business backgrounds as employees, volunteers, or board members. So it seemed like there could be a match to be made and the Public Management Program (PMP) seemed like a perfect vehicle to serve as matchmaker.

I took a private-sector job after business school but was restless not being involved with some kind of public service. The position of director of the PMP came open and I was fortunate to get it.

I made it my mission to entwine public service into the very culture of the GSB. The PMP had been intended to channel MBAs into government but it wasn't working. We restructured it to focus on public service more broadly and to make it okay for PMP-MBA students to go into the private sector, just take public service with you!

That opened the door for Stanford MBAs to get involved with public service in a plethora of ways -- as government or non-profit leaders, yes, but also as businesspersons serving on non-profit boards and entrepreneurs of "socially-responsible" companies.

So now public service is an accepted and important part of the GSB culture. Stanford business students can earn a Certificate in Public Management along with the MBA degree, but even for many that don't take all the necessary courses, public service is a part of their MBA experience.

One exciting example is a new internship called the Board Fellows program which matches Stanford MBA candidates with leading local nonprofit organizations for a six-month period. During the program, the students serve as non-voting members of the organization's board of directors, attending all meetings and serving on committees. The goal of the program is for the students, many of whom will serve on nonprofit boards, to gain an understanding of the complexities of the nonprofit world. Since I left the GSB I have taken advantage of this program -- four MBA students have served as Board Fellows helping Positive Coaching Alliance define and refine its business strategy.

I have been gratified to see that other major business schools in the U.S. have begun to explore programs combining business and public service so I think we may see more of that in the future. For one thing, even professors of standard business courses (finance, marketing, accounting, etc.) enjoy having public-service-minded students in their classes because they raise questions in class that make the discussion so much richer. There's nothing quite as intellectually sterile for a teacher as a room full of people who have no other interest in life but making money. So having a background in public service is becoming a competitive advantage for young people applying to major U.S. business schools.

iMahal:  What has the reaction been to the PMP by employers and by students?
Thompson:  The reactions differ depending on the kind of organization -- nonprofit or for-profit. Ten years ago people in nonprofits were very suspicious of MBAs because there weren't very many and there were stereotypes about what MBAs were like (money-hungry, willing to compromise the organization's mission to bring in donations, etc.) Now you don't see that so much any more because as MBAs with experience with public service come into the nonprofit sector, it is so clear the immense value they can add to the mission with their business skills and analytical frameworks. Given the increasing competition for funds in the nonprofit world with the decrease in government funding for non-military activities since the Reagan years, those MBA business skills have become highly prized by the most far-sighted nonprofits.

And having an MBA degree that includes some involvement with public service, like the Stanford Certificate in Public Management, tends to make nonprofit leaders more comfortable with MBAs since they aren't coming to the nonprofit world totally cold.

   ... many of the "best" companies recognize that public-spirited employees add to the bottom line. They tend to be sensitive to customer and employee needs, ...
On the for-profit side, many of the "best" companies (the kind that talented MBAs would want to work for) recognize that public-spirited employees add to the bottom line. They tend to be sensitive to customer and employee needs, they understand how to align the goals of the company with the needs of the surrounding communities, and they often are more flexible in difficult situations because they have a broader view of the world.

At Stanford we found that the firms that were most sought after by the students tended to like to hire MBAs who were involved with the Public Management Program.

A number of schools have implemented nonprofit programs into their business schools. Most of the other schools, however, have separate programs for nonprofit management, while Stanford integrates the MBA and nonprofit program. This integration has helped to attract students to the Stanford MBA program.



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