News at Smith

A Behind the Scenes Look at Social Sector Consulting

Feb 23, 2018
Experiential / Reality-based Learning


Huw Ball, class of 2019, is an impact ambassador for the Center for Social Value Creation at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. He writes about a recent presentation to students where they got advice on how to break into social sector consulting.

Social good mixed with business: it’s been a hot topic for several years now. But what does it really mean? One prime example of where ‘doing business’ and ‘doing good’ have converged is social sector consulting. This is an industry where consultants become enabled problem solvers to affect positive social change to help clients in the public, private and social sector. This past fall, Smith students got a behind the scenes look at exactly what this means from an industry and career perspective.

Ryan Ulbrich, a consultant from Arabella Advisors, and Austin Lee -- a University of Maryland Smith School alumnus, Social Enterprise Symposium 2018 speaker, and consultant at the Advisory Board Company -- spoke on breaking into social sector consulting, the skills you need for the field, and why they chose -- and stuck with -- social sector consulting as a career path.

To begin the conversation the student group in attendance brainstormed what consulting meant to them. A wide range of answers was heard, including responses such as creating efficiency and assisting problem-solving. Ulrich and Lee rounded out the conversation, making the point that social sector consulting is its own industry, separate from more traditional consulting paths. Even within social sector consulting there are many subsects, including philanthropy, nonprofit, education, and more. However, despite the differences and distinctions, a few select skills were spotlighted as being vital: analytical thinking, strong writing skills and effective communication. And perhaps above all else, “radical empathy” is a must -- meaning, to be successful in social sector consulting, you must think first about the people you serve.

Regarding the pursuit of a social sector consulting career path, Ulbrich started off the conversation, explaining that for him, he’s interested more in helping to solve the world's problems, rather than just the pursuit of money. Through his position as an associate director at Arabella Advisors, he gets in on the ground floor of a problem, works directly with the client, and sees a solution through to the end. Lee added that through his career path in social sector consulting, he finds every day meaningful, and now just three years out of college has been afforded experiences like working with a university Provost to uncover root / systematic issues -- an experience you would not receive for many years in a traditional consulting firm.

Through a question and answer session with the audience, Ulbrich and Lee addressed the differences between traditional consulting and social sector consulting, including culture and turnover, and how one goes about breaking into social sector consulting as a career path. Ulrich and Lee agreed that in social sector consulting the culture is more relaxed, and same goes for the clients. With regard to turnover, the duo shared that in large firms consultants tend to ‘burn out,’ whereas in social sector consulting, turnover occurs less frequently, and when it does it is often attributed to the consultant moving on to serve another organization whose mission they feel passionate about.

As for forging a career path, that can be tricky. Ulbrich and Lee recommended gaining experience in a corporate setting, developing and strengthening applicable skills, and most importantly networking with individuals in the industry. Ulbrich and Lee showed the attendees the ins and outs of social sector consulting and inspired them to continue pursuing their dream careers in the social good fields.

For more information about the Center for Social Value Creation, visit:

About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.