Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Friday, February 24, 2012

Williams gains new outlook on management, policy analysis

Ben Williams is finding new perspectives on problem-solving.

The second-year La Follette School student is pursuing a Master of Public Affairs degree as part of his transition from the private sector into nonprofit management and community development.

Ben Williams

"I am learning and using analytical tools that I can apply to community and nonprofit capacity-building," says Williams. "Coming out of La Follette, a graduate has the tools and contextual understanding to make an impact in their organization, whether as an analyst or a manager for a nonprofit, government agency or a for-profit organization."

Prior to enrolling at La Follette, Williams spent three years as a management consultant in Chicago working on strategy and operations projects for large pharmaceutical and medical products firms. "I really enjoy consulting and the application of theories to client problems, but I did not get much satisfaction working with large for-profit organizations," he says.

He graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2007 with a triple major in management and human resources, marketing and psychology, then headed to Chicago. He returned to Madison in April 2010 to work as program coordinator for Forward Community Investments, a community development financial institution that provides provide loans and advisory services to nonprofit organizations to support affordable housing, job creation, economic development and basic social services. He is continuing there as director of advisory services after graduating in May 2012.

"FCI had just received a grant to expand its technical assistance to nonprofits into a full-scale business line, and I came aboard to help with the planning and implementation of the grant," he says. "Our advisory services include workshop series on management and financial topics, a monthly webinar series on organizational capacity, and one-on-one consulting engagements with nonprofits. Along with that work, I conducted the second annual nonprofit economic survey in 2010 to assess the economic conditions facing nonprofits and the actions nonprofits were taking to overcome these challenges. In 2011 we expanded the scope of the survey to really dig into how nonprofits approaching capacity building and collaboration opportunities, and what role nonprofit stakeholders can take to create a stronger community."

Once he enrolled at La Follette, Williams reduced his work hours and used his full-time summer employment to earn three internship credits toward his degree. He also works as a teaching assistant for an introductory organizational behavior class in the School of Business. "The class highlights management concepts at the individual, team, firm, and global level for undergraduate students with a focus on key topics such as strategy, design, culture, change and ethics," Williams says. "It was a great opportunity, I have found that I learn far more about the topic, as a teacher, than I ever did as an undergrad as a student (despite it being one of my majors)."

At La Follette, Williams has welcomed the chance to explore what interests him. "La Follette really adds value by giving students the opportunity to delve into topics of interest and craft their own recommendations or solutions based on their experiences prior to coming here," he says. "The feedback from professors and dialogue with students from diverse backgrounds and perspectives is very valuable. The opportunity for conversation can really accelerate and spark learning. When I have questions or concerns or want to follow up on an issue, every professor has been very open and flexible."

Coming from a very quantitative undergraduate and professional background, Williams has found the management courses the most useful. "Finding new perspectives and ways to look at problems in this sphere has been my favorite part of La Follette," he says. "My policy analysis class with Pamela Herd was also very valuable, as it stressed the philosophic approach to defining, analyzing and evaluating problems."

"I chose La Follette because the program offers an opportunity to define your own path, selecting from courses within and outside the public policy area in a way that best suits your needs and interests," Williams says. "The opportunity to learn from a highly experienced group of academic instructors (for theory oriented courses) and actual practitioners (for application based courses) is also exciting."

— article last updated July 11, 2012