Hot city firm has a social mission

Alchemy: One of the fastest-growing businesses in urban America is an altruistic Baltimore company that once turned gravel into "gold" for an Indian village.

May 04, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

It pays to do good.

From a Charles Village rowhouse accented with candy colors, Steven Rivelis and Linda Brown Rivelis run an international consulting firm with a social mission - helping nonprofits thrive, fashioning companies into corporate citizens, working with communities trying to pull themselves out of decline. And it's been named one of the fastest-growing urban businesses in America.

Campaign Consultation Inc. began in 1988 in a spare bedroom, a single telephone to its name. Now there's a staff of 14 along with 67 associate consultants around the nation and about $2 million in annual income.

From 1998 to 2002 - the period measured for the Inner City 100 list, published in the May issue of Inc. magazine - the company's revenue grew by nearly 600 percent, ranking it 40th.

It's a simple answer to the people who ask, if indirectly: "You can make a living doing that?"

"We create a better planet Earth," said Steven Rivelis, the chief executive, and: "We go about it in a very entrepreneurial sort of way."

The husband and wife team jumped into for-profit business with strictly nonprofit - and some government - experience. She was a fund-raiser for the American Red Cross. He did advocacy work for Planned Parenthood of Maryland.

Steven Rivelis, 49, left his day job first to try consulting - borrowing computer time at a nonprofit and paying a local bookstore for regular use of its fax machine. He knew it was risky. But Linda Rivelis, 52, followed six months later to become president of the company.

"She saw I was having so much fun," he said.

Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore, a nonprofit that works primarily with low-income residents, first hired the company in 1998 and continues to seek its expertise in leadership and diversity.

The diversity training was "powerful" because it hit on the range of things that make people different - including work preferences - and helped staff see how automatic it is to typecast someone based on a glance, said Amanda Crook Zinn, chief executive of the nonprofit.

"It's a fabulous exercise for co-workers," she said.

Zinn thinks Campaign Consultation has grown so rapidly in recent years precisely because it isn't looking to "quick make a buck." The staff has offered advice pro bono in addition to paid work they've done for Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore, she said.

"They really want to change what's systematically holding organizations back," she said.

Helping nonprofits run more effectively is a full-blown industry with hundreds or possibly thousands of individual consultants and firms, said Alejandro Amezcua, a spokesman for the National Council of Nonprofit Associations. Some are nonprofit themselves, but most aren't, he said.

1.8 million nonprofits

There's a huge base of potential customers: The U.S. alone has roughly 1.8 million nonprofits, Amezcua said. They turn to consultants when they need specialized expertise but can't afford to hire it.

Campaign Consultation also works with companies and government agencies. It was among the consultants running sensitivity sessions for Texaco employees in 1997 after the oil giant settled a race discrimination suit. The Virginia court system hired the firm to work on cultural diversity with judges.

"If people don't perceive that they're being treated fairly, with respect, then it erodes public confidence in the courts," said Tom Langhorne, former director of judicial education for the Virginia Supreme Court.

Langhorne hired Steven Rivelis to train judges on several occasions starting in the late 1990s because the consultant was able to cut through the initial resistance in the judiciary. The sessions were non-confrontational and effective, he said.

"One of the judges was encouraged enough to say, `Look, we're putting our heads in the sand if we don't acknowledge that we all have issues,' " said Langhorne, now running his own consulting firm. "The majority of evaluations were very positive."

The Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that runs AmeriCorps and other volunteer programs, has awarded $2.7 million in contracts to Campaign Consultation in the last 2 1/2 years to train participants and help develop projects.

One of those projects was the Entrepreneur Corps, which links business people with nonprofits working to give residents in poor communities economic opportunities.

"They're the most value-based, ethical organization I think I've ever worked with, and I've worked with a lot," said Susan B. Schechter, a senior training officer for the federal agency. "In exchange for that, they get incredibly high-quality people who are extremely loyal - therefore we get the best. ... No trainer who works for them is talking theoretically or talking about things they haven't been successful at themselves."

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