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John Paul de Silva and the student consultants of Social Focus Consulting
Courtesy of John Paul de Silva

Consultant with a Cause

John Paul de Silva's company provides sound – and less costly – business advice to help non-profit organizations raise funds more effectively

Cool job: Social business innovator

John Paul de Silva launched Social Focus Consulting two years ago to help non-profits raise more money – and greater awareness for their cause – by using time-tested marketing principles. What’s different about his company, based in Richmond Hill, Ontario, is that all of the consultants are business students. This yields a mutual benefit: the students gain real-world expertise (and are mentored by MBA students) while the non-profit organization gets sound advice for less than what a more experienced consultant would cost.

You earned a BSc in toxicology from U of T. How and why did you make the switch to business?
I’ve always been an entrepreneur. When I was 12 years old, I sold baseball cards at shows and to friends. While I was doing my undergrad, I volunteered in hospitals because I thought I wanted to get into medicine. I realized, though, that being a doctor wasn’t for me. I decided that I’d prefer to make a social impact through business rather than medicine.

What do you like most about your job?
As a business owner, you can try new things, be more adventurous and take more risks.

What’s the most challenging part?
Right now: sales. Trying to convince people that this new organization provides a different value – and better value – than what everyone else is doing.

What is that value?
Because we use young business students as consultants, we can provide an expert perspective on social media use and youth – an important demographic for many non-profits. Our students may have less experience, but our MBA mentors help guide them. And, because we hire students, our service is more affordable.

What’s the single biggest thing non-profits can do to improve their fundraising ability?
There is an interesting TED talk by Dan Pallotta about how non-profits need to stop obsessing over reducing their overhead, apply business principles and invest in advertising, marketing and social media. You also have to spend money to attract talent to the non-profit sector because otherwise all the top talent will go to the for-profit sector. It’s all about growing the pie.

Is there an optimal level of overhead?
Some people see it as a badge of honour to have almost zero per cent overhead. I don’t think that’s sustainable. But I believe the optimal level is below 35 per cent.

Were you involved in any “social enterprise”-type work while you were at U of T?
As a life sciences student, I found it difficult to be in a class of hundreds of people. I came up with the idea of a program that would place life science students into learning teams facilitated by their peers in the same course. The idea was not to replace tutorials, but to provide something complimentary to them. I pitched the concept to New College and they provided funding for it. It ran for almost 10 years.

Which non-profits do you think do a great job of marketing themselves through social media?
Movember is very successful – not so much because of how it uses social media, but because it has a unique fundraising model. Social media is merely the channel by which it communicates. Regardless of an organization’s social media strategy, it needs a strong vision and purpose to succeed.

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