MJD & Associates has worked with most every major non-profit in town, and many smaller ones, since it was founded 14 years ago by longtime community leader Myrna Deckert.
Although not well known in El Paso outside of the non-profit world, the local consulting firm can count as many as 75 non-profits that have been clients at one time or another.
But Deckert retired from the non-profit world in July, and the two managing partners who built the business with her now have full time jobs at local non-profits.
However, Deckert did not leave the firm that bears her initials to wither away. Marybeth Stevens, a former El Paso Electric executive, is re-forming the group.
“Myrna told me she had retired and asked me to consider the opportunity and said she thought there was still a tremendous need out there,” Stevens said.
MJD & Associates, which will officially relaunch in February, provides management and organization consulting services mostly to non-profits but also for-profit companies.
Deckert formed the firm after becoming frustrated seeing local non-profits go out of town to hire consultants when they needed help with things like fund development, board training and needs assessments – an expensive proposition.
Stevens grew up in Dallas, the youngest of five brothers and sisters. Her father was a businessman and her mother a teacher.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Texas in Austin and went on to earn a law degree from Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C.
Her first job was in government relations with a large trade association called the American Council of Life Insurers, where she worked for eight years.
Stevens lived for a number of years in El Salvador when her husband, Greg Stevens, was posted there by the Justice Department in 2002. In El Salvador she got her first taste of non-profit work, trekking into the jungle every week with a nun to help an impoverished community.
Later, the couple lived in Mexico City for three years where Stevens worked part time as a consultant for USAID-funded organizations that were involved with criminal justice reform.
But when drug violence spiked in Mexico in 2008, Stevens and her husband moved to El Paso where she worked for El Paso Electric as assistant vice president for external affairs and public relations until April.
“Myrna (Deckert) led me to the decision of re-forming MJD and has been guiding me through the process,” Stevens said.
Deckert was CEO of the Paso del Norte Health Foundation and headed the local YWCA for years, now the largest in the nation.
The firm launched a new website last week: MJDassociates.com.
Stevens sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about her vision for MJD & Associates, the unique challenges non-profits face here and living up to Deckert’s reputation.
Q: Why would a non-profit hire a consultant? It sounds expensive.
It’s very, very common and probably the best way to operate. It’s not just non-profits; it’s all organizations.
Even if you are a well-run organization you often need targeted assistance in an area you may not have the expertise or the time. Rather than hiring somebody full time that may not be the expert in that area, you can target that assistance.
Q: Why is it troublesome for local non-profits to have to go out of town for consulting?
One reason is the cost. You pay for the services and then you pay for travel. Another reason is a local firm knows the community – what resources are available here. That can save a lot of time and energy. El Paso is unique compared to other communities.
Q: How so?
Well, our demographics. We are a community with great need. We are a diverse, multilingual community. We share a border with Mexico and New Mexico. We are a lower-income community.
Q: How did you come to lead the effort to revive MJD?
When I moved to El Paso, one of the first business people I met was Myrna (Deckert), which was fortuitous. She’s just been a huge source of support to me – one of many, many people she has helped.
We have stayed in touch, and when I left El Paso Electric in April, she was one of the first people to reach out to me.
I gave it a lot of thought. I went away for a little while and wrote a business plan.
Q: Away for a little while? To Bermuda?
(Laughs) No. I got out of town for a few days to somewhere quiet. I just wanted to be very, very clear and didn’t want to embark on something I wasn’t sure about.
It took a little time but a light bulb went off. What I realized is what I get the most satisfaction from is helping people move the needle, helping them do something well. And that’s what MJD & Associates does.
I thought it might be challenging to bring together a team of associates when we didn’t have clients yet. However, I reached out to a number of folks and people were very excited – some people who have great talent.
Q: How many associates do you hope to have?
The associates work as independent contractors, so it is really based on how many clients we have and what their needs are. The way it will work is I will work with the client in the beginning, find out exactly what they need and then figure out what associate is the right fit.
Q: How challenging is it to find the right people locally?
Not as challenging as I thought it was going to be. It has been great seeing how much talent there is and how motivated people in El Paso are right now.
MJD’s standards have always been very, very high. I have the pressure of living up to Myrna Deckert’s reputation. It’s a good pressure. Evaluating grants at El Paso Electric, I had the opportunity to see a lot of different people and their work product.
Q: Is it hard to attract qualified leaders to the non-profit world when the for-profit world beckons with bigger paychecks and other perks?
It does take a little bit of a different type of a leader and you have different motivations, but at the end of the day, they still have to have the same skill sets. That’s where it can get tricky.
Passion doesn’t equal good leadership. You have to have passion and good leadership skills, and when you have that together, it is magical. But it is a tough combination to find. That’s one of the reasons why a good non-profit board is so critical. They are the check on that leadership.
Q: Why did you leave El Paso Electric?
There are times in your life when it is just the right moment to evaluate how you want to spend the next several years or maybe the rest of your career. The timing was perfect. I had such a great experience at El Paso Electric and would never have gotten to know the community as well as I was able to.
When I moved to El Paso six years ago I did not know one person. The work at El Paso Electric gave me the opportunity to know such a wide spectrum of people and organizations.
Q: What did you learn about non-profits working at El Paso Electric?
I had the benefit of being able to organize and lead the grant program at El Paso Electric for a number of years. Many El Paso non-profits apply for grants from El Paso Electric, so we were able to see their performance and how they operate and all of that.
Q: What did you learn evaluating the grants?
Our community has so much need, and there are so many people in our community trying to fill that need. There is not a bad cause out there, but it’s hard to have a deep and meaningful impact if you are spreading out your resources too far.
Those making grants have a much more critical eye now and there is a lot more regulation with state and federal funding, so there is a lot more time that needs to go into the compliance side, which is very, very hard when you are trying to meet an overwhelming need.
That’s where local organizations could use some help, figuring out how to maximize their resources. For-profit or non-profit, you’re having to do more with less.
If we can find a way to help, especially those non-profits that don’t have a lot of resources, to do more good with less, that would be great.
Q: What are the most common challenges El Paso non-profits face?
Resources – clearly. Operating professionally is so important and making sure you have board members that understand their responsibilities and who are passionate about their cause.
Q: Do you happen to know how large the non-profit sector in El Paso is? I once heard it described as the fifth largest employer in El Paso.
I cannot put a specific number on it. It’s large. There are several hundred non-profits that are actively engaged in applying for grants and things like that. There are probably another several hundred that work for churches and things like that.
Q: How do you go about rebuilding MJD’s client base?
Word of mouth is an incredible thing in this community. We are going to reach out to as much of that non-profit sector as we can identify. It’s been a valuable experience putting together the lists. There’s no central resource for that here.
Q: How long is the list so far?
Q: Is MJD a non-profit?
No. It’s a for-profit.
Q: The new MJD. What is it? What will you do?
MJD will provide targeted services, everything from board development to fund development, financial reporting to human resources.
If someone is doing something very well here, we are not going to go into that space. We are looking for areas where there is just a critical need.
If we have a client who needs a particular service and we know somebody who does it very well, I am going to collaborate with them.
Q: How much business do you hope to do?
In the first year, it’s hard to put a number on it, but we would like to have maybe 10 solid contracts. We want to start small and make sure we are doing things really, really well.
Q: Do you plan to work in Juárez, too?
It would be a tremendous opportunity to work in Juárez. We’re looking to work in the entire region.
Q: El Paso non-profits have generally worked and fundraised north of the border and Juárez non-profits have worked and fundraised south of the border. Is that still true?
Yes, but things are changing a little bit. FEMAP is in the middle of a capital campaign and is raising money on both sides of the border. That will probably serve as a model to others.
The Paso del Norte Foundation has now opened up another foundation specifically in Juárez. It can be challenging because often times grants are restricted to a certain community, state or nation.
Q: Is it especially hard for non-profits in this region to fundraise?
It’s hard for non-profits in most places to fundraise, but there are limited resources here and fewer individuals with deep pockets. It is very hard to fundraise here.
We are so fortunate as a community that we have folks like the Castros and the Hunts and the Palacios and others that do give. What is really important is leveraging those dollars to get matched with other ones, but it takes so much time and energy.
In the past, it used to be a fairly defined set of funders but that is really opening up now. You can see that with a lot of the younger leaders who are emerging and are eager to shape their community. They’ll have very different ideas than past leaders, but putting it all together, it is going to make this community very strong.