As I've laid out a number of times (click here and here for the basics), there are major problems with non-profit entrepreneurship support. Given that fact, it's important for entrepreneurs to be choosy about which entrepreneurship support organizations (ESOs) they decide to work with, so here are some tips for interviewing entrepreneurship centers.
The basics are no different than they would be for how an entrepreneur should interview any potential service provider. Yes, most non-profit ESOs charge little to nothing for their services, but you'll still be investing time, which is your most valuable resource, so you need to be careful about who you decide to work with. That said, here are my recommendations:
1. Ask who you'll actually work with. Just like any organization, there is often someone doing outreach or managing the organization's operations who is not the same person you would interact with if you took a class or signed up for coaching. It's more important that you pick the right coach than that you pick the right CEO or Director.
2. Find out if who you'll work with is qualified. The fact that someone is working at an ESO doesn't make them qualified to give you advice about your business. Find out about their background and make sure this is someone you trust to be able to guide you.
3. Confirm consistency. Let's say you heard from a bunch of people who took a training program last spring about how amazing it was and how much it helped their businesses so you want to take that training program. Awesome. My advice here though, is to ensure you're actually signing up for the same program by confirming that both the curriculum and the instructor are the same. There is often a decent amount of turnover in this space so that amazing program from last spring might not be the same this fall.
4. Understand the incentive structures. Remember that if you're going to a non-profit ESO for support, you are not their customer. You are their client, but their customers are the foundations and other organizations that give them grant money to operate. That means that their incentive structures are likely shaped around giving the foundations what they want and not necessarily around giving you what you need. So, for example, if the person you're working with suggests you take out a small business loan and wants to introduce you to a lender, that may well be good advice and a valuable introduction. You always need to be aware, however, that she is likely incentivized to encourage you to take a small business loan because the number and dollar amount of loans her clients receive is one of her performance metrics. Be especially wary of this if you skipped step #2 and the person you're working with has questionable expertise.
Whether you're hiring a paid coach or consultant and working with one from a non-profit, you're making an investment, so don't take the decision lightly. Be sure to interview the ESO you're considering working with to ensure it will be worthwhile.
If you're a grant giver as opposed to an entrepreneur, you can keep these same tips in mind when you review an ESO's programs and operations to decide if you'll provide funding.
Source: Cate Costa.