Public Service Spotlight
Principal, The Sustainable Center and Local Issues
Paul Tainsh is Principal at The Sustainable Center and Local Issues, an independent, self-owned consulting practice that works with nonprofit and public organizations in the fields of education, arts and culture, social and human services, and community development. Tainsh consults on a number of different management areas including program development, project management, needs assessment, and strategic and organizational planning, but he has developed a particular niche working as a program evaluation consultant for educational and arts education institutions. Currently, he serves as Senior Research Associate at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, where he is running a college readiness evaluation of four New York City partnerships.
In a consulting career that spans twenty years, Tainsh’s work has largely been focused on smaller organizations that have had little previous experience working with consultants or have a high interest in capacity building. “In working with smaller organizations and schools, where there is a strong commitment to learning and growing, I felt like I could really be of service to them,” Tainsh says. “These types of organizations are generally underfunded or working with very tight budgets and they want to learn how to really improve, so there’s a great sense of satisfaction in working them.”
Despite how fulfilling Tainsh finds his work to be, his career as a consultant was somewhat unplanned. He has a master’s degree in urban sociology from the University of Chicago and focused his studies for his MPA at NYU Wagner on urban public policy. He came out of grad school interested in community development work and he was hired for two years as a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania to work on a national study of a community development program. Upon returning to New York, he worked for a foundation that placed him temporarily in East Harlem to write five small grant proposals in a community school district and develop a manual for writing future proposals. The school district liked his work and hired him full time in their program development, grants and grants management office. “I had begun to appreciate education as community development work,” says Tainsh, who stayed at that office for nine years. “When you work in a district office and go visit different schools, you become a walking library of what people are doing and you share what they’re doing with others who might benefit by doing similar things,” he says. That is what led him to start thinking like a consultant. As he rose in the office, his job became more bureaucratic and, feeling that he was no longer connected to the work he most enjoyed, he decided to move on and start a consulting practice.
In the mid 1990s, New York City saw an infusion of money into public school programs for arts education. As this was an area that large consulting firms and research universities weren’t particularly interested in, Tainsh saw it as an opportunity to step in and develop more expertise. He had a done a lot of grant writing for the arts at his job in East Harlem and he explains that “it was a natural fit to come in and help schools better understand how to work with outside partners and also help arts organizations and other partners better understand how to work with schools.” He has since worked with several well-known New York City arts and education nonprofits such as the Center for Arts Education, Studio in a School, and Young Audiences New York. In addition to consulting with arts education programs, he’s also worked in the general field of education, including evaluating a six year service learning project and a three year Magnet Schools Assistance Program project.
Tainsh learned what he calls a funny lesson when be began consulting. When he worked on more of a part-time or temporary basis for an organization, “people valued my skills more than when I worked full time,” he says. They realized “we only have you for twenty hours,” so the question was, “how do we get the most from you?” he explains. Additionally, says Tainsh, “my consulting work has given me the opportunity to revalue my skills and how they relate to different projects.” Over time, he explains, “I’ve developed relationships [with organizations that] can take the most advantage of my skills.”
His current job of overseeing the evaluation process of college readiness partnerships with New York City public high schools and community partners certainly taps into the breadth of skills and knowledge he has acquired. Each community partner has developed its own evaluation plan for its program and Tainsh monitors those and provides technical assistance to each organization in that process. He is also conducting independent evaluations of the programs as well. The work is “part of a big effort across the country to raise the bar in high schools to not just graduate students but to prepare them for life after high school either working or getting into college and staying there successfully,” Tainsh explains. The evaluation program aims to not only provide performance measurement of the four local partnerships but also to collect data from these projects and make connections to the national level for policy and future programs. As a two year, full-time consulting position, Tainsh views working on this project as “an opportunity for me to develop collegial relationships and learn from others” over a longer term in a way one doesn’t always get when working as a consultant. The job gives him the chance “to continue to grow professionally,” he says.
Tainsh intends to continue to grow and expand his practice for years to come. He has recently become interested in supporting nonprofits, schools and other community organizations “to implement environmentally sustainable practices,” he says. Moving in this direction Tainsh returns a bit to his urban planning roots. He believes there are “a lot of easily implemented, stakeholder engaging actions that can be taken that improve healthy environments, support environmental education, and livable neighborhoods.”