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MBA and Service Learning, Management Students Tackle Challenges of Nonprofits

For Jason Kiper and many other students enrolled in DePaul’s MBA program, the university has offered a new experience in learning how to solve problems faced by community organizations in Chicago.


Students in Alyssa Westring’s course titled “Managing for Effective and Ethical Organizational Behavior” engage in pro bono activities for nonprofit clients that are trying to address a range of organizational challenges. For ten weeks, students consulted with nonprofit staff to understand the organizations and then apply knowledge geared to improving their effectiveness. “I definitely think there’s a place for service learning in business school,” says Westring. “There’s already a strong focus in DePaul’s business school on being ethical and socially responsible, and the service learning experience builds on that.” The class reflects a dynamic that is impacting students as well as the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. In 2007, Fortune Magazine reported that the nonprofit sector comprises “more than 10 percent of the total job market,” with “nonprofit career growth surpassing the private sector in 46 of 50 states.” Consequently, it is increasingly common for people in the business sector to find work within a growing nonprofit. The trend suggests the need for greater business acumen: nonprofits have been hit hard during this tough economic period and need to find ways to make it even when resources are scarce. Westring’s MBA course opens the door for students to learn business skills, get hands-on experience with an organization, while applying their skills for the public good. “In some cases, completing these projects went smoothly, in other cases it was a struggle,” Westring says. “But even when there’s struggle, that’s part of the learning.” Jeff Howard, Assistant Director for Faculty Development at the Steans Center, adds that Westring understood that “the class was not only about students learning, but about their opportunity to make a contribution to these organizations.” Through this class, students begin to understand firsthand how a small nonprofit organization operates.

Students ​learned that while many nonprofits may have scarce resources, they also find creative ways to deliver much-needed services to communities. The courses instructs them on organizational behavior and then they apply what they've learned in the classroom to the field by providing specific insights about partner organizations. Prior to engaging directly with the organizations, a staff member from Steans Center partners spoke to the class. Students were then divided among seven Chicago based nonprofit organizations: Passages Alternative Living Programs, Inc., La Casa Norte, Arts of Life, Telpochcalli Community Education Project (TCEP), Rumble Arts Center, Josephinum Catholic School, and Project SYNCERE (Supporting Youths' Needs with Core Engineering Research Experiments). After gathering data from the organizations, students presented their results to organizations.

Rumble Arts Center ​

“DePaul came to us, knowing we had done internships with Steans, and said they had a development team that could work with us,” said Brook Woolf, Founder and Executive Director of the Rumble Arts Center, an all-ages multicultural community center in Chicago’s Humboldt Park community. “We said yes: our programs are pretty well-oiled, but we are trying to get our financing and organization in order.” The small organization is self-funded, and has about 4,400 square feet of rental space as well as a gallery and a kitchen. Woolf adds that students and the organization worked together in a way that made it easier to address challenging issues faced by Rumble Arts. “Students asked some pretty hard questions,” she said, “and having them here made us more comfortable to learn something about them and why they chose to work with us.” Students created job descriptions for Rumble Arts that clarified specific responsibilities. They also created a volunteer application for those people who want to serve with the organization. Bree Johnson, program coordinator for the Center, says that DePaul students did their homework on the organization and came up with a useful framework for the project. “The information was organized in a way that maximized its usefulness,” she said. “They weren’t in the dark about things and had specific questions. In the end, the resulting data reflected what we knew were problems. Students assessed them clearly—even as outsiders. This was helpful because, like many groups,” she adds, “we sometimes fall victim to being too busy and don’t always have time to reflect on our needs and habits.” Students used a variety of tools to assess the organization’s needs, including interviews, observation and surveys. “We learned that the way staff schedules were aligned, employees were only overlapping one day a week,” says Lesley DeMaio, a student in Westring's course. “There were times when staff members thought another person was doing something that they weren’t actually doing.” In the end, students provided the organization with three new job descriptions. The documents not only specify what staff are responsible for, but serve as a tool by which employees can be evaluated.​

The Arts of Life 

One key element of the students' projects was forging relationships with an organization (and its staff) in a short period of time. “Students were super-approachable and appreciated the time we took to talk with them,” says Denise Fisher, executive director of The Arts for Life, a small nonprofit that provides guidance, education and space to area adults with and without disabilities as they produce their own art. That eased our minds, and it was nice to get an objective view of how we work.” “They were very professional and considerate,” adds Ryan Shuquem, Art Director for the organization. “They had good ideas and definitely paid attention to what we had to say.” Students took a close look at Shuquem’s position during the process; one deliverable they suggested to the group was the transfer of the intern/volunteer process from the art director to the community coordinator. Shuquem says that students learned about an all-too-common trait of life in small nonprofit organizations—“the nature of being​ constantly stretched.” In his job, Shuquem coordinates collaborative projects with the community, oversees gallery shows and exhibitions, and works with artists directly. Collaboration is not just a theme in his work, but in the work of students in Westring’s class who formed for ten weeks. “Everyone brought something different to the table,” says Jason Kiper, who worked with The Arts of Life. “That’s the big benefit of working in a group. One person may have strong communications skills, while another has more knowledge of information technology, and so on.” “Students in this class are basically working together as consultants with organizations,” adds Kiper. “It’s a challenging job: how to get information from people without making them appear as if they are wrong. You have to realize that they know more about their organization and what they do than you ever will. You have to be careful and positive while wondering how they do their jobs." He says that people he worked with at The Arts of Life were “very openminded.” Kiper also echoed what many who have participated in DePaul service learning courses say. “I was excited to take this class. This was learning that was going to take place in the world of work. I was glad to get that experience and jump right in.” DePaul student Szalez Mayer says that while students focused on the job of providing a service to the organization, he also had a chance to appreciate what it does. “It was really inspiring,” he says “The Center gives people an avenue to express themselves, often by painting on different mediums including paper and stained glass windows.” At the same time, DePaul students learned just how challenging the development of a small nonprofit can be in today’s economy. “Illinois is ranked 50th in the U.S. for funding of people with disabilities,” says Kelli Becker, community volunteer and intern coordinator for Arts of Life. “And, nationwide, 90 percent of people with cognitive disabilities are unemployed.” DePaul students working with The Arts of Life fine-tuned the organization’s job descriptions and researched how it might improve management of its volunteers. Student research included finding out more about how universities find interns and employees.

DePaul students recommended a web-based program called Volgistics, a comprehensive volunteer software that is designed to make it easier to recruit, track and coordinate volunteer efforts. The tool, which the organization adopted, costs a nominal monthly fee, but allows the organization to assign job tasks and manage schedules in, as one student noted, a more “seamless” way. The program is already yielding benefits, according to Fisher. “I can just go into this program and access meaningful information,” she says. “It’s easier to tell how many volunteers we have and what they are doing.” This fall, Westring is teaching the management class again. She is also currently gathering data through surveys and questions for not-for-profits and former students to learn more about what works, and what doesn’t, in this type of MBA course. Meanwhile, DeMaio says the positive experience has changed her view of opportunities that might be available to an MBA in the nonprofit sector. “Because of my time working on this project, I learned more about how to connect class- room experience to an actual situation,” she says. “I can see myself volunteering or working full-time with a not-for profit.”​