One of the many skills that business school students should have upon graduation is the ability to understand and work with a range of different types of stakeholders, including not-for-profits (NFPs). The Peter J. Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University in the US has been running a course for that past few years that is geared specifically at amplifying student skills in tackling problems facing not-for-profit managers. Students from the introductory management course collaborate with local not-for-profits on solving a real world problem or specific need they are facing. In the following semester, seniors continue working with that community service site, designing a strategic plan to implement any or all suggestions that were recommended by the previous group.
I recently spoke with Linda Sama, Associate Dean for Global Initiatives, about this programme.
What is the not-for-profit management course and how did it come about?
The Peter J. Tobin College of Business incorporated a consulting assignment to not-for-profit organisations as part of its two management courses that are required of all undergraduate students in the college—one occurring at the start of their business curriculum, and one at the end (capstone strategy course). This bookended approach to designing strategies for live challenges facing area not-for-profits allows students to grow their skills in analysis, strategic planning, and strategy implementation. The presentation of students’ findings to the top-level executives and board members of the not-for-profits with whom they work throughout the semester hones students’ professional presentation and leadership skills, as well.
Typically, the students in the sophomore level management course will deal with the organisation’s issues at a more fundamental planning level, devoting time to understanding the industry and competitive environment in which the organisation operates. The senior-level students in the capstone course focus their work on how to devise and implement strategic recommendations, including a look at related costs and benefits of implementation. The professors for different sections of the course agree to coordinate around the project, so that while each professor may engage in teaching the course in his or her own fashion to relay the material needed for students’ success with the projects and overall learning, they approach the project in a consistent way. Each class develops teams for tackling the challenge faced by the not-for-profit, and all students in the class enjoy the benefits of working with the executives and engaging in a “live case.” The class then chooses the best team to present its recommendations and findings to the executives in a day-long series of student presentations across both levels of the management course.
Why have this kind of a course?
The drivers for this for me were multiple. First, we learnt from our college board of advisors who are also employers of many of our students in full-time jobs or internships that while our students were well-prepared academically and very hard-working, many of them lacked “polish” that may deter their professional success. The college already has a course dedicated to student consulting work for four different organisations (three for-profit, and one not-for-profit) in a six-credit, one year programme titled “Executive-in-Residence Programme,” or EIRP. However, participants in EIRP are invited to the course by dint of their academic achievement (minimum GPA) and an interview that determines the student’s ability to handle the high-pressure consulting environment. We felt that this left out the larger majority of our students who were in greatest need of the skill set referenced by our Board of Advisors, and we devised this bookended programme to offer all students a similar experience as that enjoyed by our honors students in EIRP.
Since one of our key competencies for student learning is that of effective communication, we wanted to be sure to have an equivalent assessment of this competency for all students. While this is true at the MBA level as well, it is our experience that most MBA students are armed with the skills needed to meet the challenges of the professional working world, with many already employed in positions with significant responsibility. We do offer EIRP at the MBA level as well as the undergraduate level, so many MBA students do enjoy this type of experience.
We chose a not-for-profit organisation as the target for students’ work and presentations because it fits well with our mission of academic service to organisations and people in need, and also because these organisations presented relatively “safer” environments for students to apply their skills and learning.
How has the programme been received?
The success of the programme has been exceptional. Students, faculty and the NFPs we work with have all attested to the value of participating in this programme. Many of the organisations have implemented the student-offered strategies, and one organisation feted the college at a major dinner to thank us for the work our students completed with them. And yes, there have been challenges. The level of competence across teams has not always been consistently high within any given semester, and from semester to semester. However, generally, the “winning” teams perform quite well. Ironically, some of the best performances come from the sophomore classes, where students are truly excited about being a part of something important and making a difference in people’s lives. The other challenge is in finding new organisations to work with each year. We are assisted in this effort by the University’s office of Academic Service Learning, and we also plumb our alumni base to identify interest. We are able to recycle organisations, but usually not in consecutive years, since their most pressing problems were just addressed by our students. We want the exercise to be not merely academic, but to represent real-life challenges facing the not-for-profit organisation, giving students a true appreciation of the specific difficulties of running an organisation for which profit is not the driving motivation.
What advice do you have for other schools thinking of doing something similar?
For other schools interested in putting something like this in place, the keys are to find good organisations willing to put some time into mentoring students as they formulate their strategies and who are available to attend the presentations; to identify faculty across sections of the courses who are “on board” with the concept so that no students are left out; and, to have champions among those faculty members who will promote the programme and work out the logistics.