Cheri DeClercq and Sanjay Gupta: Applying Business Expertise to Area Nonprofits Helps Build Local Capacity
A new course in the MSU Eli Broad College of Business Executive MBA program challenges students to apply their classroom knowledge to real-world experience by collaborating with nonprofit organizations across Michigan to address pressing needs. Although working their way through an intense 20-month cohort program, and busy with families and careers of their own, these students have shown that they are more than up for this challenge.
Cheri DeClercq, assistant dean for the MBA and Professional Masters Programs, developed and organized the Social Impact Project course near the end of 2013 as a way for students to enhance their education by contributing to the community. "I wanted our students to have the opportunity to give back," said DeClercq. "They were given a lot and a lot should be expected."
With a very short timeline to get the program up and running, DeClercq presented it to students as a work-intensive, but worthwhile, undertaking. "We pitched it to students in December 2013 as an opportunity to get involved and make a difference," she said. "We told them that it would be messy and take a lot of work."
The student response was overwhelmingly positive. "Within the first couple of days, we had 52 students sign up for this difficult, unknown work. All of them are busy, but they wanted to make a difference," she said.
DeClercq worked with Sanjay Gupta, acting dean of the Eli Broad College of Business, to launch the program. Gupta shared her vision about the importance of this work to the student experience, and its potential to enhance a sense of social responsibility as they lead their own businesses.
"I have long believed that being able to acquire a meaningful graduate-level education in business is truly a privilege," said Gupta. "So it seems only appropriate that we consider how we can apply our business knowledge to tackle social problems and give back to the society and community of which we are a part."
In January 2014, the first round of students led six social impact projects focusing on such issues as homelessness, sustainable energy, and hunger. Students worked on the projects from January to the following fall semester, and then presented their work at the Executive MBA Social Impact Showcase. Each project presented at the showcase highlighted both the collaborative work being done with the nonprofit, as well as the level of scholarship the students were able to apply to each assignment.
Now in its second round of projects, many new organizations have come forward and asked, 'Can you work with us?' And several organizations from the first round wanted to continue the work.
One organization in its second round of working with the Executive MBA students is Michigan Energy Options (MEO), a nonprofit in Michigan that has been focusing on renewable and sustainable energy since 1978. For this round, students are doing an analysis to find additional revenue streams that can help the nonprofit diversify. Executive director John Kinch said, "We're looking at adding business lines and ways to access other revenue in order to realize our mission—so that we can be around for another 30 plus years. I'm confident working with the MBAs will provide us an opportunity to expand and solidify our business model."
Kinch sees value in working with the students. "MBAs are very astute about the business world and how it's evolving. We're hoping to tap into their intellectual property to make our organization stronger," he said. "The MBAs help my strategic thinking greatly. To be strategic, you have let go of things that aren't working anymore. And be willing to risk trying new things to stay relevant in your sector."
Working statewide, with offices in East Lansing and Marquette, MEO regards itself as a deliverer of energy solutions to communities, large and small, urban and rural. "One of the primary challenges for all communities is energy use," explained Kinch. "It's foundational to making communities functional. We need options that are affordable, reliable, and sustainable. This translates into saving money for businesses and homeowners. And, as MBAs know, this makes good dollars and sense."
Another student group is working with Joe Wald, executive director of the Greater Lansing Food Bank (GLFB). The GLFB has a volunteer-based distribution network across seven counties, composed of pantries, agencies, and shelters, which distribute food directly to thousands of people. According to Wald, Ingham County has more than 60 of these partnering agencies. He has tasked the MBA students with providing a recommendation for future directions based on existing models and best practices that will allow Wald and the GLFB to increase operational efficiency while keeping their focus on treating those in need with compassion.
"Food banks across the state and nation have identified the existing agency distribution model as both one of our greatest strengths and one of our greatest risks," Wald said. "We are asking the MSU MBA team to help us assess the risks and opportunities, map the Ingham county network to give us a better understanding of how we are meeting needs geographically in this important county, research other models and best practices state and nationwide, and recommend a future model to help us increase our efficient distribution of food to those in need. We are looking for a recommendation on how this kind of assistance either directly or indirectly impacts what GLFB is able to do in its own work with the surrounding community."
Because Wald also teaches in MSU's Department of Advertising and Public Relations, he is well aware of the potential for MSU students to impact society. "I continue to be impressed with the talent I encounter at MSU," he said. "The research that this team will be performing has the potential to be transformational not only for the Greater Lansing Food Bank, but for similar organizations around our state and nation."
Given the short timeframe and steep work load, DeClercq has been thrilled with the students' response to the program. "I'm amazed by the depth of their care and compassion—really wanting to make an impact," she said. "They continue to talk about the changes we're making in the program—that we're doing it right. A lot of times when people talk about business, they think it's all just about the bottom line. This program shows that's really not all there is."
DeClercq believes the program reciprocally helps both students and nonprofits. "Students are receiving real insight into the multidimensional nature of nonprofits," she said. And for nonprofits, "students can bring an outside business perspective and offer free consulting. It allows an organization to focus on their real area of strength—helping people."