SMG’s Public & Nonprofit MBA Program Featured in “The Chronicle of Philanthropy”

in News, School, Social Impact
July 27th, 2011


Medicine Wheel Productions, which uses public art projects to help urban kids express themselves, won a grant awarded by a group of Boston University business students. Photo courtesy of Medicine Wheel.

From The Chronicle of Philanthropy:

By Eric Frazier

As a fund raiser at Rosie’s Place, a charity that helps poor and homeless women in Boston, Benjamin Weisman knows a lot about asking people for money. But what’s it like to be a program officer on the other end of the equation, struggling to decide which fund raisers to send away empty-handed?

Mr. Weisman, a student in a master’s in business administration program at Boston University designed for people who want to run nonprofit groups or government agencies, recently got a chance to see. He was part of an all-student board assigned to give away $10,000 as a real-world lesson in philanthropy.

It proved more challenging than he and his classmates thought it would be.

“Boy, was it an eye-opening experience,” he says. “I feel like I’m more in tune to the relationships between funders and [charitable] organizations.”

Benjamin Weisman, a fund raiser at Rosie’s Place, a homelessness charity, says his Boston University class project to award $10,000 to a nonprofit was “eye-opening.”

He and six other MBA students participated in the recently completed project, which was underwritten by a grant from the Highland Street Foundation, in nearby Newton, Mass. Mr. Weisman and several of his classmates already work for charities, but they still came away surprised by how many tough questions arise in deciding to award a grant. They say the experience made them better at asking for grants and better at using the money as grantees.

Kristen McCormack, the faculty director of the business-degree program, says grant-making exercises like hers can be a potent tool for sharpening the minds of emerging leaders in nonprofit organizations.

“They often think the people on the foundation side have it easy—all you do is give away money all day,” Ms. McCormack says.

But, she adds, grant-making assignments make students “think hard about what success is in philanthropy. It’s easy to give away $10,000. It’s less easy to create social change.”

Finding Consensus

Similar classroom exercises are cropping up on campuses around the country as universities, corporations, and alumni increasingly recognize the important role charities and foundations play in building civil society, Ms. McCormack says.

Her project began three years ago as part of Students4Giving, a program run by the Campus Compact, a coalition of more than 1,100 college and university presidents that seek to encourage students to get involved in community-service efforts.

But after money from Campus Compact was no longer available, Boston University secured support from the Highland Street Foundation.

Ms. McCormack’s most recent student project got under way last fall, with members of the group trying to figure out what to do with their $10,000. Should they make one grant or multiple grants? Should they focus on one cause or many? What should their grant-making mission statement be?

Students had different—and passionately held—opinions about what to do with the money, Mr. Weisman says, and had to work hard to hammer out a consensus.

Finally, he says, the students realized many of them shared an affinity for the arts, and they all wanted the $10,000 to make a lasting difference. They decided to award one grant and agreed to look for a group that used the arts to produce positive social change. And, like real-world foundation officials, they wanted applicants to prove their programs had affected people’s lives.

They dubbed themselves the MBA’s for the Arts, then released an application form and request for proposals. About 30 applications came in, and the budding grant makers drew up a set of guidelines based on the qualities they valued and used it to winnow the applications down to five finalists.

Choosing was hard for Lindsay Jensen, who runs a financial-education program at Jewish Family & Children’s Service, in Waltham, Mass. In her work, she says, she has written both successful and unsuccessful grant applications.

Sitting on the grant maker’s side of the table, she saw just how slim the margin can be between winning and losing.

“That was such a challenging, challenging process,” she says. “You start to understand the challenges the funders face when you have so many terrific nonprofits coming through the door.”

Choosing a Grantee

Still, Mr. Weisman says, he was surprised by the “low quality” of a couple of the applications. They were either poorly written, he says, or the applicants skipped questions. One proposal clearly contained what he calls “cut and paste” answers the charity probably used in many other grant applications.

“It was surprising how much that mattered” to the novice grant makers, he says.

The students found their winner after a visit to Medicine Wheel Productions, a charity run by the Boston artist Michael Dowling. It uses public art projects to help inner-city children express themselves, as they help revive and beautify their neighborhoods.

Medicine Wheel’s application showed thoughtful responses and attentiveness to detail, Mr. Weisman says. When members of the group visited the charity, children participating in its programs offered vivid examples of how the charity’s art projects taught them a variety of skills, including leadership and public speaking, as well as landscaping and visual-arts techniques.

The MBA students closely questioned Medicine Wheel officials about their programs, Mr. Weisman says. “Every time we asked, ‘Why do you do this?’ there was a reason.”

The charity could also point to its participation in a three-year project in which several Boston-area arts groups collaborated to craft more precise and uniform methods to measure the difference they made to young people.

Feeling the Power

MBA’s for the Arts presented Medicine Wheel with a $10,000 check on the students’ last day of class.

The experience made Ms. Jensen realize just how much power foundations can wield when it comes to steering social change, she says—and has made her think hard about perhaps someday working for a foundation.

Mr. Weisman says the experience of sitting around the table with his fellow students trying to reach consensus gave him insights into his own negotiation style and skills, even as it taught him the complexities of the grant-making process.

“It was a powerful project,” he says. “As much as we helped Medicine Wheel with the $10,000 grant, they helped us accomplish the purpose we set out to fulfill.”