Local MBA programs are teaming with nonprofits to give students hands-on experience. Participants say everyone comes out a winner.

A new generation of MBA students is putting classroom training into practice and giving back to the community-all before graduation.

Increasingly, integrated learning experiences and student-led programs are challenging MBA candidates to solve real-world problems in the nonprofit sector. These projects can be a win-win-win for students, their schools and the nonprofits they serve. Students get a hands-on learning experience and the not-for-profits get needed assistance, while colleges and universities enhance their reputation and earn the community's goodwill.

Here's a look at how some Central Ohio higher education institutions are getting involved around the region.

Student Learning

Kevin Neebes and Brent Soller, MBA students at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, say they've learned valuable lessons through their participation in Fisher Board Fellows. The program matches learners with nonprofit organizations, where students serve as ex-officio members of a board of trustees.

Each year, the student-run program attracts about 50 applicants, 20 of whom are typically accepted, says Neebes, chair of Fisher Board Fellows. "We look for MBA students who are interested in committing to serving on the board of a local nonprofit," he says. "We get to experience all that the nonprofits have going on."

For Soller, whose undergraduate degree is in economics, that means sitting in on monthly board meetings at COSI, as well as more frequent finance committee meetings. "It's really interesting to see how they're making sure that COSI's being run the right way, how high-level [evaluation] is done," says Soller, vice chair of Fisher Board Fellows. "They talk about how good a job the CEO is doing, how the COO is doing, they talk about compensation, they talk about incentive plans."

Soller says he was surprised-and impressed-by how similar the operations of a nonprofit are to those of a for-profit company. "Nonprofit is a status. It doesn't mean that they don't try to run as efficiently and prudently as possible. The only difference is that they don't pay taxes," he says.

Other schools' students work on the front lines of nonprofits as a way to demonstrate the skills they've acquired in class. A recent group of Otterbein University MBA candidates partnered with the Westerville Area Resource Ministry (WARM) for their capstone project.

Over the course of 12 weeks, 15 students worked in groups to develop a set of metrics so the short-term assistance organization could better fulfill its mision, says Patty Hohlbein, MBA recruiter and counselor at Otterbein. "[WARM] knew how many people they had served. They had historical knowledge ... but what they really wanted were leading indicators--who they should serve and how they could serve them," Hohlbein says.

WARM Executive Director Scott Marier says the students did an excellent job. "Otterbein's MBA program requires at least three years of business experience. They were late 20-, early 30-somethings who had a lot of life experience, so they brought their individual skills and disciplines to work in their favor," Marier says. "On the research team, for example, was a Realtor who had access to a lot of demographic information that was really helpful in relationship to the research. He knew where to go to get the data and how to apply it and how to interpret it."

A student project liaison talked with WARM staff regularly, and the groups met with Marier and his team members every other week for an in-class briefing on the project's status. "There's where we could always refocus it or help if they asked us for client feedback," Marier says. "The knowledge transfer was fantastic."

‘Real-life Experience'

Last fall at Capital University, students in Professor Lynn Dailey's marketing management course spent the semester focusing on the Bexley Natural Market, a cooperative grocery store.

During each class, Dailey gave a lecture and allowed time for students to apply the concepts they'd learned. The students developed a comprehensive marketing plan for the grocery over the course of the semester, including ways to reach each of the store's target markets.

"It gives them the real-life experience of working for a client," Dailey says. "Second, it forces them to really understand the material. Taking a test on something is very different than actually applying it."

MBA student Ashley Hughes says she appreciated Dailey's hands-on approach. "Overall, I thought it was really beneficial," Hughes says. "I think it really helps us understand the concepts for the class. ... There's also the motivation that goes with the benefit of being able to take our actual experiences and understand them."

Working with a client also gives the students feedback on their ideas, Dailey says. At the end of the semester, the class presented their plans to store manager Annerose Schaffrin. "Overall, it was an excellent experience," says Schaffrin. "We now have nine different marketing plans that were submitted ... and each one had at least one excellent idea."

Schaffrin said the experience taught the students about the nature of cooperative businesses. "I think it was beneficial to everybody," she says.

Hughes appreciated that Schaffrin took time to explain to students which of their ideas wouldn't work and why they weren't practical for the store. "It's kind of interesting coming from a class perspective, learning that it's not always about the bottom line," Hughes says. "It's about what they can do to bring value."

In another course, Hughes and her classmates held focus groups with the goal of improving attendance at Upper Arlington Lutheran Church. "Our goal was to identify what the problem was and try to put together suggestions on how to increase attendance," she says. "It's about consumer behavior. If you can get at the root cause, you can turn it around."

Hughes, who started her business career in marketing at Cardinal Health, says Dailey's courses have given her valuable experience she can use on the job. For MBA students who aren't working full-time, class projects provide opportunities to network that could potentially lead to future employment.

Through their work on nonprofit boards, Fisher Board Fellows meet a wide range of people, including executives at large corporations. "One of the really neat things I've found is exposure to a group of really passionate, really smart people. They're a highly-talented group of board members that really are from all walks of life," says Soller.

"One of the board members is the CFO of Nationwide. We have another board member that's the president of the Columbus Urban League. They're totally different people from totally different walks of life," Soller says. "But they all work together to help out kids and provide experiences that wouldn't be available if this nonprofit weren't there."

Making a Difference

MBA students aren't the only beneficiaries of nonprofit partnerships. In exchange for agreeing to work with students, the organizations gain free consulting services, which many charities couldn't afford to pay for.

Dailey's class provided the Bexley Natural Market with printed, bound copies of the comprehensive marketing plan so Schaffrin could present some of the ideas to the grocery's board for implementation, Dailey says.

Hughes says her class developed ideas that would allow the market to increase revenue so it could offer employees higher salaries and health-care benefits. "I think that what we really helped her do was understand the market and move the needle in her business," Hughes says. "We were able to give her some recommendations to change her marketing plan. We looked at her financials, her focuses and the market in general, and made some suggestions as far as the appearance of the market and promotions."

Marier says WARM could not have developed a set of leading indicators without the help of Otterbein students. "For a nonprofit organization like us, there's no way we could ever have a project with that type of magnitude that we could pay for," he says. "The result provides us with a best practice tool that we haven't found anywhere else in our area or across the state. Most people don't have access to resources like that."

Otterbein's students put in almost 800 hours worth of work, Hohlbein says. And their enthusiasm for WARM didn't stop with the capstone project. "When we had our Thanksgiving food drive, they contributed 18 bags of supplies and food in order to help out," Marier says. "They did so many things. They just got really excited about our mission and say we want to help participate at a whole other level."

At OSU, Fisher Board Fellows do more than just sit in on board meetings. "We also have the opportunity to do a board-level project," Neebes says. The Cleveland-area native is serving with A Kid Again, which holds activities and events for children with life-threatening illnesses. His project is to help the Cleveland chapter organize a Lake Erie fishing trip.

"My role has been to communicate with them and brainstorm ways that we could plan this event," Neebes says. "We're starting to think through sponsors and ways that we can raise funds to make that happen." Soller, meanwhile, is helping to develop a policy statement for COSI's foundation.

Beyond the benefits that nonprofits gain from such projects, Soller says, participating organizations appreciate the board fellows program for another reason: Teaching students the ins and outs of nonprofits creates a bigger pool of people interested and experienced in future service. "The type of people who are passionate about helping and philanthropy end up serving on so many boards," Soller says. "So maybe someone wouldn't have to serve on three boards if they didn't want to."

Neebes says he hopes his board fellows colleagues continue their service after graduation. "Most won't go professionally into the nonprofit world, but you can be a businessperson and be really involved with a good cause and nonprofits and organizations in the community that are doing really good things," he says. "They do need businesspeople to step up and lead their organizations."

Creating Connections

Last, but certainly not least, colleges and universities that foster relationships between MBA students and nonprofits benefit, too. As long as their students are professional and do a good job, the institutions can reap positive word of mouth and raise their profile in the community.

Upper Arlington Lutheran Church has been so satisfied with Capital students' work that it's a repeat customer. "They're pretty much a yearly client. It's a good relationship we've started with them," Dailey says.

Otterbein, too, got a shot in the arm from its students' work with WARM. "It was outstanding." Marier says. "It was just a tremendous experience being a client partner. They exceeded our expectations in every area."

Soller and Neebes both chose OSU's MBA program in part because of the reputation of Fisher Board Fellows. "I actually learned about the program when I started looking at MBA schools. When I started looking at Ohio State, they had this program and this opportunity that we could get involved with," says Neebes, whose experience in church finance led him to pursue the degree. "[Fisher Board Fellows] was one of the tipping points in making my decision to come to Fisher rather than some of the other schools I was looking at. When I got to school a year or so ago, I made a beeline to the people who were in charge and expressed my interest."

Soller decided to pursue an MBA based on his long-term professional and personal goals. "I want eventually to be either a business owner or a higher-level executive, and there are a lot of things in business that aren't numbers, so I wanted to take more HR classes and marketing classes. Part of the reason I chose Fisher College of Business was because of the Fisher Board Fellows Program. I wanted that opportunity," he says.

He also hoped to carry on a family tradition. "It's probably one of those childhood things. My grandfather's side served on nonprofit boards," Soller says. "I've always wanted to be able to help nonprofits from a business standpoint."

With the growing array of programs available to connect MBA students and nonprofits, that attitude is likely to spread.

Lisa Aurand is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the February 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.