Meet our not-for-profit unicorn

A group of students. $150k in seed money. And 40 very deserving not-for-profits.

The concept of a “unicorn” in the business world was coined by tech venture capitalist Aileen Leeto in late 2013 to describe the statistical rarity of tech start-ups valued at more than $1 billion. In terms of statistical rarities (and NOT billion-dollar valuations), Willamette University’s Early Career and Career Change MBA program just doubled its unicorn population after a successful first year of its new “Grant Administration: Concept to Consequences” course.

Launched nearly a decade ago, Willamette’s Angel Investment Fund remains one of the only consequential learning MBA programs that allows students to directly manage start-up investment funds with real world outcomes. In the 2016-2017 academic year, the Atkinson Graduate School of Management introduced the not-for-profit answer to the angel investment experience: A grant management program with $150,000 in seed money managed by MBA candidates.

Willamette MBA Dean and JELD-WEN Professor of Free Enterprise Debra Ringold views the grant administration program as another way Atkinson blends experiential and consequential learning methods into one powerful student experience.

"This two-semester, two-instructor opportunity allows students to experience, firsthand, the challenges, joys, and responsibilities of building and evaluating not-for-profit capacity,” Ringold said.

students-delivering-funds-to-non-profitIn its inaugural year, the course – the result of a joint venture with Mountain West Investment Corporation – tasked students with determining how to distribute the fund after nearly 40 not-for-profit groups across five Oregon counties submitted applications through an online Request For Proposals process.

After painstakingly evaluating hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of funding requests, and with valuable advice from an advisory board made up of key not-for-profit and foundation leaders in the Willamette community, the group awarded grants to 11 different not-for-profit social impact projects from the following organizations:

"Our faculty always look for ways to innovate within the curriculum,” said Willamette University President Steve Thorsett. “Having high-impact, consequential learning opportunities like this helps our students translate what they learn in the classroom into the real world.”

Co-instructor Nicole Thibodeau, associate professor of accounting practice at Willamette University MBA and president of Nthandco Management Consultants, brings “over 25 years of experience in numbers” to the course, while co-instructor Ronald Hays is former president of the Marion-Polk Food Share; currently the CEO of United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley; and acts as liason to Mountain West Investment Corp.

“As I expand my career to have a bigger impact, I’m thrilled to bring financial skills to the not-for-profit sector, learn more about the challenges of this sector, and help build strong leaders who can have an impact,” says Thibodeau.

Early Career and Career Change MBA graduate Andrew Galen '17, who was a student in the inaugural “Grant Administration” course, said he and his classmates were thrilled over how big of an impact they were able to make with these dollar amounts.

“One of the really exciting things about our fund is the size of the awards we’ll be able to allocate,” said Galen during the course. “I think it’s a cool opportunity for local nonprofits.”

Special preference was given to projects that “address root causes, have proof of impact, collaborate with community agencies and city governments, have evident community support and have multiple funding sources,” according to a statement prepared by the student team.

The fund allocations are “completely the students’ choice,” says Thibodeau. “Our job is to guide them to become good leaders as well as good managers.”

nicole-thibodeauAdds Thibodeau, “Consequential learning is about learning through experience and in this case, impacting real organizations significantly.”

Galen's classmate, Zach Lea, MBA'17, says the students’ responsibilities went far beyond the allocation of funds, but extended to every aspect of the grant administration, from devising a marketing plan to website and social media maintenance, not to mention “constant phone calls and a lot of emails” in the days leading up to the RFP deadline.

“Everyone can carry part of the workload, because there’s really a lot going on behind the scenes,” said Lea.

For the first year, the social impact areas students chose to focus on for funding were green energy, arts and culture, or education. The process of whittling down to these three causes was “one of the more contentious times in the class,” said Galen.
“It’s always friendly, but people come in with their own ideas and opinions of what they want to see funded,” he added. “There was debate going back and forth.”

In fact, the inaugural cohort of the Grant Administration program represented a wide range of passions and experiences. As Galen served with AmeriCorps and worked for a not-for-profit student mentoring organization in Texas, his drive naturally falls in the education category. Lea also worked with AmeriCorps as well as in government and the private sector. Adam Martin, MBA'17 has an environmental science background, and another student was a returning alum through Willamette’s MBA for Life program who had a personal goal of making a local impact.

Lea touts the constant collaboration with students and interactions with nonprofit organizations as “extremely valuable,” while Galen says the course allowed him to exercise both the “calculated” and the “mission-driven” portions of his mentality.

And, Galen said, although not-for-profit organizations exist with the primary purpose of having impact on their community, there are management concepts not-for-profit leaders should master. “I’ve worked with very motivated people with big hearts, but people with financial skills are tougher to find in the industry,” he said. “My mindset is a good mix of the two.”

Armed with recommendations from the first cohort, the next round of students of the “Grant Administration: Concept to Consequences” course is already meeting this Fall '17 semester and ready to work together to make a difference for a new group of deserving not-for-profit organizations in the area.

Stay tuned!