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Students Are Catalysts for Area Nonprofits

April 2, 2008
Nonprofits are notoriously short on resources. Universities are long on idealistic students.

Seems a good match -- and indeed, college students are volunteering for community service in growing numbers.

But it took the ingenuity and initiative of two recent Northwestern University graduates, Molly Day and Kunal Modi, to go beyond volunteerism and create a program without a model on any American campus.

Both had volunteered extensively and were "increasingly frustrated with the staffing, funding and resource shortages at nonprofits," says Day, who majored in social policy, international studies and Spanish and earned her degree last year. "Regardless of our best intentions or dedication, we were always putting out fires instead of attacking our long-term missions."

"We felt that campus-led volunteer activities offer a great learning experience but that innovative student minds could be used in a more powerful way to drive social change," adds Modi, a 2006 graduate in economics and political science. "So, the challenge was to create campus-driven pro-bono projects that capitalize on the strengths of students as energetic, collaborative, tech-savvy, resourceful researchers and thinkers."

The program Day and Modi founded in 2007, campusCATALYST, matches community nonprofits with five-member teams of undergraduate "community analysts" supervised by a Kellogg School of Management MBA student and a professor. The teams act as pro-bono business consultants for a 10-week academic quarter to help the nonprofits develop partners in the community, strengthen infrastructure and improve marketing, communications and development. Team members receive academic credit.

This winter quarter campusCATALYST teams are helping the Evanston Community Development Corporation to create a mentoring program for small-business owners in west Evanston; the Community and Economic Development Association to improve its board of directors' processes; Better Existence with HIV (BEHIV) to streamline its data management; Youth Organizations Umbrella (Y.O.U.) to start developing an operations manual; and the Center for Independent Futures to evaluate its survey forms.

From idea to execution, Day and Modi had campusCATALYST off the ground in just a few months. The Business Institutions Program in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences agreed to give it an academic home and offer credit for the seminar on nonprofit management that students take concurrently with their consulting work. Day, Modi and their "launch team" found a professor and a frequent guest speaker for the course and worked with the Kellogg School of Management to provide MBA mentors for the undergraduate teams.

The name "campusCATALYST" was chosen to emphasize the goal of "not only creating immediate impact for nonprofits but also long-term, transformative impact on tomorrow's leaders," says Day, now executive director. "We're preparing the next generation of change makers while responding to nonprofits' resource crunch."

"One thing is for certain: at campusCATALYST it's not business as usual," says Modi, who is chairman of the board while working as a business analyst at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. "It embodies our belief that as we begin our careers, we don't have to choose between getting ahead and lending a hand." Modi and Day are good examples: After graduation he served at a nonprofit with AmeriCorps VISTA, and she has stayed on at Northwestern to manage campusCATALYST full time without pay.

Last spring 2007 the first campusCATALYST team spent 10 weeks assisting Hilda's Place, Evanston's only transitional housing shelter. Working with the shelter's staff and volunteers, the Northwestern team helped clarify organizational roles and structure, prepared a new case manager training and created a comprehensive employment referral guide. The team also solidified strategic partnerships with local employment and housing providers.

"Before working with campusCATALYST, we never had the time, resources or direction to tackle our issues," says Becky Feiler, director of adult services at Hilda's Place. "They made a huge difference."

In fall 2007 Northwestern teams worked with the Youth Job Center to create a volunteer management system, with EntryPoint to improve community awareness of its services and with Carepoint to develop a strategic marketing prospectus for potential funders. By early 2008 campusCATALYST has grown to its target of five Northwestern teams working with five Evanston nonprofits. To decide on which nonprofits to serve each quarter, campusCATALYST approaches organizations months in advance, trying to choose a different issue area for each of the five teams.

Fewer than a third of the students who apply to campusCATALYST are accepted; as its web site says, the program is looking for "innovative," "passionate" and "high-achieving problem solvers" with records of leadership, teamwork and dedication to strengthening the community. They can come from any undergraduate major.

During the quarter students attend a weekly seminar on nonprofit management where the professor and professional partners use case studies about the issue area on which they are consulting to the nonprofit. Each team's MBA mentor from the Kellogg School leads a separate weekly meeting where students are trained in basic consulting practices and develop weekly goals. The engagement concludes with each team presenting its final recommendations to its organization; campusCATALYST follows up with the nonprofit about its satisfaction with the student team and later about implementation of the recommendations.

Not even a year old, campusCATALYST has already expanded to the University of Chicago campus (although without the academic credit component). Day manages both campuses' programs, assisted by a volunteer team of students and recent alumni and an advisory council of business consultants and community members. Long-term plans are to expand campusCATALYST to other schools around the country.
Topics: Campus Life