Guidelines for higher education programs that require students to do special projects with nonprofits

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Hi everyone. Quick announcement before we launch into today’s post. The Peery Foundation, whose CEO Jessamyn Shams-Lau and I co-authored the book Unicorns Unite (along with the amazing Jane Leu of Smarter Good), is having an Ask Me Anything on 2/14 at 11am Pacific time. They’re trying to “pull back the curtain on foundation decision-making. No question is off-limits and our host’s favorite question will win a box of chocolates.” Find out how philanthropy sausage is made.

Also, I’m on a webinar on 2/5 at 9:30am PST, called “Fundraising from a Different Point of Vu.”

I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for a while. Thanks to colleague Theresa Meyers, Chief of Staff at DC Central Kitchen, for bringing this back to my attention. Every once a while, we nonprofits get requests from students, usually from a nonprofit management program. The requests often go like this,

“Hi, I am a student at so-and-so college. I am taking a course on organizational development this quarter. Part of our curriculum is to interview several leaders at a nonprofit, and then develop a series of recommendations on how your organization can improve. May I interview you and your team? This project is due next Friday. Thank you for your time.”

The projects vary, from creating a marketing plan or strategic plan, writing up a grant proposal, creating a video, developing a logic model or theory of change, doing a dramatic one-person show on the organization’s history, etc. The students and these programs are well-intentioned, and many of us nonprofit folks appreciate the fact that young people are learning these things and being engaged in our sector. It’s nice to think about the future of our sector, especially as it may include some of us being able to step down in our old age and open a small business selling a line of merchandise focused exclusively on the Oxford Comma (shut up; I don’t make fun of your dreams).

However, colleges and universities and students, we need to have a talk. As awesome as you are, these projects are often stress-inducing, and some of us get these emails and feel not hope and optimism for the future of our sector, but dread and the urge to run screaming out of our open-plan office. Here are several reasons why:

They are time-consuming: Providing students a meaningful experience takes a lot of time. Our meetings are often booked weeks in advance, and the precious non-meeting time we have are focused on programming or getting other work done. When a student comes in, we have to shuffle everything around in order to make time for their projects. This causes other work to fall behind that we will have to make up later.

They are poorly coordinated: Requests come in constantly, sometimes by different students in the same program, and often at the last minute. This forces everyone to scramble and then feel like A-holes because we might have to say no to these bright-eyed students who just want to learn.

They stress nonprofit resources: Multiple staff often have to be involved in order to provide students with information and guidance. Also, students will invariably want to use giant sticky notes for a presentation. Those things are expensive! $30 a pad of 25 sheets? What are they made of, unicorn leather?!

They are usually not helpful: These projects, with some exceptions, are mainly for the benefit of the student. It is unlikely that a student with little experience, and who sees a tiny fraction of the work over a short period of time, can produce recommendations or materials that would be more helpful than staff with many years of experience in the field and at the organization.

They are usually not grounded in equity: Many students want projects at organizations led by Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, people with disabilities, immigrants and refugees, or other marginalized communities. But often they do not yet have the grounding in doing work in these communities without causing harm. Which means additional time and resources must be provided to coach the students and mitigate damage.

They are sometimes insulting: Most students are great. We do however encounter the occasional bizsplainer or those who believe they are somehow doing the nonprofit a huge favor. This may be an influence of the professor, if they themselves believe nonprofits should act more like for-profits or whatever, but it’s very annoying.

Most university, colleges, and students mean well. But, as Theresa points out, “The irony of it all is that society recognizes that nonprofits are understaffed and under-resourced which is part of the reason students are sent our way to ‘help’. [But] In our effort to support nonprofits, we are actually exacerbating the staffing inequities by forcing nonprofit leaders to also be unpaid professors.”

We do love students, and we do want to support the next generation of leaders. So, let’s come to some agreements so we can all have meaningful, productive collaborations (thanks again to Theresa and other colleagues for these recommendations):

Coordinate with nonprofits to figure out the best timing and types of projects: Students can be very helpful, when they are in the right role, and they come to help at the right time. For instance, students doing research such as reviewing literature, implementing surveys, conducting focus groups, etc., can bring in critical information when an organization is creating a new strategic plan. And instead of each student doing their own individual projects, it may be helpful to have groups of students working together, when it makes sense.

Give plenty of advance notice: Nothing is more irritating than a student who comes in with a “I need to get this done by next week” request, as if we nonprofit folks are just hanging around, eating hummus and duct-taping up our chairs, waiting for something exciting to happen. Tell students they need to give at least a month, ideally several months, of notice, depending on the project.

Build it into your budget to pay nonprofits: Students pay tuition, and universities and colleges generally have vast more resources than nonprofits. So it is inequitable to ask us to educate students—basically doing universities’ and colleges’ jobs—for free. If you think it is invaluable for students to get on-the-ground practical experience out in the field, then financially support our work. If you plan to invite a nonprofit leader to speak in your class, also pay them or their organization.

Make sure students do their research in advance: Organizations’ history, mission, programs, current strategic plans, financial information, etc., are usually on their website. Students’ and professors’ doing the research in advance will save everyone time, show a level of respect for organizations’ work, and lead to more meaningful conversations and collaborations.

Have students do preemptive work on race, privilege, equity, diversity, inclusion, implicit bias, etc: Encourage them to read books and articles on these issues. Have the class discuss them and how they may apply in the collaboration with nonprofits. For instance, white students coming into a communities-of-color-led org, or able-bodied students working with disabilities orgs, should do research on relevant topics and reflect on their privilege .

Collaborate on case studies: Often the projects are one-off, benefiting one student or one group of students. Think about more creative partnerships, such as working with nonprofits to create some case studies that multiple students can learn from and that can be used across many semesters.

Higher ed staff, build relationship with nonprofits: Collaborations will be a lot more successful if professors and university program staff take time to be out in the community and strengthen relationships before students are engaged. Don’t wait until your students have a project to do before you connect with us. Bonus if you buy lunch or coffee.

Let’s all work together to effectively nurture future staff, volunteers, donors, and board members for our sector.

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