Chi Vo and Marisabel Jaramillo, two staffers from local nonprofit Citizen Schools, came to Link Day at the Questrom School of Business last Saturday looking for help in attracting more volunteers from diverse backgrounds.
Link Day was founded in 2001 by students in Questrom’s Public and Nonprofit Management Club, who realized that few nonprofits could afford to call in a big consulting firm when they face challenges. The annual event pairs area nonprofits that have problems to solve with teams of enthusiastic Questrom MBA students ready to work on practical solutions over the course of one long Saturday.
“It’s a chance to apply the skills learned in class to the real world, on top of being able to contribute to the community,” says Link Day chair Kelton Artuso (Questrom’17). “It’s a nice feeling to be able to help out an organization that might not be able to get in a team from Deloitte.”
Of the 65 MBA students at this year’s event, 25 are in the Public and Nonprofit Management MBA program. It’s their job to recruit the nonprofits, which this year included Best Buddies Massachusetts, the International School of Boston, and the Massachusetts Educational Theater Guild.
“Link Day is the reason I chose to come to Questrom,” says Artuso. “I really admired the fact that it was created by students, run by students, and that a large number of students participated.”
The day began with remarks from Ray Wilson, a Questrom senior lecturer and executive-in-residence, who recalled that he had gone to his first Link Day nearly a decade ago expecting to “make an appearance and be out of here by noon.” Instead, he stayed to the end to watch the students work, so impressed by what he saw that he joined the board of the organization they were helping. That was Hope House, a South End treatment center for those trying to escape substance abuse. When Frederick Newton, Hope House president and CEO, followed Wilson to the podium, he credited Link Day with helping his group figure out how to add outpatient care to its existing residential program, helping many more people. “Our budget then was less than $1 million,” he said. “Now it’s $3.7 million.”
Blackboards, marker walls, notepads, and laptop came into play as the Link Day team worked to help Citizen Schools help students.
“I’ll quote the old saying,” Wilson told students. “We make a living out of what we get. We make a life out of what we give.”
Jaramillo is the civic engagement manager for Citizen Schools, which partners with public middle schools in low-income communities to extend the school day with enrichment programs taught by community volunteers, from math or literacy classes to structured homework help to immersion in a working office or cultural venue. She says the organization wanted some fresh eyes to look at their problem. “We kind of live and breathe our strategy,” she says. “It’s good to be able to get perspective and expertise from people outside.”
Several hundred professionals volunteer with Citizen Schools afternoon programs in Boston and Chelsea, many from the same large corporations that sponsor the group. But they aren’t nearly as diverse as the students, many who are Hispanic and recent immigrants.
“It’s really important that students see themselves represented in the people that are teaching them,” says Vo, Citizen Schools civic engagement coordinator. “Students are better able to connect with people who look like them and sound like them and have those shared experiences.”
By 10 a.m., Vo and Jaramillo were holed up in a second-floor classroom with their student team: Parul Kashyap (Questrom’18), Myles Fish (Questrom’18), Sarah Horwitz (Questrom’18), Diego Da Silva Nunes (Questrom’18), Dalia Rinaldi (Questrom’18), and Lisa Lerma (Questrom’17). The goal? A detailed action plan for recruiting more diverse volunteers and a review of the marketing materials used to attract them.
The students knew they would be working with Citizen Schools, so had already researched the organization and interviewed Thomas Harwell, Questrom’s director of student diversity and inclusion initiatives, and Citizen Schools cofounder Ned Rimer, a Questrom senior lecturer and executive-in-residence and Health Sector Management Program faculty director. Now they took to laptops and the chalkboard to break down the problem.
“Discussions about race and color can be really uncomfortable for people,” said Rinaldi. “How do you get them comfortable with that?”
“There’s almost this fear of asking for diversity,” said Horwitz.
Kashyap had a lot to consider as the Questrom team worked to help Citizen Schools with its volunteer program.
The group decided that Citizen Schools didn’t need to change what they ask so much as how they ask. By late morning the students had divided the problem into three categories—corporate, community, and internal—and split into pairs to tackle them in detail.
Rinaldo had mined the group’s marketing materials to create two word clouds (visual representations of text data) via a web app. She showed that materials used to recruit paid classroom leaders, called education fellows, contained much clearer and more direct messages than those used to attract classroom volunteers. Perhaps that more effective language could be repurposed.
Link Day veteran Frederic Brunel, a Questrom associate professor of marketing, was the faculty member on hand to offer guidance. Listening to a discussion about relationships with sponsoring companies, he suggested an adjustment for the nonprofit: “You change it from an ask to a mutual benefit.”
“From being donors to being real partners,” said Nunes.
“Exactly,” Brunel said.
The team jumped on their laptops to craft a presentation, bantering back and forth about layout skills. The result was a 15-slide PowerPoint presentation that offered detailed solutions.
In the corporate category, the goals were Establish a “both-way” conversation between Citizen Schools and companies: Transition from “donor” mind-set to “partner” mind-set and Reframe early contacts with potential volunteers: Transition from “savior” imagery to “challenger” imagery. Recommendations included aligning all external communications with the diversity goal—which could be as simple as replacing “Wow!” in a pamphlet with “Viva!” The other categories were addressed in equal detail.
Vo and Jaramillo pronounced themselves impressed with the results and left with just what they came for: fresh ideas.