MIT’s EMBA Program takes volunteering to the next level — Nelson Repenning and Diana Brennan


MIT Sloan Professor Nelson Repenning

MIT Sloan Professor Nelson Repenning

MIT Sloan Alumna Diana Brennan

MIT Sloan Alumna Diana Brennan

With more nonprofits incorporating each year, competition for funding is fiercer than ever. Organizations that have traditionally relied on grants and philanthropy are struggling as they look for new revenue streams to become more sustainable and impactful. While these organizations provide critical services, they often lack management resources and expertise to reach their full potential in terms of the number of people they serve. After all, how many nonprofits can afford to hire leaders with MBAs?

However, a new form of volunteerism is starting to address this need: the donation of management expertise, skills, and ideas. This is a big change from even five years ago when being civically engaged primarily meant writing a check or spending a day cleaning up a park with coworkers. This change may be due in part to the convergence of the profit and nonprofit sectors creating the emerging field of social enterprise. This shift has exposed the many ways the nonprofit sector could use operational support. As a result, “help” is becoming more broadly defined.

This new type of volunteerism — the donation of intellectual capital — can have a profound effect on organizations. By taking volunteership to the next level and matching the skills and expertise of volunteers with organizations’ needs, nonprofits can make operational and strategic improvements or possibly even pivot to change the way they serve the community. While this isn’t the most common form of volunteerism, it has the potential to add tremendous and long-lasting value.

Recognizing this need, MIT Sloan’s Executive MBA Program recently teamed up with Building Impact to identify organizations in the greater Boston area that are facing operational challenges or launching new initiatives that, if addressed, would allow them to realize their missions in a greater capacity. In Leading Complex Organizations, the final course in the MIT EMBA program, students work with those nonprofits to use the knowledge they’ve gained at MIT as well as their many years of professional experience to address those challenges. Some need help with defined areas like technology strategy while others need to rethink the execution of their most important work processes. The organizations range from major institutions to local neighborhood programs.

For example, some students will work with Boston Public Schools on a full-scale analysis of the impact of the high school assignment process on attendance, graduation, dropout, academic performance, and on-time rates. Other students will work with the Franciscan Hospital for Children on the development of a centralized system to link the hospital’s business operations with that of the workforce. And others will work with the Jamaica Plain Multicultural Afterschool Arts Program to gauge the impact that a longer Boston Public School day will have on enrollment and how the marketing of the program should be adapted. Students will work in groups of eight on projects for 14 not-for-profits.

Students have spent the last 20 months in the EMBA program decomposing the act of management into constituent components. These projects are an opportunity to put all those pieces back together into a conception that is richer and more effective than the one with which they started. The assignment is essentially to use all of their new knowledge from the program and experience to make a positive impact within these organizations.

There are many benefits from this assignment. For the students, this action learning project is an opportunity to integrate and use everything they’ve learned. For the nonprofits, imagine what this kind of management consulting would cost in the for-profit world? These projects add tremendous value and fill resource gaps for the organizations. They may even help identify new active markets, develop new revenue streams, and solidify new business models. While the projects only last a week, it’s remarkable what these highly experienced, mid-career executives will be able to accomplish.

These hands-on projects also differentiate MIT Sloan from other business schools, as they reinforce the mission to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and to generate ideas that advance management practice. These projects are hands-on opportunities to be change agents outside of their own organizations, and further prepare them to use their education and experience to impact their communities and the world after graduation.

MIT Sloan Prof. Nelson Repenning teaches Leading Complex Organizations and is the faculty director of the Executive MBA Program. Diana Brennan is a 2014 graduate of the MIT Executive MBA Program and CEO of Building Impact.

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