Iowa State MBA students apply their skills while giving back

MBA Service Learning Projects

First-year MBA students (from left to right) Fouad Khairallah, Michael Larson and Sivacharan Somalinga present a new budget model for Heartland Senior Services. Students in the class worked with several nonprofits on service projects. Photo Courtesy: College of Business

AMES, Iowa – Corporate social responsibility is more than just a topic first-year MBA students at Iowa State University will learn about in the classroom – it is an expectation. To emphasize the importance of giving back to the community, students are assigned to teams to work with nonprofit organizations on service projects. The projects are often focused on creating budget models, growing brand recognition and developing marketing campaigns.  

“We’re trying to create a situation through service learning where students can take the knowledge and skills from the classroom and apply that to real life situations,” said Ron Ackerman, director of graduate admissions and student services for the College of Business at Iowa State. “We want to emphasize to students that when they graduate they’ll be expected to do volunteer activities, to serve on boards and committees and be engaged in the community.”

The experience is a win-win for the MBA students and for the organizations they serve. Students learn by doing. Unlike traditional class assignments, in which there is a clear set of expectations, students must work with the agency to identify challenges, set goals and come up with solutions.

Initially, it is overwhelming for the students, said Jim Cannon, an assistant professor of accounting, who supervised a group of students working with Heartland Senior Services in Ames. During the group’s first meeting with Heartland, Cannon recalls how the staff presented the students with reams of paper.   

“I think the Heartland staff, without meaning to, had a real shock and awe factor for the students. Once we digested exactly what they were looking at, it was fun to watch the MBA students start thinking about how they manipulate the data to make it more meaningful,” Cannon said.

The students worked with Heartland to identify cost-saving measures for its nutrition program, which provides more than 40,000 congregate and home-delivered meals every year to seniors in Story County. They spent hours reviewing Heartland’s budget, expenses and services. The group recently presented Heartland with a new budget model along with recommendations to cut costs and increase donations for meals.

"We wanted to make sure our strategy was well-thought out,” said Fouad Khairallah, who was part of the team working with Heartland. “Together, we generated ideas and possibilities and formulated an action plan. From there, we were able to dive in and begin our work on this service learning project.”

Expanding service

This is the third year for the service learning projects and with each class the list of agencies served has grown. This year the class of 27 students also worked with Lutheran Services in Iowa, Youth and Shelter Services, Eyerly Ball, Raising Readers in Story County and Ames Reads, Iowa Arboretum, Evelyn Davis Center for Working Families and the American Red Cross.

Iowa State MBA students have worked with Heartland in the past to help with transportation issues and create a new fee structure for activities. Executive Director Elizabeth Beck says most nonprofits cannot afford to hire a consultant, and she feels they gain more from working with students.

“It’s a learning experience for all of us,” Beck said. “We aren’t as sophisticated as we think we are, and the students ask the right kind of questions versus just hiring a consultant to come in and lay it all out and we don’t really understand what’s happening. This has been mutually beneficial for me at Heartland and I think for our board.”

Beck plans to share the final budget presentation and student recommendations with the Heartland board. Seeing how their work will be applied within the organization is incredibly rewarding for the students. The experience has also given them a greater appreciation of the need to give back.

"Providing one’s talents and time is always important and giving back to the community should be a priority. There comes a time in any person's life where they may need assistance or guidance in some way and having someone there to help always improves any situation," said Michael Larson, a student in the Heartland group.

As an added incentive, students have a chance to win a scholarship for their work. Faculty members, with input from the nonprofit supervisors, select the top three projects. Students on the first, second and third place teams will each receive scholarships of $1,000, $750 or $500 respectively.