Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Competing with S’mores

by Steven Fletcher ’11

Earlier this morning 26 students gathered in front of the Ken Olsen Science Center with graham crackers, chocolate, marshmallows and toothpicks. Their task – build the best s’mores house in 20 minutes. Why?
Professor Casey Cooper, assistant professor of economics and business, wanted to show students in her Intro to Nonprofits class that nonprofits have a different measure of success, much like building a house without guidelines.
She explains:

“Nonprofit organizations generally have a hard time measuring success, especially in the short term. In a for-profit company the more profit the better, but in a nonprofit, is no profit better? By taking away a simple, one-factor measure of success, the options become almost limitless. Determining how you are going to measure success becomes time-consuming—a resource most nonprofit organizations lack.
“The s’more example makes a comparison to working in a nonprofit organization. Students are doing work they enjoy but not given any structure to the assignment. Without the benefits of having any goals going into the project, the results are mixed. Students enjoy diving into the work but don’t think about the criteria for success until they are told later that they have missed the mark.
“One of the great benefits of a nonprofit organization is the ability to focus on long-term goals due to the absence of a need to answer to profit-seeking shareholders; this, however, shouldn’t be an excuse not to create and follow other plans. Without a plan and intermediate goals, employees and volunteers will become discouraged and off track. Hunger will not be solved in a day, but without focus it won’t be solved at all.”
Students built everything from lighthouses to bungalows and everything in between, and used every piece of their kits, from the tin foil wrapping to the wax from candles used to melt marshmallows. At the class’ conclusion, students evaluated each house and decided on a winner by their own criteria. The marshmallow project was an exercise in setting intermediate goals in organizations that often try to take on the world. Cooper’s lesson came as a surprise to students who were focused on creating the house.
“I like to be different,” says Cooper. “Intro to Nonprofits isn’t really a traditional lecture-style class, but we have fun.”

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