Students Do More

University of Alberta student build a not-for-profit model

In March 2013, Alberta School of Business (at the University of Alberta) student Sherin Noroozi went to Washington, D.C., to compete in a business case competition. Something set this one apart from the usual student competitions. Rather than focusing on a large corporation, it focused on a not-for-profit organization, challenging competitors to tackle the challenges not-for-profits face. The business case tried to address question of how to boost the efficiency of social support initiatives. The solution, according to some local students, is simple: completely change the business-charity paradigm. While the U of A team did not come back with winning results, Sherin came home inspired to make a change.

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Community minded: Alberta School of Business students led and participated in a not-for-profit business case competition this February.
Photos: Carissa M Tham Of Theravenwine Photography

She returned determined to create the first continent-wide, Canadian-hosted not-for-profit case competition, here in Edmonton. With co-chair and friend Nisha Patel, the two assembled a committee of nine students, beginning work in April 2013.

One of those students was Steven Knight, who as past VP Academic at the U of A sought out local business leaders and not-for-profit organizations who might want to take part. Steven was prepared for disappointment. “We thought it would be tough to get people from the community to help out, and we thought it would be impossible to get not-for-profits to share their information with students,” he says. “I guess we were just naive and inexperienced.”

The committee selected Youth Empowerment and Support Services (YESS) to feature in its case study, in part because the organization has helped kids off the streets and into jobs since 1978. Steven distributed the case study throughout the faculty of business, hoping to get as many as four teams interested in representing the university at the end of February 2014. “We got 11 in the first 24 hours, and 14 in total,” Steven says. Since so many students wanted to compete, the committee held a scaled down version of the competition at home, an internal round exclusively for U of A students in advance of the broader competition. “It was great for our committee,” Steven says. “It allowed us to revise things for the major competition, when we’d have students from across North America we wanted to impress. The best part is this meant we got to help another organization: the Boys and Girls Clubs Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton [and Area].”

  • On the Case: United Way of the Alberta Capital Region’s booth at the not-for-profit career and volunteer fair On the Case: United Way of the Alberta Capital Region’s booth at the not-for-profit career and volunteer fair
  • On the Case: a group shot of the ANPCC executive team. Members are, from top left to right: Nicki Clarke, Nisha Patel, Webb Dussome, Deb Cautley, Alexandra Vu, Sherin Noroozi, Jessica Ireland, Andra Bob, Jordyn Lugg, Graeme Glassford, Steven Knight, Kevin Pinkoski and Alfonso Aguilar On the Case: a group shot of the ANPCC executive team. Members are, from top left to right: Nicki Clarke, Nisha Patel, Webb Dussome, Deb Cautley, Alexandra Vu, Sherin Noroozi, Jessica Ireland, Andra Bob, Jordyn Lugg, Graeme Glassford, Steven Knight, Kevin Pinkoski and Alfonso Aguilar
  • On the Case: event co-chairs Nisha Patel and Sherin Noroozi don their best On the Case: event co-chairs Nisha Patel and Sherin Noroozi don their best
     

Photos: Carissa M Tham Of Theravenwine Photography

Case competitions are nothing new, especially at the U of A, but most of them are narrow in focus. “This competition was multi-faceted, because that’s how not-for-profits work,” Steven says. “You wouldn’t do well at this competition if you only focused on finance and accounting, or considered yourself a marketing specialist. It’s more of a holistic business approach.”

Once the U of A students completed the internal round and judges chose a winner, two more Edmonton teams entered from MacEwan and Concordia, along with two other Canadian teams from Manitoba and Prince Edward Island. Three American teams – from Florida, Indiana and American University in Washington, D.C. – rounded out the eight spots.

The four-day event kicked off on February 26, and held events at the Art Gallery of Alberta, Matrix Hotel, the U of A and the Citadel Theatre. “We figured, as students sitting in classrooms all day, they would be reluctant to sit through more talks at night, but they really connected with what the speakers had to say,” Steven says. He speculates this because there is a general lack of information about not-for-profits at university business schools.

Overcoming the absence of information was part of the competition’s main objective: change students’ perception of not-for-profits, in order to change the way universities and business institutions perceive them as well. To date, the Alberta School of Business at the U of A teaches only one not-for-profit course – which is not unusual for business schools across North America. Many students disregard a not-for-profit career simply because they don’t see potential for profit, which leads to the competition’s second main objective. “We wanted to introduce the idea of social enterprise creating social profit,” says Steven. “Instead of only generating economic dollars, you generate social benefit, which ends up saving money. We said to students, ‘If you decide to do this competition, you’ll generate social profit by allowing an organization to improve efficiency, which in the case of YESS, means helping more kids, which saves society money.’”

Mark McCormack is a current U of A student, but he comes from the opposite end of the business model continuum, running the U of A chapter of Make Poverty History. He’s familiar with the terms and glad to see the School of Business also heading to the centre. “The fact is, charities are not the future, and big business is not the future. Social enterprise is the future,” says Mark. “Even though it makes us feel good to run not-for-profits, they’re not as effective as they should be, because they don’t always think like a business. And if corporations ran like social enterprises, some big problems could already be solved. It’s great to see the School of Business start the discussion from that side.”

  • POVERTY PARALLEL:  Students attend a poverty simulation, the first ever held specifically for post secondary students. POVERTY PARALLEL: Students attend a poverty simulation, the first ever held specifically for post secondary students.
  • POVERTY PARALLEL:  Students attend a poverty simulation, the first ever held specifically for post secondary students. POVERTY PARALLEL: Students attend a poverty simulation, the first ever held specifically for post secondary students.
  • SHOP TALK: Instructor Howard Harmatz of the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business (who had the winning team) chats with fellow case competition participant Mark Loo. SHOP TALK: Instructor Howard Harmatz of the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business (who had the winning team) chats with fellow case competition participant Mark Loo.
     

Photos: Carissa M Tham Of Theravenwine Photography

Large corporations often do the most net good in places where people have few options and having a job – any job – beats going hungry. But getting corporations to think of social benefit can be easier than convincing a charity to splurge on software that increases productivity. A big difference is the measurability of success. It takes years for YESS to figure out how many kids they get off the streets permanently, into homes and careers. For corporations, even ones who provide social profit, it still comes down to dollars.

“We are starting to see organizations from both sides migrating towards the middle, because it’s the best of both worlds,” says Mark. “There are already signs in the marketplace that when you create a product with a social mission, it sells better.” He mentions Telus’ pink phone for breast cancer as an example. “People want to be part of something they believe in. We want to capitalize on that, and create profit, but make a legal guarantee that some of the profit goes back into the company’s social mission.”

Making social enterprise the norm is an ambitious mission, and the concept is not completely new, but there are reasons for optimism. The united, global voice of Make Poverty History has made significant ground since its genesis in 2005. Another sign may be the Alberta School of Business’s Not-For-Profit Case Competition, which sent students from around the continent home from Edmonton with a new outlook, creating social profit of its own.

“There was a student from the University of Southern Indiana, an entrepreneurship major who had started a few of his own businesses,” says Knight. “He said he never gave much thought to the not-for-profit sector, and only came to the competition because he wanted to come to Canada. At the banquet, he came up to me and said, ‘I’m going to change the entire way I think about business. A business that can make economic and social profit is completely viable, I just never thought about it before.’”

Hopefully, it’s just the start.

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