Earlier this month, Vu Le at Non-Profit AF made one of those posts you didn’t know you needed until it was written. In it he addressed the stress higher education school projects have on already overburdened non-profits.
It is pretty much a rite of passage so if you haven’t been approached by a university student who needs to complete an assessment of your organization providing you with recommendations for improvement by next week, you need to question your organization’s existence in the universe and whether it has any meaning at all.
And full disclosure, I was one of those university students as I am sure many of my readers were as well. If you weren’t, you need to question the quality of your education and whether it had any meaning at all.
Since I am referring to class assignments I received about 25-30 years ago, this practice is probably well over due for revision and Vu Le is just the person to help start the conversation.
Vu Le lists a number of issues with these assignments. If you have generously participated in these exercises, you can probably identify with a number of them.
They are time-consuming
They are poorly coordinated
They stress nonprofit resources
They are usually not helpful
They are sometimes insulting
He expound on each of these with some detail. Read his post for a fuller explanation.
I have two colleagues who are providing feedback for a class which is conducting this sort of evaluation as a semester long project and they have each expressed frustrations similar to those listed above.
One of the issues Le raised that I hadn’t really encountered before, but obviously bears consideration,
They are usually not grounded in equity: Many students want projects at organizations led by Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, people with disabilities, immigrants and refugees, or other marginalized communities. But often they do not yet have the grounding in doing work in these communities without causing harm. Which means additional time and resources must be provided to coach the students and mitigate damage.
Of course, it must be acknowledge that university programs and especially the students often approach these projects with the best intentions. Le quotes Theresa Meyers, Chief of Staff at DC Central Kitchen,
The irony of it all is that society recognizes that nonprofits are understaffed and under-resourced which is part of the reason students are sent our way to ‘help’. [But] In our effort to support nonprofits, we are actually exacerbating the staffing inequities by forcing nonprofit leaders to also be unpaid professors.”
Le has a number of suggestions for improving the experience, which again, I briefly list here and he discusses in greater detail in his post.
Coordinate with nonprofits to figure out the best timing and types of projects:
Give plenty of advance notice
Build it into your budget to pay nonprofits
Make sure students do their research in advance
Have students do preemptive work on race, privilege, equity, diversity, inclusion, implicit bias, etc
Higher ed staff, build relationship with nonprofits
These are all good ideas, especially the one about reimbursing non-profit’s for their time, but I really like this one as a practical matter:
Collaborate on case studies: Often the projects are one-off, benefiting one student or one group of students. Think about more creative partnerships, such as working with nonprofits to create some case studies that multiple students can learn from and that can be used across many semesters.
I think Le envisioned case studies being used across multiple semesters as a way to avoid having to constantly impose upon non-profits. However, I think creating an evolving case study across multiple years in partnership with a single organization would answer many of the issues he mentioned: there would be advanced notice; a basis for advance research and awareness of race, inclusion, etc,; a well-developed relationship; and the capacity to budget funds for the non-profit. A multi-year project could employ a modular approach that made a deeper analysis of a specific area each semester rather than a superficial summary of the whole organization.
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