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Haskayne students help themselves by helping others

MBA students acting as volunteer consultants tackle not-for-profits' real-life problems
May 8, 2017

After exhausting all the challenges available to him at a project in India to build the world’s tallest statue, Anish Gogate put his skills to work helping a Calgary charity.

“There were a lot of aspects to it that were pretty interesting,” says Gogate, referring to his work with the Calgary Urban Project Society (CUPS). “They are not there for the money. They are there to help everyone.”

He was part of a team of five MBA students from the Haskayne School of Business who acted as unpaid consultants for CUPS, which aims to ease poverty and homelessness in the city. The not-for-profit organization is looking for better ways to connect with potential financial donors at a time when fundraising in Alberta has been hit by the recent economic downturn.

MBA studies help keep student's spark alive

Gogate was one of the first people involved with India’s 182-metre Statue of Unity, which will be several times the height of the Statue of Liberty when it is completed in 2018. But he eventually found his role in the project’s administration to be too monotonous, leading him to decide to seek his MBA at Haskayne “to keep my spark alive,” he says.

As part of their education, such students get a chance to volunteer as consultants with a wide range of businesses and organizations, giving them hands-on experience with real-life problems. From December to April, Gogate and his teammates learned about CUPS’ multi-pronged approach to tackling the complex, interlocking causes behind poverty and homelessness.

The society is on track to serve about 10,000 people this year, an increase of about 1,000 from last year, says Mina Demian, grants proposal manager for CUPS. “At least 44 per cent of people who come through our doors indicate they had some kind of trauma growing up, so that means neglect or abuse as children, including sexual abuse,” he says.

As part of a joint 10-year study with the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Nursing, CUPS helped determine that without proper interventions, the stress from such trauma — often called “toxic stress” — can affect children’s ability to learn by disrupting the cognitive development of their brains, says Demian. “It can also cause other problems later on in life, such as self-medicating.” 

Students recommend explaining CUPS' mission to increase donations

Because such issues often involve parents as well as children, CUPS tackles poverty and homelessness through a two-generational approach that not only includes early childhood education, but also parenting programs. This ensures kids are on par with the national average by the time they reach Grade 1, and their parents have access to housing and social services as needed.

But finding funders who can support CUPS’ interdisciplinary team makes it harder for it to get all the money it needs, says Demian, adding the charity requires about $14 million per year. “Whenever we talk about health, education and housing as being part of one piece, specifically for those who are living in poverty, not a lot of people get that,” he says.

The MBA students were partly brought in to help the society better explain its mission to potential donors. Their proposals not only included more frequent posts on social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, but also using them to convey the actual stories of people who have been helped by CUPS, says Demian.

These could be in their own words, providing an effective, low-cost way to reach potential donors, he says. “I think it would be great to be able to give a voice to those who are suffering.”

MBA student Layne Armstrong found her involvement with CUPS to be an invaluable experience. “It’s a real-world situation where you’re trying to figure out ways to earn money, and the money is not easy to come by,” says Armstrong, who previously worked in sales and management in Calgary’s wine retail industry. “It’s arguably almost more challenging for not-for-profits to find funds for their programs than it is for businesses to raise capital.”

'Living laboratory' allows researchers to work in real-life clinical situations

Haskayne students also helped the University of Calgary’s Ward of the 21st Century Program (W21C), which aims to improve care in the health system. The program is based in the Cumming School of Medicine’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health, as well as in Alberta Health Services.

Under the initiative, research is focused on emerging medical technologies and new approaches to the delivery of care. The goal is to improve the design of devices, systems, tasks, procedures and environments to make them safer, easier, and more comfortable for both patients and care providers.

Part of the program involves a hospital unit at the Foothills Medical Centre. The patient care ward has been described as a living laboratory, allowing researchers to work in real-life clinical situations.

The nearby Foothills campus of the university contains the program’s other space, the Research and Innovation Centre. By bringing together teams of experts from many disciplines, W21C partly aims to help researchers and industry partners develop medical technologies with the potential for commercialization.

“The management of W21C is addressing some very interesting strategic issues for the next three to five years, including how the organization can become more financially sustainable,” says Ayesha Malhotra, a senior instructor at Haskayne.

W21C sees different perspectives as exciting

After working with the program since mid-January, eight groups of MBA students totalling 40 people recently presented separate proposals, says Malhotra. One group suggested the program form a separate for-profit subsidiary in a joint venture with the university to help commercialize medical technologies.

W21C currently only works on a cost recovery basis and “doesn’t take an equity stake in its commercial clients, so they may be able to get royalties or a small stake in these types of entrepreneurial projects if they come to fruition,” says Malhotra.

But most students believed W21C should keep its current financial structure, she says. “That was interesting,” says Malhotra. “These are business students, but they saw this organization might also be perceived as less independent if it starts taking a stake in projects.”

It is always “exciting to have a different perspective on the strategic direction of our program,” says Jill de Grood, director of W21C. “The students identified a number of areas that we will explore in moving the program forward.”

Such experiences are a vital part of what Haskayne offers its MBA students, says Malhotra. “When you consult with a real client, you get to really understand the issues from the ground up,” she says. “It’s not just theory.”

Haskayne students acted as unpaid consultants for the Calgary Urban Project Society (CUPS). From left: Students Shweta Nath and Layne Armstrong; Kevin Farnell, donor relations co-ordinator at CUPS; Mina Demain, grant proposal manager at CUPS; and students Anish Gogate, Ninoy Ahmed, and Balaji (Bala) ManiBhaskar.

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