The Caring Place Capstone Project
R. Bryant Hill
Southwestern seniors apply business sense to give back to the community
A community should want to see that every member is cared for, notes Southwestern student Aaron Mutnick 05. In fact, he says that is the most important thing he learned in Associate Professor Don Parks Strategic Management Business Capstone.
This spring, Mutnick and seven other Southwestern students were fortunate enough to discover that sometimes less really is more. Typically, Parks has nearly 20 students enrolled in his Strategic Management class, and he has them run computer-simulated businesses in competition with other student teams. Parks says, It is very valuable in illustrating individual business concepts and the interaction of many concepts simultaneously. It gives students an opportunity to learn in a different way. In educational theory terms (e.g., Blooms taxonomy), learning occurs at a higher level.
This spring, Parks had only eight students enrolled in the coursenot enough to run the computer simulation. Yet, he still wanted to employ experiential learning in the class, so Parks discussed alternatives with Suzy Pukys, coordinator of volunteer resources and community-based learning at Southwestern.
After some discussion, and checking with multiple agencies, I decided The Caring Place project offered the best fit with course objectives.
Those objectives included: developing an understanding of current concepts in strategic management, understanding the role of top management, integrating functional theories into a broad, organizational point of view and developing problem-solving ability (particularly unstructured problems) in case analysis.
Senior Rachel Daugherty 05 thought The Caring Place was an especially important opportunity. She explains, It was great to work for a socially conscious organization. Im learning so much about corporations and bad business practices right now that it was very refreshing to get real-life experience with a nonprofit.
The students in Parks Strategic Management class declared themselves the Elite Eight Consulting Team (EECT) and set out to perform a strategic business analysis of The Caring Place and, based on that analysis, offer suggestions and recommendations to enhance its performance. In the end, EECTs Caring Place case study made recommendations for an improved mission statement, proactive programming and community involvement, abbreviated MPC.
The Caring Place was founded in 1985 and originally located in what used to be a slaughterhouse on Eighth Street in Georgetown. According to its mission statement, The Caring Place is to carry out a community-wide mission of churches, organizations and individuals serving human needs in the City of Georgetown and northern Williamson County.
EECTs organizational analysis found that The Caring Place operates two distinct business unitsa thrift store and a client services office. The thrift store, Fabulous Finds, is staffed by volunteers and offers a food pantry, as well as inexpensive clothing and household items. The thrift store is stocked with community donations and generates more than $400,000 annually. This income, in combination with donations and grants, gives The Caring Place the financial flexibility to provide an array of client services to the needy of Georgetown and northern Williamson County. The students study found that The Caring Place has implemented programs to provide case management, counseling, emergency financial assistance, rental and utility assistance and basic household staples. Paid professionals, rather than volunteers, staff The Caring Places client services office.
Last year, The Caring Place hired Holly Doggett as executive director. She faced the immediate challenge of resolving the issue of repeat clients. While The Caring Place planned to continue to help clients meet emergency financial needs, a significant number of repeat clients would prove a financial burden in the long-term as the organization faced greater financial strain from an increasing client basethanks in large part to the explosive growth of Williamson Countyand the larger paid staff necessary for providing case management. Says EECT, According to The Caring Place, approximately 6,700 families were served in 1999, which consisted of more than 24,000 individuals. By 2003, these numbers had jumped to 10,700 families and 37,500 individuals. The Caring Place began testing several programs designed to get clients to the point of long-term financial self-sufficiency. EECT found, however, that inaccurate record keeping likely resulted in inflated client numbers.
Despite the overestimation of clients served, the Southwestern students analysis echoed the thinking of The Caring Place leadership and called for implementing programs aimed at reducing repeat client traffic. To address this and other needs evolving at The Caring Place, EECT recommended a change of mission statement, the fine-tuning of several programs and a strategy for increasing community involvement with the organization. EECT suggested the following in an effort to update the mission statement:
The Caring Place is a proactive community-orientated organization assisting citizens with temporary needs and helping them progress towards independent and self-sufficient living.
Doggett notes, They offered our Board of Directors a revised mission statement that better reflects the organization and its work today. This proposed mission statement is under review by the Board and will be discussed and perhaps adopted.
EECTs proactive programming proposals included extension of The Caring Places Learn & Earn program. Currently, clients participating in this program take courses to help them become financially independent and self-sufficient and earn rewards for maintaining near-perfect attendance over an eight-week session. EECT called for developing a series of eight-week programs, each of which has its own reward at the completion of the session. This would create short-term goals for clients while they worked toward long-term benefits.
The students also suggested new program elements for children of The Caring Place clients. According to their case analysis, A proactive approach to self-sufficiency must not only incorporate the current household decision makers, but those who can affect and are affected by decisions. High-school-age dependents of families and individuals receiving aid from The Caring Place must be incorporated into the individual long-term self-sufficiency plan.
EECT advised a Bring With program to encourage clients to bring their high-school-age dependents with them to some or all of the Learn & Earn classes. The team also advocated an Education Seminar directed specifically at young people. They noted, The younger generations related to or in the households of The Caring Places clients are pivotal to meeting long-term self-sufficiency goals. If younger generations can see the importance of self-sufficiency, it may decrease their dependence on services like The Caring Place.
The Caring Place responded very favorably to the EECT analysis. The students were a wonderful source of information and inspiration, Doggett says. It was obvious how much effort went into the project. I think the staff was impressed with the scope of the project and with the level of detail they were able to provide. It certainly showed our organization that we have much to gain in working with the students of Southwestern and will encourage us to pursue new opportunities with the University.
The students involved in this Capstone project also benefited greatly from their work with The Caring Place. Daugherty, for example, says, I learned that no textbook, case analysis or simulation games can ever beat real-life experience. It was great to learn that not everything fits into textbook theories and diagrams. We used our business knowledge and then learned how to tweak and adapt new ideas to fit the situation.
Fellow team member Kathryn Iribarren 05 echoes this sentiment. It really introduced us to a real-world situation in which what we were learning and doing affected a real organization. I believe this project, more than anything else I have done in my years at Southwestern University, illustrated a real situation I may be faced with in my future business career. Experience like that is priceless, she says.
Bill McKnight 05, also part of EECT, gained a sense of the reach and import that his knowledge could have when applied to community issues. Community-based learning opportunities show students that what they do really does have an impact on others, and it inspires them to work harder than they would otherwise. In this project, we knew right from the start that our decisions could affect hundreds, if not thousands, of people. We had to do the very best job that we could, he states.
Most importantly, the students were able to take ownership of the project and direct their learning experience in a way that made the work particularly meaningful. Shea Richardson 05 explains, The creative problem solving and self-direction we had cannot be regenerated in a classroom. We developed the vision and the goals for our project, defined our individual roles and determined how we would accomplish these goals on our own initiative. You can use teamwork in a classroom, but this project really taught us how to operate a self-directed work team better than any other structured assignment.