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In the Act of Service: social entrepreneurship in the classroom

November 18, 2014, 3:27 pm

As a follow-up to last week’s post I want to tell the story of one of my colleagues. We talk occasionally about social entrepreneurship and I thought it might be helpful to explore that context through a library instruction effort.

“There will be 50 groups selling lemonade. They’ll be competing to see who can make the most money.”

I was instantly intrigued by this assignment. I imagined clusters of students hawking lemonade all across campus. The lemonade stand represents the classic business model, challenging students to be creative. When everyone is literally selling the same product you have to think differently to gain attention. This is how one of our librarians first presented this course to me and I was curious to see what would happen.

The Context
Our business librarian, Ellen Krupar, served an important instructional role within this course. Since she herself had co-founded a non-profit organization, she could speak from experience. Ellen was invited to teach two sessions: one on analyzing for-profit corporations and the second on analyzing nonprofits. Her approach:

“The session on for-profit corporations was fairly straight-forward, since it is a simple matter to measure profits and losses. For the nonprofit session, I decided to look beyond the simple quantification of the amount that a nonprofit raised, and instead examined the difference in the world that the nonprofit was doing.”

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Ellen and others helping Micah’s Backpack

Ellen used a local nonprofit as a case study to make her point. While the organization hosts events to raise money, she choose to focus instead was on the amount of food they could make available. The intention was to assess impact based on meals provided, rather than dollars collected. Reframing this sense of value was different for many students.

500 freshmen
This course is part of Virginia Tech’s First Year Experiences program. Five hundred freshmen learning the basics of business were also thrown into operating a small social enterprise. Their lemonade stands were more than just an assignment, but an opportunity to raise funds for local charities.

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One of the student lemonade stands.

I later found out that many of the students didn’t charge for the lemonade, but only accepted donations. This adds another wrinkle to the challenge: creating customers. One of the interesting aspects of this project was that it allows students to immediately apply business concepts they learn in the classroom within a real world context.

One difficulty that emerged: permits. My vision of campus sidewalks lined with lemonade stands never came to fruition. While collectively the class raised over $11,000, they found that it was easier to set up their storefronts off campus at places like grocery stores. On campus locations were not easily available. The assignment was more than just about selling product or competing against others, it was also about confronting  restrictions and  limitations, and jumping through the hoops of doing business.

Problems with “Service”
When Ellen was teaching the students, she felt it was critical to connect fundraising with the mission and outcome of the cause. “Often times doing service is sold to students as something that looks good on their applications or resumes.” She felt that this notion obscures the idea that community service should be explained on the basis of improving the community.

Another part of it is that service is often promoted as fun. Ellen used the example of the Color Me Rad 5K Run as an example. “People are more focused on the entertainment of throwing colors, rather than connecting it with the needs of the Special Olympics. Of course, community service can be fun, but this approach obscures the purpose and reduces the possibility that students would engage for its own sake.”

A final aspect: students are volunteered or volun-told, such as the instance of this course. They have no choice but to performance the service in order to receive a good grade. “Without the connection to the importance of what the money raised would do, students would be justified in treating it as a regular assignment to be completed with competence but not with passion.”

This is something Ellen worked at: helping students recognize that they were not just raising money for charity, but that their efforts would directly impact people in their community.

One of the challenges that many nonprofits face is explaining what they do and how they help people… in language that is easy to understand. “Without being able to make a case to others about the needs in the community that nonprofits address, there will always be a translation problem between those who can help and those who need help. Without the knowledge of what needs are out there and how they can help, a student will not understand the purpose of their actions.”

I want to thank Ellen for sharing her thoughts. This is a good example of teaching beyond the tools and delivering direct context that is essential to the learning experience.

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