Taking Students From Classroom to Community

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Wednesday, January 17, 2024
By Anna Fountain Clark
Photo by iStock/SDI Productions
We already teach practical business skills to nonprofit leaders—we also should integrate community-focused values into our traditional business programs.
  • Over the past few years, business education has been transitioning away from outdated views that measure business success in terms of profit.
  • As part of this transition, we must infuse ideas such as altruism, justice, and equity into our teaching of business skills, just as we infuse business skills into our teaching of nonprofit management.
  • At Drake University, we engage in dialogue about societal impact and integrate service-based projects across multiple courses, with the aim of raising students’ awareness of how they can use their business skills for the public benefit.


Historically, business education was framed as a pragmatic, discipline-based endeavor focused on training future business leaders that success was a zero-sum effort. In this context, business students learned that their future role as leaders was to help organizations gain consumers, grow market share, and achieve market supremacy—to the point of ubiquity. Profits equaled success, and those profits should be shared only with those who helped generate them. Within this context, the business world—and, thus, business education—was traditionally presented as individualistic in nature.

It’s no wonder, then, that business schools have infrequently pursued marketplace success with community or societal benefit in mind. And it’s no wonder that AACSB and other accreditors, business school administrators and educators, and the marketplace have begun a concerted effort to grow past this outdated model.

So, as educators who are developing the next generation of leaders, how do we evolve beyond this conventional zero-sum mindset? How do we transition away from outdated practices rooted in hierarchy, authority, and transactional relationships, and toward something, for lack of a better word, greater?

Let’s start the conversation by considering one approach that might take us another step in this direction. As business educators, we often teach nonprofit leaders to balance voluntarism and advocacy with the professional competencies they need to generate revenue.

But what if we also did the reverse? What if we fused the collectivism and values found in nonprofit organizations—such as altruism, responsiveness, justice, equity, and caritas—with skills we already teach? What if, in every student’s business skill set, we also included the community-minded, entrepreneurial spirit that drives the founders of nonprofit startups and leaders of social enterprises to generate societal benefit?

In other words, what if we helped students develop not just the business skills for success, but the business skills for impact?

Opportunities to Achieve Impact

At Drake University’s Zimpleman College of Business in Des Moines, Iowa, we help students build both skill sets. Whether through course projects or the activities of clubs and other affiliations, we link our students to the community around them. We want to ensure that they have opportunities to use their newly acquired business skills to achieve outcomes with public benefit.

With this in mind, our faculty incorporate conversations about business ethics and environmental sustainability into myriad courses across multiple majors. Additionally, we expose students to a community-minded view of business in several other deliberate ways: 

Service-based learning projects. Our faculty habitually design their courses to incorporate service-learning projects in which students help startup nonprofits develop strategic plans, assist established nonprofits in making programmatic changes, and help local organizations plan and execute fundraising efforts. Students are evaluated based on how well they apply key course concepts and tools and whether they communicate their recommendations in a professional manner.

In many cases, students have worked on community-focused projects in other contexts, such as in their activities with campus clubs. But where many club-based activities focus more narrowly on volunteering and service, course-based projects test students’ comprehension of business skills they have learned and show them how they can use their business skills to provide social benefit.   

An impact honor roll. In 2021, we launched the Dean’s Honor Roll for Social Impact, which recognizes students who extensively volunteer in community organizations. As of early 2023, the 44 students who had been honored so far together had generated approximately 1,000 hours of community impact. In fact, the 16 students selected in early 2023 collectively contributed more than 500 hours of community impact (an average of 30 hours each). Students can include their honor roll recognition on their résumés to indicate to employers both the esteem in which the college holds them and their commitment to social impact.

Where many club-based activities focus more narrowly on volunteering and service, course-based projects show students how they can use their business skills to provide social benefit.

A dedicated course with a volunteer requirement. The most recent example of our effort to expand opportunities for students to engage with social benefit organizations is our semesterlong undergraduate course on nonprofit management and leadership. With a maximum enrollment of 25 to 30 students, depending on space availability, this course has been at or near that capacity each time it has been offered.

The course interweaves impact-focused concepts into more technical and pragmatic topics, such as leadership, marketing, human resources management, and other key business functions. Throughout the semester, students examine the underlying economic, cultural, and systemic causes of social ills, as well as explore the values that drive significant social change. They learn the importance of inspiring collective action and connecting an organization’s daily activities with its overarching mission, vision, and values.

Over the semester, students also must volunteer at least four hours with community nonprofits of their choice, depending on their interests and schedules. However, many students exceed this requirement—in all, students contribute more than 100 hours during the semester to community benefit.

They complete their volunteer hours on evenings and weekends or during semester breaks and log their hours on the university’s community engagement platform, DUGood. They also are required to maintain journals, in which they reflect on their experiences and analyze the nonprofits’ activities relative to the concepts they have learned in class. They submit their journals after their volunteer projects are complete.

In their journal entries, students often highlight connections between their volunteering experiences and traditional business problems. They might write about the challenge of needing to use a foreign language in a client-facing role, the need to tap their written communication skills in a grant-writing role, or their newfound appreciation of the value of diversity in the workforce.

By pairing coursework with volunteer work, the course encourages students to discover organically the professional and personal value they can give back to the community. In their reflections, students often express how much they appreciated that the course gave them the opportunity to contribute to something bigger than themselves.

Student-led efforts. Students also have taken the lead in finding meaningful ways to apply their business skills. For instance, in 2019, a small group of undergraduate students set out to provide pro bono services to local nonprofits. Eventually, they formed the Drake Nonprofit Consulting Club, a student-led and faculty-sponsored organization dedicated to helping local nonprofits build their operational capacity and expand their reach in the community.

Acting as a consulting team, the club now has a membership of ten students and can serve two organizations at any given time (with teams of five students each). Each academic year, the club undertakes several projects to help nonprofits improve their operations, fundraising, marketing, and other key functions. The students already have clients lined up for the upcoming semester and beyond.

Linking Business Skills to Values

Through these activities, students develop leadership skills focused on connecting communities, effecting social change, and generating collective benefit. With their expanded skill sets, they now will graduate with the ability to do the following:

View problems across disciplines. Students learn that complex problems require breaking down traditional disciplinary boundaries. They know how to build connections across these boundaries, why problems persist, and how they can be solved.

Understand complex contexts. Students recognize that businesses do not operate in a vacuum and that leaders can’t make good decisions in one. They realize that economic obstacles and workplace issues find their roots in social, cultural, and environmental problems, and that, if left unaddressed, these problems only create new and bigger headaches down the road.

In our programs, we must couple “what we do and how we do it” with “why it matters.”

Engage in perspective-taking. Our learning ecosystem offers students the chance to gain perspective on others’ experiences and view their business skills through the lenses of equity and inclusion, sustainability, and social benefit.

Think beyond the bottom line. As they grow more aware of how they can apply their skills in different organizational and social contexts, students refine and redefine the meaning of success. They discover that business is not just about the bottom line. Yes, outputs and earnings are important, but broader outcomes matter, too. Students are becoming responsible and inclusive business leaders who will work to benefit those inside and outside of the enterprise.

Reimagine the role values play in business. Many early-career professionals are seeking a match between their own values and those of their employers. Because we provide students with venues to explore organizations committed to broader social benefits, students have chances to identify their own values and those of the organizations for which they might work in the future. Furthermore, service-focused coursework and clubs offer students tangible evidence that, by coupling their values with their skills, they can achieve both professional success and personal fulfillment.

Private Endeavors Can Lead to Public Good

Gone are the days when the world could turn to government or nonprofit organizations and expect robust solutions to our wicked problems. The vastness and diversity of our social ills require new approaches and deeper pockets. These will be found not in the halls of government or the boardrooms of NGOs, but in the private economy.

Luckily, today’s students demand more from higher education than classroom instruction and internships. They want to learn how to make an impact and to produce sustainable outcomes; they want to do well for themselves and their families while doing good in their communities.

Given the struggles the world faces, we must be grateful for this young generation’s commitment to societal impact. And as educators, we owe them an outright, institutional commitment to building their capacities for social change, their community connections, and their awareness of the world around them. We must provide them with boots-on-the-ground experience with community nonprofit organizations as part of our curricula.

In short, in our programs, we must couple “what we do and how we do it” with “why it matters.”

In doing so, we achieve multiple objectives. We empower fledgling business leaders to see beyond the standard bottom line and to pursue both private and public benefit. We help them recognize that their success is intrinsically tied to the quality of their relationships, the connections they build, and the impacts they produce. And we equip them not just with the technical proficiencies they’ll need as future business leaders, but with the will to use their business skills as forces for good.

Anna Fountain Clark
Assistant Professor of Public Administration, Zimpleman College of Business, Drake University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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