By Matthew Kredell
Master of Public Administration students at USC Price cap off their degrees with a capstone project that makes a real-world impact. For one group of recent graduates, the stakes were even higher than usual. The client didn’t just want suggestions on how to improve, but on how their small nonprofit could survive. The students answered the call, and their work for the Colorado Institute of Music won the 2020 Haynes Award as the outstanding capstone project of the year.
Price Students Create a New Roadmap
“To make an impact with this small nonprofit while using what we learned in the program was awesome,” said Milan Smith, one of the four students to work on the capstone. “It’s exciting that the work we did got the Haynes Award. Arts often don’t get the recognition they deserve in the nonprofit sphere, as other issues are more in the forefront when you think about nonprofit management.”
The Colorado Institute of Music aims to educate young children in music. The goal isn’t to prepare them to be professional musicians but to enhance their life and social skills with music.
But after more than two decades serving Colorado children, the institute nearly folded when the long-time executive director retired. After a year break, Mark Biesterfeld and his wife, Leah Creek Biesterfeld, who were two teachers in the program, stepped in to save the institute in 2019.
They found themselves with a daunting task. The institute had been running for years on the basic structure of student enrollment fees brought in by the group’s annual weeklong music retreat, which paid for the instructors and other costs. The Biesterfelds wanted to make the institute more sustainable and less reliant on student fees, but they had no experience running a nonprofit.
USC Price associate professor John Calanni heard about the problem because his daughter is on the same soccer team with the Biesterfelds’ daughter, and he thought USC Price MPA students could help.
“It is a client unlike any other we’ve seen in the program,” Calanni said. “They knew that our students could help bridge the gap in their outreach efforts and help to ensure that their organization survived to serve another kid, through music, for another year.”
Smith was joined on the MPA team by Blanca Gavino Arvizu, Trey de la Pena and Celso Templo Jr. The students conducted a literature review, synthesized best practices from 60 comparable organizations and conducted interviews with four executives at similarly situated nonprofits.
“What was interesting to us about the project is that we were in a place not just to suggest improvements but reinvent their marketing and financial strategies,” Smith said. “It wasn’t about building off something existing but transforming the institute to be something more efficient.”
Recommendations made by the capstone group in their 140-page report included fundraising strategies, nonprofit marketing, how to keep donors engaged, use of social media and technology, and creating different revenue streams.
“As I went through the program, I got good grades but wondered if I was capable of doing the real work with this degree,” Smith said. “The capstone really put that all together and showed we have an understanding of how to do this work. The client was thrilled with the work we did, and that affirmed we were able to apply what we learned into practice and make a real impact.”
The institute had to cancel its annual summer event in 2020 because of COVID-19, but the Biesterfelds see the report as a road map for how the institute will continue and grow in future years.
“I was completely blown away by the quality, thoroughness and thoughtfulness that was put into the report,” Mark Biesterfeld said. “Knowing what we need to do is half the battle. COVID threw us a curveball, but I do think this will help us survive without question.”
Honorable Mention Focuses on Homelessness
The Haynes Award honorable mention capstone also helped a nonprofit develop a strategic plan. Jennifer Hsu, Kate Kelly, John Rogers and Nita Talwar worked with St. Patrick’s Center in Wilmington, Del., to develop a formal plan for its homeless respite center.
It’s a place that people experiencing homelessness can come into during the day to get out of the weather and receive a few basic services. The students were tasked with coming up with ideas that the center could use to help people get out of homelessness.
The students evaluated the organization – its past work, goals and mission – and created a strategic plan to improve existing services and add new ones based on a thorough literature review, best practice research and expert interviews.
“The group put together an absolutely amazing package of material that has been used to bolster homeless and near-homeless programming and grant proposals,” said Zachary Ryan, a USC Price alumnus who served as the client contact. “Our central values are to provide services with respect and dignity, and the research team identified some language and practices that would enhance our hospitality and welcoming.”
“COVID-19 has derailed or altered the delivery of some of these services, but it is a blessing in disguise because we are able to revamp our services and approach to better align with the findings and recommendations of the team.”
Kelly said she had taken a class on strategic planning at USC Price the previous semester and jumped at the chance to get the experience creating one for a real-world center.
The students produced recommendations for the short term, midterm and long term.
“We looked at the short term and what the client could do without straining resources, then midrange suggestions require a little more thought, resources and time, and things really need to be fleshed out and planned for to reach the long-term plans,” Kelly said. “I like that we gave suggestions for what they can do quickly and what will take a little more strategy to get done.”
USC Price associate professor Tara Blanc, the project’s faculty advisor, believes the student research would be helpful to many centers providing homeless services.
“It was an opportunity for these students to have a real impact on an area facing every single municipality in the nation,” Blanc said. “Certainly, any homeless respite around the country can take a look at this and get some useful ideas.”
The capstones submitted by MPA students this year were so good that, for the first time, the committee decided to award a third-place winner. Caden Cerveris, Jorge Tapia, Yuqi Wei and Tianxue Zhang won for their evaluation of U.S. water quality trading programs.