Master’s students help put organization on solid financial footing using experience they gained at Price
By Eric Ruble
A local nonprofit dedicated to helping low-income youth go to college is on secure financial footing thanks in large part to partnering with USC Price students. Educating Students Together (EST) received a number of substantial grants and brought in an annual total of $300,000 in 2021 – up from roughly $80,000 the year before. It expects that figure to grow past $600,000 in 2022.
Founded in 1987, EST brings low-income and first-generation students to university campuses for tours. It also helps them earn scholarships by teaching them how to create the strongest applications possible. They learn how to write admission essays, take SAT preparation courses and develop financial literacy skills.
Despite its noble mission, EST was in financial trouble in 2020. Dr. Yasmin Delahoussaye, EST’s co-founder and board treasurer, says the organization had to lay off its entire staff and was dependent on volunteers.
“We were on life support because of the pandemic. We were not getting a whole lot of donations in,” she said.
Delahoussaye spoke with Dr. Nicole Esparza, an associate professor at Price, and for the spring of 2021, EST was selected as one of several capstone projects for her class of Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management and Master of Public Administration students.
Taking it to the next level
“We have a nonprofit that is passionate and mission-driven, but needed more structure to help them move to the next level. We were excited to partner with them,” Esparza said.
EST’s principal struggle was earning enough grants and donations to stay afloat. The team of five USC Price students took several steps to rectify this.
First, the students created a strategic plan for EST to improve its scores on several charity-rating websites. Donors and foundations often use such sites to evaluate the legitimacy of a nonprofit before providing funding, so a high score is essential.
To up the score, the team reviewed the nonprofit’s financials and discovered a CPA firm did not properly convey EST’s information on IRS documents, which are critical to displaying a charity’s financial health.
MPA alumnus Victor Qiu, a member of the capstone team, says the Price course called Public Financial Management and Budgeting taught him how to analyze a budget.
“That came into practice when we had to look at finance and accountability for EST,” he said.
The students also helped EST build a customer relations management system to help the organization manage its data and connect with stakeholders more easily. It recently received a $32,000 grant from Microsoft to launch the system.
“The students in [Esparza’s] class helped us design it, and now, Microsoft is implementing it,” Delahoussaye said. “It is just an amazing tool.”
Additionally, the Price team worked with EST to boost its online presence – building its social media followings and improving its website. This included adding student and alumni testimonials to the site.
“Putting a face to that story is really impactful, especially to donors,” Qiu said.
Delahoussaye says Price students helped EST increase its Facebook following from about 500 users to 3,200.
“When you’re entrusted with something like that, it’s not low-stakes, because those are real people that are getting real help,” said Shalei Heflin, another member of the capstone team and an alumna in Master in Nonprofit Leadership and Management program
The master’s students also recommended EST create an impact report to show its real-world results. This allowed the nonprofit to gain new traction among donors and foundations.
“Shortly after we published the impact report, we got a call from one of our volunteers. They read the report and they donated 50 shares of Tesla stock,” Delahoussaye said. The shares were worth roughly $35,000 at the time and have since increased in value.
Combined, the students’ recommendations helped EST hit its annual budget goal earlier than ever.
“Moving forward, it strengthens us because we can add more staff and we can expand our services to students,” Delahoussaye said.
The success translated directly into positive outcomes for EST’s students. Last year, 35 of them received more than $2 million in total scholarships. This year, 28 seniors have received a total of $3.2 million.
“They have stories of resiliency – things that they’ve had to overcome – that many of us have never faced in our lives,” Delahoussaye said.
She says the Price team’s work has allowed EST to focus on moving its mission forward.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to [the capstone] class.”
Heflin and Qiu produced the capstone alongside Mark Camarena, Lauren Olson and Christina Ruiz.