Concordia’s Community Service Initiative connects business students with non-profits to generate grassroots solutions
Dave McKenzie is often seen dashing from one community organization to another, nurturing connections with leaders on the ground.
“I see him driving down the streets of Pointe-Saint-Charles because he’s going to visit another organization, and I’m thinking, how the heck does he know them?” says Fiona Crossling, former executive director of Share the Warmth, a nonprofit that focuses on food security, employment training and child and youth development.
“He goes out and personally knows every organization,” adds Crossling, who is now the ED of the homelessness-focused charity Accueil Bonneau.
McKenzie is the coordinator of the MBA Community Service Initiative (CSI), which he founded in 2008. The initiative is embedded in Concordia’s John Molson School of Business and creates opportunities for experiential learning by connecting faculty resources to the needs of the wider community.
As pressures on resource-strapped community organizations intensify, CSI resists the conceit that data alone can drive decision-making. Instead, the initiative helps ensure that agility-boosting business techniques are paired with a recognition of communities as experts on their own needs.
Community groups that host researchers or students bear a cost in time and energy, yet universities have sometimes failed to consider their institutional footprint.
“The community says we gave up all this time, we provided all the data, but what did we get?” says McKenzie. “So, the academy is making a real conscious effort to not do that.”
CSI is one facet in Concordia’s push to be a leader in community engagement. McKenzie oversees the initiative’s role in this effort by focusing its work around community-identified needs.
“How can we really help, and what do they want us to do?” says McKenzie. “It’s a different entry point from how it used to be.”
McKenzie recalls an experience with the Donald Berman UP House, a charity committed to supporting people who live with mental illness. The organization had wanted to attract new donors and volunteers. In response, McKenzie sent a team of students to develop a marketing and communications plan, but he insisted they first spend two weeks immersing themselves in the organization’s work.
“Don’t go and hide in the corner with your laptop,” he told them. As a result, the students got to know staff but also many of the people served by the organization.
“The students became part of the whole thing. And what that did, it built up such trust,” McKenzie explains. “You should see the stuff they came up with. If you sent a marketing company in there, they could not come up with that because they wouldn’t be engaging with the members.”
This relationship-driven approach has many benefits. At Share the Warmth, some particularly committed JMSB students have continued as volunteers doing other kinds of work.
“The organization has had kids decide not to drop out because of a university student tutor,” Crossling notes.
This reflects another mutual benefit of Concordia’s engagement with the community — that it makes the university more accessible and opens pathways for passionate young people who may otherwise feel shut out of it.
McKenzie recalls hosting a group of disadvantaged youth at JMSB for the Young CEO Program, another initiative in which he’s involved.
“They said, ‘You know, Dave, we stand in front of that building every day and take the bus. And we never knew that we could come inside.’”
“Many times, I’m asked to be a reference, and I’m called every time,” McKenzie says. “Even the headhunters have this perception that students are painting walls and answering the phone.”
He takes pride in the fact that participants who apply their budding expertise get much more out of their experience than a resume bullet point.
Rather than do busywork, students use their knowledge to develop marketing and communications plans, growth strategies, strategic plans for fundraising and more in an arrangement that benefits everyone involved.
McKenzie believes that at a time when nearly anything we need to know is at our fingertips, experiential learning is more important than ever. Business classes often teach from real-world cases, but CSI enables students to actually participate in finding real-world solutions.
Those who help at Share the Warmth, for example, get the chance to learn about food security alongside experts in that organization’s leadership.
“That’s real life. That’s not a case,” says McKenzie. “This is somebody who’s been doing this, who’s down here, who you can follow up with. That’s really powerful.”
Students also get to discover the limits of their tools, informing a more well-rounded perspective. This could help them better understand how to deploy their knowledge effectively.
Crossling, who herself has a business background, says she evolved to understand that the unique complexities of the community sector mean business solutions are not enough.
“When students go to Share the Warmth, they often are awakened to the fact that social issues are not fixable by a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis,” says Crossling. “These analyses are very helpful, and we should all do them, but there are fundamental injustices at the core of society that mean that not everybody is treated equally.”
In addition to matching organizations with students, the initiative helps leaders of community organizations connect to one another through an offshoot called the CSI Roundtable. Its members — about 25 executive directors from a cross-section of nonprofits — come together five or six times a year to discuss problems and solutions in their sector.
“We like to work together because Dave can bring the resources of the university,” says Crossling. “The members can bring our real needs and we can say, no, that is not our need, that doesn’t speak to us, but this does. It’s a really honest place.”
Concordia graduate students participate in the discussions and put together notes and strategies. Crossling believes the space the roundtable creates for leaders to share insights and build relationships strengthens Montreal’s community sector as a whole.
McKenzie points to the 5 Days for the Homeless campaign — for which students sleep outside to raise money for shelters — as an example of business students leading an initiative for social change.
Founded by students at the Alberta School of Business, Concordia’s iteration of the annual campaign has been led by JMSB students for more than 10 years.
“Those are all business students who started that,” says McKenzie. “But the perception has always been it’s the arts students.”
McKenzie has noticed a growing respect between disciplines. Coming from the business school, he says he used to surprise people in interdisciplinary meetings with his grasp of what matters in community work.
When McKenzie founded CSI, he learned from recruiters that a high proportion of MBA candidates did not intend to work in the corporate sector. While he attributes some of that to the 2008 economic collapse, he says it was the beginning of a big shift.
“Even the ones who wanted to work in the corporate sector also wanted a chance to give back to society, and the recruiters hadn’t seen that,” he says. “Especially the younger people — they are working from a sense of purpose.”
Crossling agrees. “Businesspeople, like anybody else, they’re human beings,” she says. “They want to have an impact in their communities, and they have an approach for doing that.”