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The inside of the Courage Center

Carlson School students helped the 75-year-old Courage Center generate profits from off-season rentals of its camp facilities.

With honors

In Professor Bob Ruekert's undergraduate honors class, Carlson School seniors are putting their business skills to work for nonprofits

April 7, 2006

Last fall, Carlson undergraduates gave back to the community in a capstone honors class taught by Bob Ruekert. The students used their business skills to problem-solve for service organizations large and small, new and established, well-funded, and struggling. "In this instance, doing good was a byproduct of learning," says Ruekert, who is also associate dean of Undergraduate programs.

Adam Gruenke, Ruth Olsen, and Laura Thorson worked on a project for Courage Center, a rehabilitation and resource center that has provided services and advocacy for people with physical disabilities for more than 75 years. The organization is famous for its summer programs at Camp Courage in Maple Lake, 50 miles west of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. During the off-season, the camp facilities serve as a retreat center for various organizations, university groups, and corporations. That's where the Carlson students came in: they performed a "break-even analysis" to evaluate making the off-season rentals as profitable as possible.

"With the current challenges facing non-profit organizations, [the students'] enthusiasm and commitment to the project brought sound results that are being incorporated into the restructuring of the off-season retreat business at Camp Courage," says the Courage Center's Kurt Wiger. "Their efforts were invaluable and greatly appreciated."

The students recommended shifting the rental structure from per building to per person and improving the catering services at a time when running a full cafeteria is financially unfeasible. The profits would help Courage support its summer programming. "Although we weren't working with the community that Courage serves, we knew that our work would ultimately benefit them," says Thorson.

Kurt Wiger, the Courage Center's coordinator of volunteers and interns as well as the project manager of the off-season rental initiative, was impressed by the students' work. "With the current challenges facing non-profit organizations, Adam, Laura, and Ruth's enthusiasm and commitment to the project brought sound results that are being incorporated into the restructuring of the off-season retreat business at Camp Courage," he says. "Their efforts were invaluable and greatly appreciated."

Hai Bo Ma, Lisa Ofstedal, and Tim Christiansen worked with the Foundation for Immigrant Resources and Education (FIRE). The 20-month-old organization has a skeleton staff, a tiny budget, and a compelling mission: helping newcomers to the United States to learn English. The organization offers math, English as a second language, and high school equivalency courses, as well as day care that integrates child literacy. "By working with a small organization, I felt I could make a greater impact than I could in a more established organization," says Ostedal.

The students helped prepare financial information that will allow FIRE to file for nonprofit status, enabling the barely-funded organization to apply for grants. Among other accounting assistance, the students standardized the accounting procedures using an affordable, flexible software that they purchased on eBay. "I'm amazed at what they can achieve," says Ma. FIRE's mission and the need for its services sparked continuing commitment from the Carlson School team. Since graduating in December, Ostedal and Ma have continued their involvement (upon graduation, Christenson moved out of state). "Right now, the challenge is pulling all of the pieces together," says Ostedal, mentioning a long tax form.

The Carlson School has been offering Latin honors (in this case, awarding students summa or magna cum laude designations) for only two years, and this is also the second year it has offered the service learning class. Although few of the students are actively planning to pursue careers in nonprofits, executives in a corporate environment are expected to be active in community service. Ruekert points to major corporations, such as American Express, that are closely involved with giving back to the community through charitable work.

But it's not just helping the students rise in their future careers. Says Ruekert, "I want them to grow as people, as well as future managers."

From Insightsl, March 2006, a publication of the Carlson School of Business at the University of Minnesota.