Why 6 ECs Designed The Nonprofit Clinic: Tackling Inequality Course (and Why RCs Should Take it Next Year)

Caitlin Haught
Caitlin Haught

ECs Vatsala Deora, Sara Gentile, Cait Haught, Shannon Nelson, Molly Palmersheim, and Shireen Soheili worked together with professors to design the course this past fall as part of an Independent Project and now the course is a reality.

Did you know that almost 80% of HBS alums are asked to serve on a nonprofit board at some point during their post-graduation lives? Yes – while some of us will serve on for-profit boards, the majority of us will be asked to give back as a board member to a local nonprofit, our children’s school, or an art institution in our city. And yet, very little at HBS actually prepares us to serve on these nonprofit boards. After participating in the Board Fellows program last spring, the six of us, all ECs, recognized this fact and came together to design a new way to provide students with more opportunities to connect with nonprofits. Using the framework from the EC course Product Management 101, we crafted a new course that was launched this spring entitled “Nonprofit Clinic: Tackling Inequality.” Professors Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Nien-hê Hsieh oversaw us and provided feedback and support throughout the fall semester. In early December, we proposed the new course to Dean Nohria and received approval to implement it this spring from the registrar. Professors Oberholzer-Gee and Hsieh agreed to co-teach it. After three months of work, the course was finally coming together and was included on EC Toolkit. But many questions remained: Would anyone take it? Would the students actually like it? Would it persist beyond this year?

While some of the questions still remain, by the end of add-drop this semester the class (limited to 30 students for its pilot semester) had 27 students enrolled. Feedback from the course has generally been positive. One student noted, “It’s been great for me to see all-star professors like Frances Frei and Joe Fuller lead classroom sessions detailing the real-world work done at HBS. Very rarely do we see the amazing and impactful work our professors are doing for society outside of just case work.” Another remarked “I would recommend this class to any RCs who, like me, had very little prior experience discussing inequality or working with non-profits. For a subject I knew so little about, I learned which areas of inequality made me especially upset! Areas I wanted to do something about. I can now use this information to choose the right organizations to be involved with in the future, and I leave HBS knowing that the work I put in had a measurable impact on an organization that is helping their community.” 

The structure of the course combines both field and case components. For the first four weeks of class, students met in Aldrich to discuss readings and cases on all the different facets of inequality, including education, socioeconomics, gender, and race. We sought to understand what the biggest drivers of inequality are, whether we think inequality is a problem that needs to be tackled, and if so, how to tackle it. After about four weeks of classrooms sessions, students formed teams of two or three to work on a consulting project with a local nonprofit with a mission that addresses some form of inequality. Projects ranged in type from designing a new employee training system to doing a competitive landscape of other organizations addressing a similar cause. All had strategic significance but were focused enough in scope for the students to tackle over the remaining eight weeks of the semester. The semester will end with presentations to share with each other what we learned from our projects and then a final course session to wrap up and discuss how the course and our project work has shaped our views on inequality.

While we’re sure it will benefit from a couple years of tweaks, as we’re told most new classes do, we consider the pilot year of this course to be a success. Inequality is an incredibly important, timely issue that will confront all HBS graduates as leaders, so we think courses such as this one are especially relevant, even for those not interested in working or volunteering in the nonprofit sector. As one student noted in their feedback, there is not a lot of time in the HBS curriculum to discuss these important topics and this class provided “a safe space to debate issues of urgent importance with a perfect class size that allows great back-and-forths.” All RCs – we strongly encourage you to check it out next year! In fact, if you’re interested in getting involved in the course operations, let us know, because a small group of students will continue to work with the professors to refine the course next year.





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