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Faculty Reflections: M.S. in Nonprofit Management's Capstone Project

There’s a moment in every Capstone course when the students realize there is no safety net - that the work is real, that our nonprofit client is counting on their expertise and insight, and that the project may well change the lives of people served by the organization. I can usually anticipate some of the questions.

“There is just one project, one client for the whole semester? For all of us?” (Yes)

“Do clients really use our reports and presentations?” (Yes)

“Wait, you don’t already know all the answers to these questions?” (Correct)

“Their Board will get this?” (Oh yes)

It’s always a great moment, especially as it arrives early in the semester and sets up the ensuing discussion that sets the stage for a truly terrific and impactful consulting project. Very often, this discussion comes after an in-depth interview with our client (usually the executive director or CEO of a nonprofit organization) which most often happens in the second class session each semester. These interviews are fantastic and revealing, on both sides of the table - our clients realize that our consulting team is smart and well-prepared, and unafraid to ask the tough probing questions. And the Capstone team experiences all the challenges (and yes, dysfunction) that come with running a nonprofit - and the understanding that in the space of one semester, it’s their job to help solve some of those problems and present their solutions.

Capstone projects are an integral part of the M.S. Nonprofit Management program at SPS, and they provide students with the opportunity to apply their theoretical knowledge to real-world situations. They give students the chance to work on consulting projects for nonprofit organizations and leverage all of their classwork on various subjects such as nonprofit management, fundraising and development, marketing and communications, finance, ethics, data and innovation. As well as their own professional and personal experiences outside of the classroom.

They are also designed to stretch the team’s horizons beyond the classroom. This includes the instructor, by the way. Although they proceed along a common syllabus track - with assignments and due dates and weekly class meetings - every Capstone project is unique. There are reasons for this: the most obvious being that every client is unique, and has its own goals for the Capstone project. But the often underestimated aspect that varies so greatly is that of time - and timing. Our Capstones run anywhere from 12 to 14 weeks (including breaks) and have fixed start and end points that align with each semester; we simply cannot extend the project much beyond that last week of classes. And we also have fixed assignments within that timeline - items like an engagement memo written for the client, an outline of the final report, the drafts of that report, and our final presentation. There is very limited flexibility, and we need to hit those marks. Grades must be given. Degrees attained. Breaths of relief taken by instructors . (I’m kidding. Not really).

Yet that real world keeps on spinning. Pandemics disrupt entire nonprofit programs. Senior staff leave to take other jobs. Board members object. Executive directors disappear to accompany the bodies of those lost to Covid back to their home countries. All of these things have happened to my own Capstone classes just in the last few years. And those are the more extraordinary events! We’re also coping with competition for time and engagement with upcoming galas, major conferences, crisis communications, fundraising deadlines, and just the hard work our clients churn out every week.

Despite these challenges, I’ve never been part of a bad Capstone. Every single Columbia M.S. Nonprofit Management team has done stellar work, and frankly, shown the grit and resilience necessary to get the job done for our clients.

That’s due in part to another crucial aspect of the Capstone experience that both challenges (and in some cases, flat out frightens) our students and guarantees a worthy project in the end. I’m talking about collaboration.

Capstone projects provide students with the opportunity to work collaboratively with their peers and engage in critical thinking and problem-solving as a group. By leveraging their collective knowledge and experience, students can develop innovative solutions that address complex challenges faced by nonprofit organizations. The key word here is collective - our Capstones are group projects, and the major deliverables (like the final report and presentation) receive a common grade. Typically, we work in smaller teams throughout the semester to tackle various sections of a major project, but the overall group meets every week. There is lots of asynchronous work: meetings, interviews, discussions. And we always run a 24/7 back-channel (typically on WhatsApp or GroupMe) to keep everyone in touch, especially as the project progresses, grows in complexity, and approaches the deadline.

In my Capstone sections, there are three aspects that I probably stress more than some others:

  • Everyone on the team will participate as a writer, editor, collaborator, speaker and in some kind of leadership role. There is no backseat in the Capstone car - we’re all up front.
  • Loyalty to our client’s goals is paramount. No matter our own challenges (and yes, these must be recognized, particularly over these last three years) we owe the best possible original work for our client, a project and report that’s more than worthy of our program at Columbia.
  • Because the project is real, so is the contribution of our students to both the organization and the sector itself. This is important work! It has often made a huge difference for clients. And students can - and should - consider the final Capstone project as a piece of their portfolios as professionals.

I certainly do. I’ve been a consultant in the nonprofit sector for almost 25 years now, and teaching Capstones is, to use the cliche, mission driven on my end. It’s a contribution to the sector and to the work. The fact that my participation comes in the form of collaboration with working groups of incredibly smart and committed Nonprofit Management masters students - not to mention the enthusiasm of our fantastic Associate Instructors - is a huge professional bonus, because their ideas and questions challenge my own assumptions every week. That helps my work, and makes me feel much more relevant as a professional.

And yes, I don’t just teach the course or lead the project - I participate in the work as much as possible, without bigfooting the student-run creative process that makes the Capstone so worthy. We’re all part of the team, and that means a great deal.

A few years ago, we had a Capstone client that asked our team for what eventually became a very detailed strategic development and communications plan. We broke down each line of revenue, and each development area, conducted landscape analysis and a comparative review of other organizations, created benchmarks for board development and governance, and wrote a communications plan for telling the story both internally and externally. Our final presentation included senior executive staff as well as the Board chairman and other Board members. They asked tough questions. Our team answered them and followed up with a very strong final report. And then came Commencement.

Months later, I was talking with our main point of contact at the nonprofit, and she told me about the postscript. Both the CEO and Board chair had loved our presentation and read every word of the final report. They acted on our research and our recommendations. Changes were made. And indeed, the CEO used the Columbia M.S. Nonprofit Management Capstone report as a template for measuring the impact and effectiveness of the programs and revenue model. It was a centerpiece of many senior staff and Board meetings. It had helped change the culture of the organization, and made it possible for significant progress in the lives of those served by its work.

I always tell this story at the beginning of each semester so that students will understand both the stakes and the opportunity they have. Capstone really matters - and it’s a path for students to make a meaningful contribution to the nonprofit sector while also preparing themselves for successful careers in nonprofit management.