Civic Scholars Program: Bringing the power of Booth MBAs to the social sector


At age 26, Kady McFadden was managing a nonprofit staff, overseeing budgets, lobbying legislators, working with donors, engaging volunteers, building partnerships with corporations, developing messaging campaigns — “and no one had taught me how to do any of that,” says McFadden, deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter.

To build her skills in all of those areas — and help build a stronger Sierra Club — McFadden applied to the highly selective Civic Scholars Program at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business run in partnership with Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation. “I wanted to make sure my skills were just as strong as those of the people sitting across the negotiating table, who were generally from the corporate world,” says McFadden, who completed her MBA through the program in 2019.

A 2018 business school alumni employment report from the Graduate Management Admission Council shows that only about 10 percent of recent business school graduates choose jobs in government or nonprofits, a figure that has historically been even lower at Chicago Booth. To help build problem-solving capacity and encourage innovation in the social sector, in 2016 the Neubauer Family Foundation funded the Civic Scholars Program to provide professionals in nonprofit organizations and government agencies with scholarship awards for Chicago Booth’s full-time, evening, and weekend MBA programs.

The program’s students, known as Neubauer Civic Scholars, take the same core classes as all other Booth MBA students — learning “frameworks and tools that are useful across sectors,” says Stacey Kole, deputy dean for MBA programs and clinical professor of economics at Booth — and also have access to specialized programming, leadership development opportunities, networking, and dedicated faculty members.

The Booth MBA focuses on mastery of business fundamentals, deep inquiry, and collaboration, all of which are key to solving social sector challenges. “Joe Neubauer [MBA’65] and the foundation share our vision of bringing to the social sector what we believe to be the best management training around,” says George Wu, the John P. and Lillian A. Gould Professor of Behavioral Science at Chicago Booth, who serves as faculty co-director of the Civic Scholars program. “The clear thinking that our approach imparts is especially important in the social sector, which often has more complex objectives and poorer data.

“We want people in nonprofits and government to have the skills to address their particular challenges — ways of thinking that allow them to tackle complex problems, plus the courage to start from scratch and question assumptions.”

Impact with purpose

The Civic Scholars Program aims to increase the number of MBAs among public and nonprofit sector leaders like Gabriela Arismendi, a data strategist in Chicago Public Schools who earned a master’s degree in social work from the UChicago School of Social Service Administration and had assumed an MBA program would be out of reach financially.

With a background that also includes social work and nonprofit organizations, Arismendi had always imagined that MBA programs were for those in the private sector. “Most people in MBA programs know they’ll recoup their tuition investment in income, but for people in the nonprofit world, the financial considerations are much greater. Hearing that I was selected for the program felt a little like winning the lottery.” Arismendi, who expects to complete her MBA in 2021, enrolled in the program to strengthen her data skills and add financial, operations, and management skills to her professional toolkit.

Unique programming for Neubauer Civic Scholars includes experience-based courses focused on the public and social sectors, which offer opportunities to develop leadership skills and apply new knowledge to real-world problems. Wu says that many Neubauer Civic Scholars are able to take their learnings back to their workplaces immediately. “We hear a lot of stories about day-to-day transformations, where someone learned a concept in class on Saturday and used it at work on Monday. Students will say ‘I’m not just learning for myself, but learning something that will make my organization better.’”

That kind of impact is a distinctive feature of the Civic Scholars program, says Kole. “A student speaker at one of our graduation celebrations talked about the privilege of studying at Booth, and about the fact that it’s everyone’s obligation to share their learning, take it forward, and help others,” Kole remembers.

“That message is so powerful — and that kind of impact with purpose is what we want to see our MBAs take into the community.” And, she adds, Neubauer Civic Scholars build a powerful cross-sector, cross-cohort network that deepens their impact. “Our alumni stay very connected; they don’t get the degree and leave. As the number of graduates grows, Neubauer Civic Scholars will grow into a forceful community.”

In the fall of 2019, Booth announced plans to increase its annual intake of Neubauer Civic Scholars by 50 percent in 2020, and to double the cohort size to sixteen students by the fall of 2022. “We know that many Booth alums care a lot about the social sector,” Wu says, “and are involved, through board service and donations, with nonprofits big and small. I’d love all of them to funnel their best people to this program, so we can ensure that people in those organizations have the skills you acquire with a Booth MBA.”

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