Field Project of Dreams

By Sally Anne Flecker | Spring 2012

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For their field projects, Master of Nonprofit Administration students often take on the problems of their own organizations

When Vincent Pescatore crashed his small plane in a remote part of Honduras in 1996, the founder of Farm of the Child-Honduras left behind a wife and five small children—and a mission for orphaned and abandoned children that was barely established.

At the time of the tragedy, there was no succession strategy or game plan in place for how the organization was to carry on.

But that’s not unusual, says Andrea McMerty-Brummer (MNA ’10, ’01), executive director of Farm of the Child USA. “Most mission-based organizations are founded by a very charismatic leader and there really isn’t a plan for what happens when that person is no longer with the project,” she says.

The disadvantages of creating a new leadership structure in the midst of crisis were apparent to McMerty-Brummer. Still, carving out the time to research and develop a more thoughtful strategy was a near impossibility against those needs of the day—especially when those needs include caring for 150 children.

But when McMerty-Brummer was assigned a field project as part of her coursework for the Master of Nonprofit Administration program, she realized the situation provided the perfect subject: With Farm of the Child’s buy-in, McMerty-Brummer was able to take classroom theory and apply it to real life, producing a comprehensive leadership restructuring and succession plan that allowed the Catholic nonprofit to weather changes and continue operations.

 Like many of her fellow MNA classmates, McMerty-Brummer entered the Mendoza College’s nonprofit graduate degree program to acquire the business knowledge so vital to leading her organization in critical areas such as human resources, communications and strategy. The program is designed to help professionals develop their leadership skills within a close-knit community, and to better serve the nonprofit sector without leaving their current jobs. 

 The field project is a vital part of the program because it gives students the invaluable opportunity to put academic theory into practice, says Theresa Ricke-Kiely, MNA professor and the program’s associate director for planning and development.

 “You may understand board governance, for example, from a theoretical perspective,” she says. “It’s very different from being in the boardroom and understanding the personality dynamics, the power struggles and the politics of a community or politics of the board, and how that gets played out.”

 Further, the field project is a giveback to a nonprofit organization (often a student’s own) or the community.

Yvonne Delgadillo (MNA ’12), executive director of Nogales Community Development Corporation in Arizona, had experience developing and implementing strategic plans for her organization. But when she chose to spearhead a multi-faceted innovation zone initiative for the historic border town as her field project, she knew it would be exponentially more challenging than any previous experience.

As it turned out, the project was exponentially rewarding as well. Her agency was one of eight in the nation to win a $2 million rural innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the development of a multi-use facility to provide comprehensive self-sufficiency services. In addition, Delgadillo developed a plan that seeks additional resources for the development of two historic, 1920s-era hotel properties in Nogales, the DeAnza and Bowman Hotels, which will provide 40 units of subsidized housing for very low-income elderly persons.

If the students are stretched by the capstone course, so is Ricke-Kiely, who works with them one on one. This semester, the size of the class is considerable—26 students working on topics that range from volunteerism in Catholic schools in Minnesota to animal control in Texas to a strategic plan for a performing arts center. Several projects are international, including one for a nonprofit in Jordan that is trying to create social entrepreneurial opportunities for developmentally disabled adults.

The field projects also provide MNA students with the opportunity to create resources for broader use by other organizations. When McMerty-Brummer encountered a dearth of literature on the subject of succession planning, which has been widely discussed as a need for the nonprofit sector, she and Ricke-Kiely worked to turn her 125-page manuscript into a case study. In October, “All God’s Angels: A Case Study in Leadership Transition” will be published in the Journal of Nonprofit Education and Leadership. It’s one giveback that keeps on giving.