Before getting assigned to work with the Field Museum in his Social Enterprise Lab, University of Chicago Booth School of Business first-year student Isaac Song had never been to Chicago’s storied natural history museum.
And that, it turns out, was just the problem he needed to solve.
By partnering with a team of students in the Social Enterprise Lab, Field Museum leaders hoped to answer an elusive question: why aren’t people with few barriers choosing to visit the museum?
The class gives students hands-on experience working in teams with social ventures on real problems: whether it be boosting attendance at the Field, coping with growing pains at a tutoring organization, or a strategy to prioritize new programs at a youth center. With guidance from clients and faculty coaches, the students fill a key function, providing time and Booth critical thinking on strategic questions while seeing the interworking of a social venture.
"I think that the students and the museum both got a lot out of this collaboration," said Matt Matcuk, exhibition development director at the Field. "They got real-world experience from a demanding client, and we gained deeper insights into our potential visitors from a talented group of students with a fresh perspective."
In addition to its use of experiential learning—or “learning by doing”—what makes the course unique is its focus on organizations that have a social mission, said Christina Hachikian, the course instructor and executive director of Booth’s Social Enterprise Initiative.
The idea is that students, in a low-risk and structured environment, can practice what they’re learning in a way that “allows them to get under the hood,” Hachikian said.
The goal of social sector organizations—unlike a traditional profit-maximizing company—is to try to change impact policies, groups, or individuals through programs or some sort of intervention, she said.
“What I really hope students take away from it is an understanding of key differences between firms that maximize profits and those that seek to maximize, or perhaps balance, a social impact mission.”
Unlike their for-profit counterparts, Hachikian says, nonprofit organizations can’t rely solely on indicators like revenue to prove efficacy. Instead, mission-driven enterprises must measure their outcomes in a way that demonstrates a correlation between gains realized and the activities they are engaged in. Simultaneously, nonprofits must ensure that they have the appropriate business, financing, and governance models to efficiently deliver their “product.” Without these structures, they risk over- or underpricing, spinning into a funding starvation cycle, or being held victim to a founder unwilling to change with the circumstances.
Hachikian said she encourages the students to think scientifically about how their clients—the organizations with which they are working—are trying to create a long-term, meaningful impact on those that they serve. This is best done by thinking of a pathway that begins at the state of nature, or the way in which things exist without the program in place, then moves to program development, implementation of critical components, and the stabilization of intended outcomes. This way of thinking about strategy is known as a logic model or theory of action and is a core part of the course’s learnings.
“It’s one of things that most impacts students,” Hachikian said. “The theory of action suggests that you can and should think in very logical terms about what an organization’s activities are and how those activities lead to outcomes they’re trying to achieve."
Hachikian said she looks for companies or nonprofits that have a clear strategic question they want answered and where the students can collect data to be well-equipped to answer that question. In addition to the Field Museum, some of the organizations students worked with this year include Embarc, Gary Comer Youth Center, and Working in the Schools (WITS).
Unlike many museums that have seen significant declines, the Field Museum’s visitorship has stayed relatively steady for over a century, at 1.2 to 1.4 million visitors per year. However, these stable attendance numbers haven’t kept pace with increases in the general population. While the Field Museum conducts frequent visitor studies, most of the data is collected from people who are already at the museum. Staffers haven’t had an opportunity to look at why people don’t visit the museum.
“We talk to our visitors quite a bit. What we don’t get to do is talk to non-visitors,” said Patience Baach, exhibitions evaluator. “That’s where Booth comes in.”
The Booth students hired research firm Qualtrics to survey about 400 people who lived nearby and had middle incomes, yet still hadn’t visited the museum in more than a year. They also benchmarked what the Field Museum was doing—or not doing—against other museums.
Song, who is interested in a career in consulting with social enterprise organizations, said one of the goals of the group was to provide actionable recommendations for the museum.
“We didn’t want it to turn into another student exercise, where students do a project for an entity, the organization looks at the results, and then tosses it in a drawer never to look at it again,” he said.
At a run-through of their presentation in class in March, the students unveiled three recommendations: pilot additional social events, develop a marketing campaign which focuses more on the entertainment value of the museum, and cater more to millennials.
The survey showed that the non-visitors polled didn’t actually want to go to educational programs, said Nathan Rogg, a second-year Booth MBA student. “When you give them the option of either event, the non-visitors much prefer a social event.”
The students in the class come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Jillian Durkin, who is pursuing a joint MBA at Booth and master’s degree from UChicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, worked as a fixed income trader for a hedge fund before starting graduate school.
She is hoping to work at the intersection of private, public, and nonprofit businesses and the class has helped her think about problems critically, work with clients, and interact with teammates, she said.
Matcuk said that the team provided valuable manpower and fresh ideas. “They are bringing capacity to the issue for one,” he said. “They bring fresh insights to the project; they’re energetic; they’re familiar with what’s happening in other kinds of businesses, and they’ve got good ideas.”—Deborah Ziff