Harbus Foundation: Students Grant Local Nonprofits Funds and Expertise

Writing large checks may not be unusual among HBS students, but a select group has found a way to write checks that make a difference to the Boston community.bankrolled by the nation’s only MBA student-run foundation.

These students spent the fall term assessing grant applications from local nonprofit organizations on behalf of the Harbus Foundation, a public charity affiliated with the Harbus Newspaper. The Foundation’s three Venture Philanthropy grantmaking teams selected organizations to receive a $10,000 grant and have dedicated the winter term to completing a consulting project for their recipient organization. The foundation’s four regular grantmaking teams are still assessing potential recipients and will make their award decision in the next month.

The team composed of Marissa Dent (NF), Geoff Marietta (NH), Jill Regen (NJ), Kristen Keenan (ND), and Amiko Glasford (NC) selected Friends of Boston’s Homeless for their $10,000 grant. The team initially determined that it wanted to select an organization with a focus on education, however they chose to define that in less traditional ways by selecting the educational segment of an organization whose broader mission focused on serving Boston’s homeless population. The team’s shift in focus stemmed partly from a desire to serve a demographic that had received little support from the Harbus Foundation in the past, and, as Dent explains, “we felt that the management team was highly competent and excited for our help.”

The team now embarks on a project to determine how FOBH might establish its food service job training program as a revenue-producing catering company. Mariann Bucina, Executive Director of FOBH describes the impact that the project will have: “one of our most critical needs is to create independent revenue to supportÿour highly successful programs. The grant and consulting services from Harbus Foundation will most certainly help us achieve this goal.”

Another team, composed of Arijit Roy (NB), Will Thomas (OC), Fay Xing (NJ), and Jeff Brewer (NB), will focus their consulting skills on helping an organization expand. Their selected grant recipient, Reach Out and Read (ROR), wants to serve a larger geographic region so the team will develop an expansion plan. To assess applications they received for their grant the team developed and used a “total quality” framework. After evaluating applications and conducting site visits, “we were deeply impressed by the ability of ROR to have an impact,” says Roy.

Two Venture Philanthropy grants were awarded to education organizations. The second went to Boston Renaissance Charter School, a public school open to all Boston school aged children. The grant was given by Graham Davis (NG), Christopher Kim (NA), Sunru Yong (NC), Sandi Shulman (NG), and Shannon Music (NG).

The Harbus Foundation has offered HBS first and second year students an opportunity to make monetary grants to local nonprofit organizations since 1997. It is the only entirely student run foundation in the country. In 2003 the foundation added a venture philanthropy component to its mission. According to Shalyn Brand, Director of Team Management for the Harbus Foundation, “The goal of the Harbus Foundation Venture Philanthropy teams is to provide local nonprofits with organizational and consulting support in conjunction with financial grants.” This year the foundation expanded to three venture philanthropy teams to respond to interest in this type of grant among student participants. Each year the foundation sponsors seven student teams in total, and each gives a $10,000 grant.

Students’ experiences on Harbus Foundation teams offer them a unique complement to their HBS education. “The grantmaking experience has taught us as a team that there are ‘multiple roads to Rome’,” says Roy. “Many nonprofits have fully functional models that are effective and have different levels of impact in their ecosystems.”

In addition, their experience as venture philanthropists exposed them to an effective alternative to ‘checkbook philanthropy’. “Rather than write a check for a cause, my belief is that I can affect social change by actively participating in the community through deep partnerships with the non-profit sector,” says Roy.

Perhaps most significantly, the grants and consulting services have a noticeable impact on local Boston nonprofits. Martha Gershun, Executive Director of Reach Out and Read, noticed the impact of the team’s efforts after just one meeting. “Even if the consulting engagement ended now, they have helped me start thinking about some important alternatives to our current practices. That is exactly the insight and prodding I hoped for!” she said.

Grantmaking teams also find that the experience gives them one chance for meaningful interaction with classmates outside their section. This aspect of the process was one of the most valuable for Dent’s team. “Our team has a really synergistic relationship,” she says.

She valued the diversity of perspectives and experiences that team members brought to the project, but also found that “we are all excited by the opportunity to provide funds and services to the community and to work with a fantastic organization like FOBH.”

The Foundation gives each team the freedom to define its own selection criteria, as long as organizations fit within the Foundation’s mission of supporting education, literacy or journalism in the Boston area. The philosophy of giving teams a high degree of freedom empowers members to get deeply involved in the process and engenders a real commitment to the organizations they invite to apply. However, it can make the final decision a difficult one. “It’s really hard to say ‘no’,” said Dent, “especially after meeting the management teams.”

Brand oversees all of the teams as they define and execute their grantmaking strategy and has been pleased with the decisions so far this year. “The Harbus Foundation Venture Philanthropy teams in 2005-2006 have partnered with high-impact nonprofits in the Boston area,” she says.