Take 50 college students who don't know each other, add several complicated business challenges, give them 12 hours, and what do you get at the end? Great ideas for three struggling not-for-profit organizations and real-world business experience for the accounting, finance, and IT majors.
This recipe was cooked up by the Beta Alpha Psi (BAP) student honor society and Moss Adams LLP, which sponsored the competition called, "Project Run With It," loosely based on the Bravo Channel's "Project Runway" for would-be fashion designers.
As in the TV show, the students were given several challenges and a tight time frame to come up with a solution during BAP's annual meeting in August in Anaheim, California. Project Run With It involved three not-for-profit companies — International Association of Skateboarding Companies, Fashion Business, Inc., and Saddleback Master Chorale — and BAP members from 42 chapters. The students were separated into teams of three, and each nonprofit had five teams assigned to solve their problems. After an initial briefing by the nonprofit CEOs, the teams had to develop solutions and make a presentation to the judges.
Some teams didn't get along, probably all of them had some disagreements, but several participants told AccountingWEB that it was an intense, but rewarding experience.
"Taking everything into account, I can definitely say that it was one of the best experiences of my life," said Frank Ferrara of Fordham University. "Being able to work in a real-life situation on a real company with actual problems and not some simple case study was amazing," he said. "The trust that was put into us and belief in our proposal was astonishing." Ferrara was part of the winning team that tackled issues faced by the Fashion Business Institute, which sought help improving its business processes and its cash flow. The team researched regulations, tax laws, possible tax breaks, and potential government funding through federal and state grants.
Ferrara said: "Having the CEO of a major company compliment us on our work and tell us that she would have paid for our advice meant more to me than winning a competition. It gave me pride in my work and hope in my heart for a bright future in business. I recommend this program continue strongly for years to come and for every student accepted into it to take it seriously and have fun!"
The Saddleback Master Chorale of Mission Viejo, California, sought help drawing new members, retaining talent, attracting larger audiences, and finding a place to rehearse and perform after losing its partnership with a local community college, said Kevin Good of Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. His team searched for performance locations, suggested partnering with the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and researched grant possibilities. "It was a very pressing work environment in that we were on our own and the clock was always ticking. Working as a team had its ups and downs since in my particular case my teammates did not get along and one succumbed to a migraine after the first few hours," Good said. "Taking a leadership stance was necessary in my case and being able to react quickly and motivate the group was essential. The net of the experience was that one had to be quick at the draw and adapt to the challenging environment."
Good, who is interested in non-for-profit accounting as a career, said the challenging environment seemed similar to what the real world would offer.
Nick Jongerius of Western Illinois University, who also tackled the issues of the Saddleback Master Chorale with his winning team, said that despite some "preliminary nerves" going in, his team worked together extremely well, and quickly, addressing each goal of the chorale and suggesting ways to solve their key issues. In the classroom, he said, solutions to case studies do not matter. In contrast, he said, "The SMC plans to implement some of the ideas presented in an effort to continue doing what they do."
Luke Luckett of Southeast Missouri State University and his team suggested that the International Association of Skateboarding Companies (IASC) improve cash flow by creating a magazine called Kickflip that would allow the group to provide a tangible product to subscribers for a small fee while allowing advertisers (only IASC members) to get direct access to skateboarders around the world. Luckett said he could not have asked for better team members, who made the work fun. "We all came from different backgrounds and had our own little tricks that we could bring to the table."
The competition also attracted an international student, Salal al-Chanati of Auckland, New Zealand, whose team separated its work into short- and long-term strategies to help IASC. Each person on the team had different ideas and approaches. "As a result there was a lot of disagreement on which of the issues to tackle and how to tackle, but it came down to running through the case study carefully and having a shared common understanding."
After holing up in separate work spaces with flash drives, computers and a printer, with a 1 a.m. deadline, the teams were ready to present their solutions later that morning to judging panels consisting of the not-for-profit representative, a faculty adviser, and a Moss Adams partner. Winning teams received $1,000 for their respective BAP chapters.
"It really tested all the aspects of teamwork, communication, presentation, and professionalism, especially in such limited time span. I thought that all the presentations were absolutely amazing and the clarity of the message was very strong," al-Chanati said.
BAP Executive Director Hadassah Baum, CPA, CMA, CAE, said it was the first year of the competition, but it was so successful that it will be featured again at the next conference in New York this summer. The competition was interactive, encouraged students from many different chapters to meet one another, and showed that not-for-profit organizations face many of the same problems as businesses in the for-profit world.
She said Moss Adams selected the not-for-profits, which were the focus of the competition because they are least able to afford consultants and because helping nonprofits fits with BAP's community service mission.
"I believe they were very appreciative, not only for the ideas that were provided by the winning teams, but all the teams gave valuable ideas and suggestions."
Lynette Adsitt of Boise State University, whose team made the award-wining presentation for the IASC summed up her experience this way: "I would encourage others to participate. It is exasperating while in the process, but rewarding in the end — like tax season!"