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Student Experiences

Giving Grants, Gaining Experience

When you have millions to give, wanting to make a difference is not just an idle wish. The biggest challenge is deciding which nonprofit can bring your vision to life.

This choice is exactly what Brittany Erikson and three of her fellow MPA students helped the Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation tackle in January 2015 as part of the Romney Institute of Public Management’s Grantwell program, a student-run organization that consults with charitable foundations.

“It was exciting,” says Erikson, a 2015 graduate who helped the foundation donate to thirteen nonprofit organizations that support at-risk youth, offer family services, and promote pre-K education. “I felt a huge responsibility because every organization does great things and has stories that tug at your heart. But the question isn’t who has the most tear-jerking stories; it’s who can make the most impact with every dollar.”

Foundations are looking for guidance, and the students at Grantwell provide them with research-based program evaluations, strategic innovation plans, and grant-allocation recommendations. Now in its eighth year, Grantwell has advised foundations in distributing more than $25 million in charitable giving. The program was originally started to give MPA students practice running a real-life consulting organization, but now students from any Marriott School grad program can sign up for the class and work on projects.

“We are provided real-life opportunities to create a strategy, receive feedback from the client along the way, work in collaboration with our peers, and make something to be proud of,” says second-year MPA student Erin Parkin, who oversees the student teams and program development as Grantwell’s executive director.

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MPA students help foundations help the world through student-run Grantwell, a charitable consulting firm.
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While Aaron Miller, the MPA professor who helped found Grantwell, meets regularly with the executive team, it is the students who run the show. They do a great job, Miller says, and the program’s reputation is growing because of it.

“The students have been able to show the quality of what they do, and organizations are starting to notice,” he says. “We now have more organizations coming to us than we can do the work for.”

Last year’s clients included the Sorenson Legacy Foundation, the Forever Young Foundation, and the Walmart Foundation. Every semester Grantwell takes on about seven projects with different clients, giving students the chance to work in a variety of areas. The best aspect of Grantwell, according to Miller, is the experience that students gain while consulting for top foundations from around the country.

That real-world experience often leads to interviews and jobs. Erikson was hired full-time by the Noorda Foundation after graduating, and she enjoys working as their first program officer.

Other students are looking forward to using their project management, analysis, and teamwork skills to effectively use funds and give back, whether they are involved with foundation work or not.

“I’ve learned that it’s not enough to want to do good and have the means to do so,” Parkin says. “When we partner with others and are open to new methodology, our potential for impact has a much greater span than we could imagine.”

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Written by Angela Marler