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Shortly after Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order in late March to curb the rise of critical COVID-19 cases, Booth students and faculty began to strategize how best to help. Students organized general volunteer opportunities, such as where to donate blood and money, on their internal Slack channel, while faculty began fielding requests from nonprofits and government groups they’ve worked with in the past.

“We saw that moment as an opportunity to bring in students’ MBA skills on very real and pressing needs,” said Wai-Sinn Chan, MBA ’02, MPP ’02, senior associate director of social sector engagement programs at Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation. In early April, Chan and her team sent out announcements about the Booth COVID-19 Volunteers program. The program is leveraging Booth students’ professional and academic expertise to fill temporary, project-based needs created by the pandemic crisis. Nonprofits, government agencies, and social enterprises are invited to request volunteer support from MBA students in areas including quantitative analysis, research, health-care-industry experience, strategy, project management, and information-technology support.

The volunteer-matching project is moving incredibly fast, and the need was—and is—urgent. “Our faculty directors were really supportive, and sent out a note inviting fellow faculty to share any organizations they collaborate with, if they saw a need there,” said Chan. “We aimed to set something up that was both effective and efficient so that students could quickly be connected to organizations with immediate needs.”

Word about the program spread via Booth communications, Rustandy’s nonprofit partners, and through Booth student organization leaders. The response was nearly immediate from both organizations and volunteers. To date, 21 volunteers have started working on 14 projects, with new project requests pouring in and additional volunteers ready to get to work.

In one project, students are helping Hyde Park–based health-care IT startup NowPow adapt its programming to address the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act legislation, in order to better serve the communities that need its platform for health-care services. UChicago Medicine’s Center for Healthcare Delivery Science and Innovation needed help with proposals submitted to its COVID-19 Innovation Challenge. Other nonprofits needed help in areas such as research and fundraising, said Chan—for example, figuring out options for offering virtual mental health programs or put on a virtual fundraiser when a gala had been cancelled.

Chan received her MBA 10 months after September 11, 2001, and today’s unprecedented challenges remind her of that time. “While this is a different crisis that’s still unfolding, students’ desire to take action, and their resiliency, has brought back to mind my classmates’ experience of navigating the economic uncertainty post-9/11. It’s a time to reflect on what’s important to you with regard to your community and your career.”

Founded in 2012, the Rustandy Center is Booth’s destination for people committed to helping solve complex social and environmental problems. Since then, the center has jump-started nonprofit and for-profit ventures, facilitated social sector research (including some related to COVID-19), and hosted events convening hundreds of business and nonprofit leaders. The Rustandy Center also helps students and alumni gain firsthand experience in the social sector, making it a natural hub for pairing the Booth community with local need.

“Rustandy strives to meet students where they are—and that can be exploring careers in social impact, or it can be jumping into project-based lab courses, research, or other social and environmental issues that they care about,” said Chan. “It’s been exciting both to build partnerships with organizations facing difficult challenges and to see students take classroom skills and their own work experience and channel them into something actionable. The idea that our community is jumping in and rolling up its sleeves, seeing how and where it can help in multiple ways, is really energizing.”


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