Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Management class teaches ethics and governance while connecting students with community leaders


Ken Brown, professor of Management and Entrepreneurship at the Tippie College of Business, designed a unique ethics and governance class that connects students with local organizational leaders while reviewing board practices and internal policies for recommendations in an end-semester ethics audit.

Ken Brown Tippie

A colleague at Tippie initially approached Brown and asked if he would consider constructing and teaching a distance learning course about nonprofit ethics and governance.

"I was hesitant at first," Brown said. "It was not an area that I'd taught before, but I had served on a lot of boards and immediately jumped to the conclusion that, if we are going to do this, students should work directly with nonprofit boards and connect meaningful ways to the local nonprofit community through community engagement projects."

Brown began by organizing and producing a series of recorded interviews with organizational leaders, board members, and executive directors from local nonprofit organizations – from foundations to credit unions.

Recorded interviews provide insight into the organizational history, structure, high-level thinking, and best practices among industry leaders at some of Iowa's largest and most complex nonprofit organizations.

"Some students watch the interviews and say, 'this is awesome,'" Brown said. "They get to see and hear from the president from one of the biggest credit unions in the country or a major philanthropist who runs a big foundation."

Brown designed MGMT:4600 to be asynchronous to provide opportunities for students from different majors across campus or who may be nontraditional and taking fully online courses.

"I've been teaching Community Engaged Courses (CEC) in some iterations for years," Brown said. "But this was the first time I've done it asynchronously. I carried over best practices from when I did it face-to-face and ensured I always met with community partners and provided a lot of information to give them a realistic preview and understanding of what the students can do."

Based on his previous experience, Brown knew that community partner expectations could range from overly high – helping to solve critical problems an organization faces over a semester, to a passive experience that introduces students to an organization without challenging them to make an impact with the time they have.

"That vetting process is critical," Brown said. "I am the board chair on a foundation that has done very well and is thriving because it is very oriented to building partnerships and relationships, which are key to a successful CEC partnership."

Brown approached potential community partners, not as an agent of the university but as a fellow community member passionate about nonprofits while advocating that students can add value while having a compelling educational experience that will help prepare them for career pursuits after graduation.

"A good partnership opportunity will offer multiple deliverables for student groups with an adequate structure that follows a natural progression," Brown said. "Before students meet with a community partner, they meet with each other and start to build relationships that lead to stronger - and more productive – team dynamics."


Throughout the process, Brown coached students through developing their teams, understanding nonprofit boards, and then moving into more substantive content about organizational structure and industry best practices surrounding ethics and governance, leading to thorough ethics audit at the end of the semester.

Students work on a project together

Community partners look to teams of students to provide detail and discernment in their audits which can help inform decisions about seeking certifications for an organization, structuring a board, to adopting ethics or social media policies.

"The most powerful projects are the ones where students dig in and understand the current situation and why and then give some really concrete recommendations," Brown said. "If there is a need for a code of ethics, students proved a draft based on two or three from similar organizations, which is helpful for an executive director who can hand it off to their board chair or governance committee chair."

One piece of the audit involves a financial analysis, which reviews tax records and internal policy within an organization's mission and available resources.

"It's a matter of contextualizing and understanding who the organization is and what they can be in the near term due to their business model," Brown said. "This helps students make connections through a broad understanding of the ethical risks facing the organization."

While this approach may seem complex for undergraduate students to tackle over a single semester, Brown said that it is critical not only for student development but also to improve the quality of insights for the partner organization within the final audit report.

"I want students to struggle a bit because there isn't always a clear or right answer," Brown said. "They are working with an entire organization, learning about ethics and governance and nonprofits. I'm a big believer that if you are going to work in a nonprofit organization, you should have a good contextual understanding of what it is, ask questions and be a meaningful resource, which is a great value add."

Brown regularly received feedback from students at the end of the course who shared that researching a nonprofit's policy and financial records while meeting with senior executives and crafting an audit based on best practices and comparative analysis of similar organizations is profound.

"That's the goal," Brown said. "To make a transformative learning experience where students think differently and feel differently about their capabilities. I love it when students say it was hard, but they feel more prepared to work for a nonprofit."


For faculty considering incorporating a community engagement component into their courses, Brown recommends designing experiences that will allow students to apply what they are learning in ways that will prepare them to navigate complex and ambiguous situations after graduation.

"It takes a little more up-front investment to identify partnerships and adapt course material," Brown said. "But over the long-term, when you have designed a course like this with support from your college or department or centers on campus like the Office of Community Engagement, the returns are great regarding what students takeaway. They remember the material better and walk away with a richer and deeper understanding that you can't get by doing things any other way."

Brown recalled one of the first courses he taught that transitioned from a simulated organization on paper to a CEC involving a real outside community partner.

"I had a student who just complained through the whole course about the extra work involved and then sent me an email apology at the end of the semester," Brown said. "They had just gotten out of an interview, and the only practical experience they could speak to was the project in class, which helped them develop the practical skills to get the job and do well in it."

Despite the extra work involved for faculty and students, Brown believes CECs are among the best ways to prepare students while impacting local communities.

"I believe every student should have multiple opportunities to have classes like this as well as work experiences and internships," Brown said. "I think CECs should be fundamental to and deeply integrated into their educational journey."

Story by James Dykeman