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Class Teaches Business Ethics While Raising Money for Charities

Written by University of Iowa on 19 February 2010.

business ethics diversityA business ethics class assignment in the University of Iowa's Tippie School of Management is showing MBA students how ethical decision making is an important part of a successful career, while providing real financial support for non-profit organizations.

The research project calls on students to write extensive research reports of a non-profit organization and make the case why they want to donate a hypothetical $1,000 to the group. The assignment requires, among other things, a background of the group, its business model, what kind of change it seeks to make in the world, what needs it addresses, and a story of someone who was helped by the organization.

"In other words, why should we care about this organization and the work they do?" said Nancy Hauserman, professor of management and organizations in the Tippie College of Business who is teaching the class. Hauserman said the assignment is to help students take a broader view of business ethics and go beyond the obvious situations like mortgage backed securities and Bernie Madoff.

"The purpose of the class is to help students recognize ethical issues and develop a good decision making model to address those issues," said Hauserman. "This philanthropy assignment broadens their view of what constitutes an ethical situation by allowing them to see the world from another's viewpoint. That's what great leaders do, after all. They bring a broad vision and an awareness of others."

The assignment will also show how leadership ties together business, philanthropy and ethical behavior. For instance, as part of their research, students must identify and note the business affiliations of their organizations' board members.

"They'll see that most non-profit board members come from business, and it drives home the connection between business and charitable organizations," she said.

The project also has a practical side, as it requires students use the complex analytical skills needed to make any business decision.

While the students aren't required to donate any money, Hauserman has agreed to donate some of her own money to each of the organizations her students select, and other Tippie faculty and staff have signed on to make donations of their own, too. She doesn't think the figures will be large, upwards of $1,000, she said, but not much more. But she thinks it will help the students clarify the project if they know there's some skin in the game.

"With real money at stake, the assignment has more impact for the students," she said. "I hope it makes them more thoughtful about the report."

Hauserman has few rules about what groups the students can pick, asking only that the organization enjoys 501(c) status and that they provide some kind of service that benefits people.

The assignment is part of a class curriculum that Hauserman said shows the connections between philanthropy and business. She's invited Martin Carver and Dick Schwab, Iowa business leaders who are also noted philanthropists, to speak to the class about the importance of giving. At the beginning of the semester, she also had the students write their own personal values statement and perception of how they will know when they have "enough."

The point of it all, she said, is to sharpen the students' critical and ethical thinking capabilities, something which too many business leaders have not practiced in the last decade, with economically ruinous results.

"We don't often think deeply and critically about our ethics or values. We say we rely on our 'gut' for decisions but, regrettably, our guts often aren't very good resources," she said.

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