Through Volunteer Work, Class Learns What Makes Nonprofits Tick

Manning Sandy Volunteers
Visiting Prof. Olga Tines, center, and six of her Manning School of Business students return to campus after a weeklong volunteer trip to Brooklyn, N.Y., where they helped Superstorm Sandy victims rebuild while studying nonprofit organizational behavior.

By Ed Brennen

Two days after completing his internship at Nasdaq, Martin Lee found himself living with five other Manning School of Business seniors in a cramped church basement in Brooklyn, N.Y., doing volunteer construction work by day and cooking and cleaning chores by night.

“I went from a big corporate office to communal living,” Lee says. “It was a crazy experience, but I loved it. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

The experience was all part of a weeklong, three-credit service learning project organized by visiting professor Olga Tines through All Hands Volunteers, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization that provides relief to those affected by natural disasters around the world.

For the six students, all of whom had taken Tines’ organizational behavior course, the purpose of the trip was two-fold: Not only did they help repair and rebuild homes still damaged nearly three years after Superstorm Sandy, but they also got an inside look at how a non-profit organization operates.

“We cover the corporate space mostly in the cases we use in class, but this was designed to give students an opportunity to become embedded in a not-for-profit organization while it’s working,” says Tines, who assigned reading before the July 12 through 18 trip and had students complete a portfolio summarizing the experience when they returned. “I thought it would be interesting to let students get a little more connected to the flipside of organizational behavior.”

Scott Bellinghieri, who will graduate in December with a management degree, says he observed several differences between All Hands and the for-profits he’s studied.

“It was a more organic structure as opposed to mechanistic,” he says. “Things would happen on the fly and people could make decisions without going too far up the ladder. It was eye-opening to see on the ground level the way the nonprofit worked.”

Bellinghieri also learned to install doorjambs and window casings and cut vinyl flooring.

“It was physically demanding, but it was rewarding,” says Bellinghieri, who like many of his fellow participants was surprised that many residents were still affected by Sandy’s aftermath. “We got to meet the people whose houses we were working on, so that added a lot of motivation. It was cool to see tangible things we had done to help someone else that was in need.”

In one house he worked on, Bellinghieri says there were seven children sharing two bedrooms. “We were rebuilding the basement, so that would open up at least two more bedrooms for the children,” he says. “They were in need, but All Hands was taking care of them.”

The UMass Lowell group worked alongside more than 30 other volunteers from across the country and around the world, including people from as far away as Spain, France, Italy and Sweden.

“It was incredible to meet different people from so many different backgrounds,” says business administration major Christian Bain, who was impressed by how quickly All Hands got everyone to work together. “There were so many different experience levels, languages and cultures, and it was really nice to see how organized they were with getting everybody coordinated and explaining how to do stuff. We were able to work together even though we were so different.”

All Hands organizers also saw that Bain had some construction experience, so they asked him to lead one of the sub-groups on a project.

“It definitely helped me see things in a new way, especially with management and assigning work and getting people motivated,” Bain says. “I think I learned a lot that will be very helpful for me in the future.”

Environmental science major Susan MacDonald says the trip was the “perfect opportunity” to complete her business minor.

“It was the most fabulous week I’ve had in a long time,” says MacDonald who, as the oldest of the six students, provided a broader perspective of the experience. “It gave me hope again. There’s people out there just working for the good of humanity. It was refreshing to see young people out there working so hard and taking care of one another. It was always ‘What do you need? What can I do?’ ”

Tines, who hopes to continue the course with another trip next summer, gathered the students for one final thank you, and a few hugs goodbye, when they returned to campus in the late afternoon of July 18.

“This was my dream team,” she told the group, which also included Manning seniors Emmanuel Saint-Juste and Priscille FogueMondjo. “I couldn’t have thought of a better group of people to share this with. You all came in and did far more than I even expected. You were all great teammates, and you did the university proud.”