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Nonprofit Arts Management Courses Gives Students Real Consulting Experience… With a Real Client

By Jacob Nelson

Michelle Shumate wanted her students to get hands-on experience in the world of nonprofit arts management. So, she found them a client to manage. Not an in-class, hypothetical client, but a real-life, small theater in Evanston.

“I really want them not just to know things and do armchair problem solving,” Shumate said, “I want them to get on the ground, hands-on, in the trenches experience.”

Her MSLCE class, nonprofit arts management, has spent the quarter learning about Piccolo Theatre in Evanston as it undergoes a leadership transition. The students have looked through financial reports, analyzed its communications and marketing materials, and met with its executive director, all to put together a proposal of recommendations.

“Students are really running the show,” Shumate said, “They rely on me as much or as little as they would like to.”

Shumate, a Northwestern Associate Professor who also directs Northwestern’s Network for Nonprofit and Social Impact, said her students were surprised when they realized they would be working with a real client. But that didn’t stop them from jumping right in.

“They really grabbed this assignment with both hands,” she said. She also pointed out that, even if Piccolo doesn’t end up using the recommendations the students make, Shumate will be happy for them to walk out with a greater knowledge of nonprofit management.

Part of learning how to improve a client, according to Shumate, is learning to make nuanced recommendations rather than large-scale suggestions. She hopes this class will help introduce students the idea that recommendations in smaller doses can go a longer way.

“If nothing comes of this for us but at the end of it we have a group of students who understand the world of arts, I’ll be satisfied,” Shumate said.