Audra Cooksley wanted to help local nonprofit organization Food Fort elevate its resource capacity and educational services to change lives for the better in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her challenge – convincing classmates why Food Fort deserved to be among the organizations awarded up to $10,000 in funds as part of the Strive to Thrive Lincoln management class project in the Leading People and Projects (MNGT 411) class.
Cooksley, a senior marketing major from Alda, Nebraska, and her team visited Food Fort earlier this year. They saw first-hand how the two-year-old startup could make a difference creating healthier lives for those in need. She immediately went to work making her Food Fort experience come to life for Nebraska Business classmates who were not on the visit.
“We all read the same applications, but when you go on your site visit your job is to relay what you learned back to students who weren’t there,” said Cooksley, championing Food Fort from among 28 organizations that originally applied for funds. “My job was to relate Food Fort in a simple way that’s easy to understand, and most importantly, fits with our class mission we developed at the beginning of the year. We have to be able to tell the class whether the nonprofit fits our mission or not.”
Early in the semester, Cooksley learned to use the class mission as a touch point when advocating for any nonprofit. The class mission focused on empowering City of Lincoln and Lancaster County families by proactively connecting them to resources to help improve health and stability. Cooksley believed Food Fort’s grant application to create a refrigeration trailer to transport produce to those in need fit perfectly with the mission.
“We saw the uniqueness of Food Fort’s bus that goes directly into communities rather than the kids having to get to the nonprofit. One big thing I wanted to do was take lots of pictures to visualize to the class what the experience is like for people they serve,” she said.
Not all students were convinced by photos alone. T.J. Romero, a senior economics major from Omaha, Nebraska, served as a leader for the class evaluation team. His job allowed the rest of the class to process information brought back from 13 site visits. He saw Cooksley and her team win the class over by sticking to basic principles they learned in class.
“Food Fort got a lot of backing from some students, but others questioned how closely a food service organization matched our mission,” said Romero. “Audra’s group emphasized it wasn’t just about food. Food Fort is about the relationships they bring into communities and the education they bring to people who may not understand how to do things like cook healthy foods. My job was to help everyone understand each nonprofit from that neutral perspective.”
Ultimately, Food Fort received $2,500 of the $10,000 provided by a gift from Lincoln philanthropist Rhonda Seacrest. Michaela Akridge, founder and director of Food Fort, talked about her impressions of Cooksley and her site visit team at the awards ceremony, held in Howard L. Hawks Hall on April 17.
“Seeing the way they interacted with us on the site visit we could tell they were extremely well-prepared,” said Akridge. “They knew their roles and their purpose of being there to find out more about us. This grant will help address our free produce program where we work with Produce From the Heart to bring educational aspects of healthy eating to transform people’s idea about what a homecooked meal should look like.”
Dr. Amber Messersmith, lecturer of management, teaches the class. She saw both a passion and objectivity in the final class deliberations.
“We had some of the most intense and heartfelt discussions in the six years I’ve taught the class. The students all stuck to the mission statement and used that in their decision making for the grant recipients. I was very proud of the manner in which they reached decisions,” said Messersmith.
As a result of the Strive to Thrive Lincoln project, Cooksley now sees a path to make significant contributions to the local community going forward.
“I never thought about nonprofits as a career path, but it might be for me sometime down the road. Nonprofits aren’t something you know about unless you have direct involvement through a personal relationship. This class has provided that involvement because it truly is led by students. It’s unlike any class I know,” said Cooksley.
In addition to the gift to Food Fort, the class also provided $7,500 to the Center for Legal Immigration Assistance (CLIA). The CLIA plans to use the money to expand their program for victims of domestic violence. They want to provide opportunities for those they serve to become independent through work cards which let them make the best choices for their future lives. They also plan to build connections for their clients with other local nonprofits in mental health services.
To learn more about the Strive to Thrive Lincoln class project, visit: https://business.unl.edu/strivetothrive
To read about the project from the student’s point of view, visit the student blog: https://business.unl.edu/news/strive-to-thrive-student-blog-spring-2019/?contentGroup=home®ionName=tile
KOLN-TV: UNL's Strive to Thrive Program serves non-profits in Lincoln