UWinnipeg marketing professor partners with local non-profit organizations

Local non-profit organizations are benefiting from student expertise, and students from real-world experience, thanks to an innovative class assignment devised by a University of Winnipeg faculty member.

Each semester, Dr. Lam An, Assistant Professor in the Department of Business and Administration, has his marketing students apply what they’re learning in the classroom to Manitoba non-profits in need of marketing assistance.

“Students see their skills can be applied directly, and not just on exam papers.”

Dr. Lam An

The partnership is a win-win: students get real-world experience (and, sometimes, a job offer) while the organizations get free, comprehensive marketing research they can use to expand their reach or deepen their impact.

Dr. An, who arrived at UWinnipeg two years ago, said the idea for the assignment came from his time as an undergraduate student in the United States. Universities there often have a small business development center on campus.

“Those centers utilize university resources to provide small business start-ups with free help, such as business planning and financial advice,” Dr. An said. “As an undergraduate marketing student myself, I benefited so much from working with them.”

Dr. An knows firsthand how fruitful these partnerships can be. During his graduate studies, he landed a job with a company after providing them with a market research project.

“Anyone can say they’re a great marketer or communicator, but employers want concrete evidence these days,” Dr. An explained. “Showing them how I think and how I solved a business challenge helped me get a job.”

Building bridges

Each semester, Dr. An selects a non-profit organization for his students to collaborate with. In the 2023 Winter Term, it was the Manitoba Conservatory of Music & Arts (MCMA), conveniently located in UWinnipeg’s Bryce Hall.

Prior partners include Recreation Manitoba, which promotes recreation and parks, and ToyBox Manitoba, which provides learning and wellness activities for children.

“Most of the organizations have similar problems: brand awareness, how clients have changed during COVID or aren’t returning after COVID, and which communications to use to reach customers,” Dr. An said.

One of the first things students learn is that non-profit organizations often operate on a tight budget.

“Students often think every company has an unlimited budget,” Dr. An said. “I want to show them the reality of these organizations. Some have one part-time, 10-hour-a-week marketing person.”

Many organizations naturally focus on product or service delivery, leaving few resources left over for marketing.

“They all do all this promotion, but they don’t know what market segment they are targeting,” Dr. An explained. “They don’t get the return for their money spent because they don’t know what their customers really want.”

The MCMA wanted to improve brand awareness of, and enrollment in, their high-quality music education programs. They were asked to help communicate with students and parents about practical things like parking and lesson schedules.

Students set to work generating a market research report that covered topics such as industry trends, focus groups, surveys, and search engine optimization. Sourcing research like that from a professional marketing firm could cost thousands of dollars.

Dr. An says not everything in the report may be applicable, but organizations can gradually implement the recommendations or synthesize the findings into a solution that works for them.

Program draws praise

“Opportunities like this for non-profit organizations like the MCMA are essential,” said Heitha Forsyth, MCMA’s Executive Director. “As a community-based entity with limited resources, this allowed our partnership team to continue to meet the needs and demands of the people we serve, while the students’ work helped us to outline, understand, and grow how we are perceived in the broader community.”

Dr. An says students enjoy seeing the difference their work makes to the daily operations of a real organization.

“Students see their skills can be applied directly, and not just on exam papers.”

He will continue to run the assignment again this fall, and is currently on the lookout for more organizational partners.

“I’m new here in Manitoba so I’m running out of connections,” he said with a laugh.