Bringing Organizational Psychology to Life Through Fundraising

Adam M. Grant (University of Pennsylvania)


Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.


To help students develop knowledge and skills in organizational psychology about: (1) leadership; (2) collaboration; (3) networking; (4) negotiation; and (5) prosocial behavior through contributing to a meaningful cause in a cycle of application, feedback, and reflection.


Over a three-year period undergraduates, business students, and law students used principles from organizational psychology to raise over $118,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that gives hope, strength, and joy to children with life-threatening medical conditions. Specifically, students deepened their understanding of five key areas of organizational psychology: leadership, collaboration, networking, negotiation, and prosocial behavior. In one iteration of the activity, for example, teams of four MBA students and three undergraduate students were given two days to create and execute a fundraising plan. After selecting a leader and agreeing on a vision and strategy, the team then held raffles, auctioned signed memorabilia, and convinced local restaurants to donate proceeds. In another iteration, business students developed negotiation expertise by bargaining for corporate donations. And in still another iteration, law students took a week-long intensive course with organizational psychology taught in the morning and team fundraising in the afternoon. These team fundraising activities brought organizational psychology alive, benefited a worthy cause, and gave students a memorable opportunity to express what Abraham Lincoln once described as "the better angels of our nature."

Description of Entry

When teaching organizational psychology, a common technique is to use role-playing and simulations that help students put the concepts in action. Although these forms of experiential learning can be eye-opening, in many cases it's difficult to simulate key features of the workplace. For example, in leadership and negotiation simulations, students know that hierarchies are temporary and their bargaining results have few consequences. When instructors grade negotiations, some students resort to Machiavellian tactics, placing grades ahead of relationship and reputation considerations. As a result, some students walk away believing that their peers are selfish and manipulative, and others question the real-world relevance of the concepts. To overcome these challenges, we need action teaching activities that allow students to apply organizational psychology principles with real-life consequences, while enabling students to express what Abraham Lincoln once described as "the better angels of our nature."

Team fundraising for charity meets these criteria, enabling students to develop and hone their understanding of five key areas of organizational psychology:

1. Leadership: Students create and communicate a vision, strategy, and goals for fundraising. Feedback from teammates and observers allows them to identify strengths and development steps.

2. Collaboration: Students experiment with different models of coordinating their knowledge under time pressure, gaining insights about tailoring interdependence structures to the task.

3. Networking: When seeking support and donations, students face choices about which professional and personal contacts to use. This sets the stage for a rich dialogue about the relative merits of reaching out to weak ties and strong ties, and the power of reactivating dormant ties.

4. Negotiating: To fundraise, students apply and deepen their knowledge of a range of negotiation and persuasion principles, from establishing anchors in initial requests to creating social proof by demonstrating that others are donating.

5. Prosocial behavior: Fundraising involves engaging in actions to benefit others and attempting to inspire others to follow suit. Students learn about the power of having direct contact with beneficiaries in need or distress.

For a leadership course in 2009, I designed an action teaching activity in which students raised money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation (MAW), with the goal of granting wishes to give hope, strength, and joy to children with life-threatening medical conditions. Each team included four MBAs and three undergraduates, and had two days to fundraise. The teams selected a leader, created a vision and strategy, and began fundraising. They auctioned signed memorabilia from local athletes, held raffles, and convinced local restaurants to donate a portion of their proceeds. During the debriefing, the teams conducted a 360-degree feedback exercise, with each team member commenting on every other member's strengths and development opportunities. Faculty and executive coaches observed the activity and provided feedback.

In the next three years, I created different versions of the activity for three courses. In two negotiation courses, I gave MBA teams a month to hone their negotiation expertise by bargaining for corporate donations. In 2012, I designed a week-long intensive course for law students, with organizational psychology taught each morning and team fundraising each afternoon. To strengthen the connection between fundraising and their future careers, in the middle of the week, I asked each team to present a pitch for a panel of judges (three lawyers on the MAW board) who provided feedback.

By fundraising for a cause larger than themselves, students were able to see the real consequences of their actions and learn about leadership, collaboration, networking, negotiation, and prosocial behavior through a rich series of interactions with peers and community members.

Evidence of Effectiveness

The impact of this activity is visible in the money raised, adoption by other universities, and student reactions. First, the students have achieved impressive results for a meaningful cause. In 2009, my goal was to raise $6,500, the cost of a Disney trip for one child. This was a daunting target, and I was astonished that in less than 48 hours, MBA students raised over $33,500, granting the wishes of six children. The law students topped this amount in less than four days, raising over $36,000. And even though the negotiation students were limited to corporate sponsorships rather than other types of donations, they still raised over $17,000. Across the three years, my students have raised over $118,000 for MAW.

Law students donating $36,000 to the Make-a-Wish Foundation

Law students donating $36,000 to the Make-a-Wish Foundation

Second, it's been inspiring to see colleagues adapt the activity for use at other schools:

Third, students have reacted favorably to the experience. In open-ended comments on course evaluations, students expressed that the experiential format challenged them to translate abstract concepts into concrete actions. For example, in the leadership course, one student wrote:

"It was invigorating and challenging to not only consciously work on addressing my own weaknesses, but also try to help others on my team to do so. I didn't realize how much learning would come from 'practicing' leadership in these intense challenges."

In the law course, students likewise noted:

"This course was an amazing experience. We were able to apply the class concepts to a real world assignment, all while supporting a great cause."

"I was super impressed by how the course was able to shift my worldview in such a short period of time... the class will be extremely helpful when we all graduate and enter the professional world."

In the law class, the activity formed the basis of the weeklong course, and the evaluations were encouraging, with 100% of students recommending the course to their peers, and overall ratings of 4.44 on a 5-point scale for the course and 5.00 for the instructor. Beyond these comments and ratings, students have demonstrated their passion through behavioral commitments to the cause. Many teams have continued fundraising after the official challenge was over, and at least a dozen students have joined MAW as volunteers or worked on pro bono consulting projects to help MAW recruit and retain volunteers, evaluate fundraising strategies, and improve technology.

Tips on Implementation

When I introduce the challenge, the CEO and development director of the local MAW chapter attend my class. They describe the cause, provide advice on effective fundraising techniques, and answer student questions. This visit is instrumental in motivating the students to support the cause and providing them with key task-relevant information. The development director serves as a resource in answering questions and following up on pledges.

Because students vary in their attachment to the cause, and fundraising can be a challenging experience, I've found it useful to announce at the outset of the activity a reward for the winning team. One reward involves taking the winners to dinner with the faculty member and two deans. In other cases, MAW board members have volunteered a reward, such as attending a local sports game or receiving career advice. I've also offered an "above and beyond the call of duty" prize to teams that continue fundraising substantial amounts of money after the official challenge is complete, typically taking these teams to lunch.

Given that students bring different resources to the table, structuring a live pitch from each team to a panel is a compelling way to level the playing field, providing each team with an equal opportunity to win a donation. Finally, a structured debriefing session is important to make sure that the lessons from the experience are consolidated and shared, both within and among teams.

Pitfalls to Avoid and Suggested Variations

I selected MAW because it has widespread appeal; it is routinely recognized as one of the most popular charities in the United States. Occasionally, however, there are students who do not identify with the cause or are uncomfortable fundraising. To prepare for these situations, it is valuable to inform students in advance that if they have any hesitations or concerns, they can negotiate appropriate roles in their teams. For example, one student at another university chose to lead strategy development, handle the communications with the MAW liaison, and manage the undergraduate volunteers. Alternatively, instructors might allow students to vote on the charity for the class or might invite each team to select its own charity, which could also be useful if a local chapter is not available.

A second potential pitfall is that students are busy, and success in this challenge can require many hours of effort. In my experience, the longer the window of time, the easier it is for other tasks to take priority, and teams sometimes wait until the deadline approaches to begin fundraising. I recommend a deadline no later than ten days after starting the activity, which can be extended if students request more time. Another option would be to divide the fundraising activity into three different daylong assignments. Each team could be responsible for running a fundraising event one week, delivering a live pitch in class the next week, and creating a viral video another week, with the winner selected based on equal weightings of scores for the three assignments.

Further Reading

Grant, A. (2013). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success. New York: Viking.