Back to Class: Civic Workshop

A new course paired teams of students to work remotely with different organizations supporting coronavirus relief efforts.

July 09, 2020

| by Patrick J. Kiger
Doctors without Borders staff at work. Credit: Reuters/Jeanty Junior Augustin

Created in response to the pandemic, the Civic Workshop course shows students how to help fill the gap between citizens and government during times of crisis. | Reuters/Jeanty Junior Augustin

A last-minute addition to Stanford GSB’s Spring 2020 curriculum, the course GSBGEN 316: Civic Workshop was created by lecturer Keith Hennessey in direct response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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It is designed to train students how to participate in what Hennessey calls the “civic layer” — that array of domestic businesses and volunteer organizations that fill the gap between citizens and government during times of crisis.

Often, this layer proves to be more nimble and creative than government agencies when it comes to emergency assistance, Hennessey says. But the COVID-19 pandemic presents a daunting challenge for such groups: It not only creates dire needs, but also forces most helpers to stay physically separated from the people they’re helping.

Hennessey assigned the class’s 41 students to experiment with new methods for remote activism. The students formed 13 teams, each supporting a different coronavirus relief effort. Hennessey, who served as director of the National Economic Council in the administration of President George W. Bush, and his teaching assistants act mostly as advisors, helping the teams refine strategies and tactics.

“I’ve created the framework, but what is generating the interest and effort are the projects themselves,” Hennessey says.

One team has created a nonprofit called Gift Card Bank, which enables donors to contribute unused gift cards to people in need. Another group is working with Feed the Fight, which purchases meals from struggling restaurants in Washington, D.C., then donates the food to healthcare workers and first responders.

I’ve created the framework, but what is generating the interest and effort are the projects themselves.
Keith Hennessey

A pair of students, 2020 MBA candidates Erin Washington and Isabelle Fisher, are using a mix of email and social media to expand the donor base for Split the Check, an effort started by Keegan Cooke, the associate director of Startup Garage at Stanford GSB’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. Split the Check asks people to donate a portion of their federal stimulus checks to organizations that help others who need the money more.

Washington and Fisher say they were attracted to the course because they’re both interested in devising new methods to promote direct giving to organizations that are doing crucial work.

Hennessey says students are developing a new style of remote activism that could become increasingly important for future crises. “How do you help an organization when it all has to be done over Zoom and email and phone?” he asks. “For one thing, you’ve got to maintain a lot more contact to build that relationship, because you can’t shake their hand in person.”

The class ran through mid-June, but Hennessey says students are expected to develop a plan for either concluding their efforts or handing off what they’ve developed to someone else. Some may also publish their models online, so that other activists can learn from them.

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