The Wharton-RTP Event is an annual spring service project that is a joint effort of the Wharton MBA community and Rebuilding Together Philadelphia (RTP), the local chapter of Rebuilding Together, a national non-profit. Rebuilding Together is dedicated to refurbishing the houses of low-income homeowners in need, striving to make their homes warm, safe, and dry. Much of Rebuilding Together’s efforts in Philadelphia focus specifically on neighborhoods in West Philadelphia, the area in which the University of Pennsylvania is located. The Wharton-RTP Event pairs the volunteer resources of the Wharton student body with the skilled labor and material resources of RTP to benefit the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the university. The event pairs each of the 12 Wharton MBA Cohorts (groups of around 70 students) with a deserving homeowner from the West Philadelphia community, and the cohort volunteers then spend four weekends working alongside skilled contractors (provided by RTP) and the homeowners themselves to repair and refurbish the homeowner’s living environment. In total, the Wharton MBA Community spent roughly 3,500 volunteer hours at this year’s event, completing home renovation projects including roof repair, hanging/replacing drywall, painting, toilet/sink repair, installing safety hand-rails in bathrooms, interior/exterior door and window replacement, various carpentry projects, and energy efficiency improvements. The Wharton-RTP Event has two broad goals: 1) to ensure that the project’s 12 homeowner-beneficiaries can remain in their homes for years to come and 2) to foster cooperation and co-involvement between the Wharton student body and their surrounding West Philadelphia neighbors.
The event was organized by four members of the Wharton second-year class (Wharton-RTP co-presidents), in collaboration with the RTP board of directors and staff. The Wharton-RTP team was responsible for selecting homeowners/houses that were suitable for the project (based on “need” of homeowner and degree of difficulty of required repairs) from amongst many applicants from the community. They also coordinated volunteer safety training, supply purchases and distribution, and skilled labor assistance for each house. Within each cohort, the Wharton-RTP team selected 2-4 “student house managers” who were responsible for homeowner relations, soliciting cohort volunteers to contribute on each of the four weekends, and scoping/executing all repair efforts within their house. Thus, there were approximately 50 total students who held leadership positions in conjunction with the Wharton-RTP Event in addition to the roughly 100 student volunteers who participated each weekend.
The motivation for the Wharton-RTP project has both obvious and subtle components. Clearly there is a desire on the part of both the University and the students to give back to the local community. There is no better way to serve the long-established West Philadelphia community than through a project such as the Wharton-RTP Event that allows homeowners, many of whom have lived in the same homes in close proximity to Penn for many decades, to meet and collaborate with students who they might not otherwise encounter. Many of the homeowners have been in their homes for over 50 years but could lose them within months without the vital repairs that the Wharton-RTP Event provides. And for the students, there is a component to every education that must be achieved beyond the classroom, and the Wharton-RTP Event provides this opportunity.
Beyond the more apparent motivations, there is a long-standing history of collaboration between Wharton and RTP which we endeavor to preserve. While the Event is certainly not a required part of the Wharton program, it has occurred for the last 21 years consecutively because of its unique ability to stimulate significant interest and devotion from student leaders and volunteers alike. Since its inception, the Event has been among the premiere community service effort s at Wharton and annually attracts the highest level of student participation. The Wharton Event predates the broader Rebuilding Together affiliate currently serving all of Philadelphia, an organization which was incorporated by the Wharton graduate who created the Event and subsequently leveraged it as the RTP organization’s flagship service project. Thus the history of the Philadelphia Rebuilding Together chapter is inextricably linked to Wharton, and the Event has come to symbolize the strong partnership between organizations. The RTP board of directors currently boasts 4 Wharton alumni including the Chairman, many of whom participated in the Event during their MBA years. Although we typically think of an alumni network in a for-profit employment context, the Wharton-RTP Event is vitally important because it perpetuates the strong bond between the Wharton School alumni and the RTP organization, a network which for many years has promoted leadership excellence beyond the corporate setting and has contributed immeasurably to the wellbeing of the broader Philadelphia community.
In terms of impact, the Wharton-RTP Event has been assisting between 10-14 homeowners annually for 21 years, and the vast majority remain living in their homes today. This amounts to a significant impact on the West Philadelphia community. The Event has also been the foundation of an organization that delivers $5 in home repairs for every $1 in donations by leveraging the efforts of volunteers like those from Wharton. Given the near $20,000 budget for the project this year, this fact indicates that the Wharton-RTP event delivered around $100,000 in total repairs to the homeowners we served during the 2010 event. This is certainly a phenomenal result. However, there are also other types of impact that the Wharton-RTP Event has had in the community, as suggested by one local artist’s recent short video on a family helped during the 2009 Wharton-RTP Event.
The Wharton student involvement in the Event was extensive just in terms of the near 50 co-presidents and house managers who took on leadership positions for the 2010 Event. In addition, there were roughly 100 extra volunteers each weekend that spent seven hours working in the houses. The Wharton Graduate Association has recognized the Wharton-RTP Event as an official community service organization and has provided funding of around $7,000 for the event. Furthermore, we frequently have volunteers from the second-year MBA class who return to the project because of the impact it had on their first-year MBA experience. These returning veterans are not only helpful in terms of the work they accomplish, but they also demonstrate the impact that the Event has on its student participants. It should be noted that this project is entirely student run, and there are many months of coordination that precede the near 3,500 student volunteer hours that are logged during the Event.
In a key innovation for this year’s project, we also began partnering with local businesses who were interested in developing their recruiting platforms with Wharton. Philadelphia law firms, real estate firms, corporations, and professional leadership organizations were contacted and asked to contribute volunteers and/or contributions to the project. By working alongside representatives from these companies, a greater professional relationship was established between the students and these firms.
Finally, this project certainly served as an opportunity for Wharton students to apply classroom principles in a nonprofit business setting. The co-presidents were allowed to sit at RTP board meetings to understand first-hand how team decision making is executed at the highest level within an organization. There were opportunities for the leadership team to learn how to manage people throughout this project, from how to motivate volunteers to show up, to how to drive towards project completion with an ever changing supporting cast of volunteers from week-to-week. Financially, the project taught budget management in its most basic form, but also had “start-up company” aspects as funding grew tight and in-kind donations of materials and service were necessary to complete the project despite low cash balances. And lastly, this project was a quintessential part of the leadership development and team building experiences for many Wharton students. While it is often difficult in the classroom to simulate decision making in a stressful environment, the volunteer teams were operating in an unfamiliar place, were teamed up with skilled contractors whom they had never met, and were asked to complete home repairs which most had no experience performing. While this seemed like a daunting task at first, many students found that their desire to deliver for their homeowner led them to excel in these stressful situations and found their experiences with the Wharton-RTP Event to be quite valuable.