Accounting students mine data for nonprofit

Who are the United Way’s most loyal donors, where do they live and how much do they give each year?

These are just a few of the questions the United Way of the Midlands wanted answered when it began a partnership more than a year ago with an accounting class at the University of South Carolina.

This year, that class – made up of four graduate students, including one Ph.D. candidate – sifted through mounds of anonymous donor data to come up with some trends in giving that the United Way can use to retain loyal donors and recruit new donors.

“The students are asking some questions that make us think about the data differently,” says Mac Bennett, president and CEO of the United Way of the Midlands and a 1980 finance and management graduate from Carolina. “It’s a lot of experimentation and kind of cracking some of this data open for the first time. We’re not sure exactly what all the right questions are at this point. Working with the students gives us the resource to work through these issues and sort them out.”

This class is just one way UofSC’s Darla Moore School of Business teams up with local organizations and businesses to help provide research that might otherwise be too expensive for nonprofits or small companies to conduct themselves.

Accounting professor Jim Edwards says each student in this year’s class contributed about 100 volunteer hours to the project, meaning that over the course of three semesters, UofSC students have donated more than 1,300 hours to the United Way. Student groups also have worked with AgFirst Farm Credit Bank and Palmetto Health Alliance in Columbia.

The students earn class credit, but more importantly real-world skills that include not just understanding real data and putting it into context, but presenting that information to an executive body that will use it to make decisions.

“We were able to help United Way with all of this analysis to help them better serve the community,” master of accountancy student Jeremy Carrell says. “We were able to gain skills ourselves about data analytics and we got graduate credit for the course.

“But it’s really good to see what we did over the whole semester was very beneficial for them.”

Muaad Ibrahim is seeking his Ph.D. in accounting so he can create a doctoral program at the Iraqi university where he teaches.

“This course is one of the most important courses because it is my first American experience working with an outside organization – dealing with reality, with issues on the ground,” Ibrahim says.

Edwards says it is important that students are able to present their work and see how organizations make use of it.

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To learn how you can support the Darla Moore School of Business, visit Carolina's Promise.

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