An Interview with Professor Blaine Parrish

An Interview with Professor Blaine Parrish
Assistant Professor and Director of the Graduate Certificate Program in Community-Based Program Management in GW’s Department of Prevention and Community Health

May 28, 2014

Q. Tell us about your Philanthropy and Social Enterprise Course–what is it about and why do you feel passionate to offer it?
A. The Philanthropy and Social Enterprise course is a collaboration between GW and the Learning by Giving Foundation.  The main objective is to help students better understand the world of philanthropy and how it intersects with public health and social enterprise.  The Learning by Giving Foundation provides $10,000 in funding for the students to award to charitable organizations in the DC Metro area.

My passion for offering the course comes from my work at the community, governmental, and academic levels.  Organizations do best when they are community-based, sustainable (without total reliability on one source of funding or one type of funding), and led by individuals who value innovation and change.  The non-profit world must embrace many different models to ensure the services they promise to a community when they open their doors, is reliable, dependable, and available well into the future.  My passion is to make sure students have the skills and understanding to make that happen.

Q. What key concepts and skills do you want students to come away with?
A: Students are 100% responsible for putting out a request for proposal (RFP), reviewing the applications they receive, conducting site visits, and deciding which organization will be awarded the funds.  By leading the process, students better understand the importance of critically evaluating the organization’s ideas, capacity, sustainability, fiscal responsibility, ability to be innovative, among other desirable organizational traits.  Students also learn about their own philanthropy and the value of giving.  The skills necessary to make all this happen in one semester are skills students don’t usually gain in other courses.  Community engagement and service learning prepare students to jump into community work confident and open to new ideas and approaches.

Q. Tell us about the connection between philanthropy and social enterprise–how are they distinct? How do they intersect or connect?
A. Philanthropy is the act of giving, understanding, exploring, and connecting.  Putting time, resources, and support behind an organization or idea keeps it alive and helps it grow.  Social enterprise is the act of developing, innovating, adapting, and changing.  Putting well-trained social entrepreneurs into the public health arena will help ensure social change, accountability, strong business practices, and an ability to generate resources at the community level.  When you connect philanthropy with social enterprise, you get the ability to upstart community ideas and grow community leaders from within.

Q. What key takeaways do you think the students gain? How about your own insights?
A. Students universally are surprised by the imbalance between best practices in business and best practices in programs.  Students takeaway a profound desire to support awareness of the importance of using best business practices (fiscal responsibility, accountability, management) to the same degree many organization use best public health practices (science, evidence-based interventions, program evaluation).

My own insight includes how dependent public health programs and non-profit organizations have become on government funding, with little options to choose from when those funding opportunities fail.  Sustainability, community ownership of programs, and social innovation continue to be the keys to organizational and programmatic longevity.

Q. Give us an anecdote or story about the course–an “aha moment” or  a compelling moment.
A. Students come with wonderful ideas – ways to change the world, which is what we teach them to aspire to as global citizens.  So, as you might imagine two aha moments come to mind – the first, a little disappointing, when students realize the challenges to putting their wonderful idea on paper, in a business plan, in a way that helps other understand how it will be implemented.  Students describe the process as a painful reminder that public good is also a business venture.  The most compelling aha moment usually comes when students from across disciplines – across the departments, schools, and GW – realize how interconnected their ideas, skills, academic training, and service learning is when social change and social good is the common denominator.  Class is never long enough and I usually have to kick students out of the space!

Q. Will this course or a similar one be offered again soon? What courses are you teaching next year? What research have you been most intensively engaging in these days?
A. The Philanthropy and Social Enterprise course is taught every spring as a graduate course, which also admits undergraduate students.  During the summer, Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship is offered as a study abroad course (twice to India, twice to South Africa, and next year to Peru) and covers the advances in social entrepreneurship as it relates to public health and development of a business plan to pitch for social change.

In addition to these courses, which I co-teach with Dr. Amita Vyas, I teach Program Planning and Implementation, which focuses on development of public health programs and implementation of best-practices interventions, and I teach Community Engagement and Advocacy in the MPH@GW online program.  My research is focused on LGBT health, use of social media on college campuses (sexual assault, violence, and alcohol/drug use/abuse), sentiment analysis use in community participatory research and engagement, among others.