Over-the-Rhine Provides True Test
Date: Oct. 19, 2001
For Market Theories
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Photos by Colleen Kelley
Archive: General News
When MBA student Connie Matthews signed up for Independent Study in Market Research, she had no idea of how challenging the market she would work in would be.
Matthews' learning experiences did not come in the cubicles and conference rooms of corporate Cincinnati.
Instead, she took her market research methodologies to the troubled streets of Over-the-Rhine, working for client City Ministries to help identify the most pressing needs of the city's poorest residents.
"It was quite often sad," says Matthews, a mother of three in her 30s. "There was a lady I remember who was about my age who I asked to fill out a survey. She asked if there was any payment for it. I joked that I was just a poor college student, and she said, 'Do you have a house?' When I said I did, she said, 'Well, then, you're not poor.' That was a learning experience."
The client, City Ministries, is a charitable organization that is in a state of transition as it seeks to streamline 15 different services operated through its offices. Like any other business, it needs data to make informed decisions. So City Ministries president Roger Howell approached UC assistant professor of marketing Andrea Dixon for help.
Dixon encouraged Matthews to undertake the project as an opportunity where she could make a difference in her efforts.
Probably even more so than working for a traditional business, the market research experience Matthews gained was comprehensive.
"When a student has an opportunity to connect in a learning experience with a non-profit organization, they really have to focus on how that organization fits into its market and how the principles we talk about in class apply to that organization," Dixon says. "It is not as easy as selling sneakers. In this context, I think students actually work harder in finding how theoretically things fit together. They have to ask, 'What am I trying to apply here and make work?' "
The project varied enough to expose Matthews to all sides of market research work. City Ministries had analyses done of four of its 15 services, and each involved a different approach. She had to interview Howell at the project's outset in June to determine a plan for achieving the results he was interested in, then determine the methodologies to reach those goals.
Three of the four projects involved quantitative analysis. The fourth was a qualitative project that involved in-depth interviews.
The most intense experience was collecting data through surveys at the Community Ministries center on Elm Street in Over-the-Rhine. A population of between 60 to 80 poor or homeless people - predominantly men - show up in the mornings and evenings for meals, clothing and sometimes, a place to sleep. Matthews had to find a way to collect opinions from the group.
Even though Matthews grew up in the Bronx section of New York, she admits, "I was uneasy at first. I was uncomfortable with the majority of them and had preconceived notions about that population."
But she says the professionalism of the staff at the center helped put her at ease. And she found that the center's clients were willing to help if she showed some interest in them as individuals.
"One thing I learned is people everywhere have basic needs. People want to interact with other people." In fact, she says, having positive interaction with others was a key reason that showed up in her data as to why the clients come to the center.
"Connie was able to validate that several of their programs are very well received and, at the same time, identify program enhancements people are interested in," Dixon says. "She provided important information, such as services that were available that clients wanted but did not know about in areas like healthcare and hygiene services."
Matthews' final test was to present her report to the City Ministries' board last week. That, too, is a valuable part of her experience.
"The day she made her presentation, she left me a voice mail and she was just absolutely pumped," Dixon says. "A project like this develops self-confidence in being able to do something like present to a board. Now she has a personal understanding of what that feels like and the next times she does that, it is not going to be as threatening."
Matthews knew she had made a difference as well when Howell, who had seemed nervous before the board presentation, gave her a big hug afterwards. He has already contacted Dixon about getting more students to do research work for his organization in the future.
"This project was different knowing that this information is going to impact people's lives," Matthews says. "They may end up eliminating a program based on the information that I presented, so it was a weighty project in that sense."