How hard could it be to give away $100,000? Just write the check, make someone’s day, smiles all around.
Of course, it’s not that simple. At least not if you’re weighing the countless factors philanthropists must consider, which is what a group of 25 Middlebury students did during a new J-term course titled “Philanthropy: Ethics and Practice.”
The money was real — $100,000 from the Texas-based Once Upon A Time Foundation, which has made similar grants to several colleges and universities to support the study of philanthropic giving. The class’s charge was to research nonprofit organizations that interested them, and allocate the funds by the end of the course.
A faculty team of political scientist Sarah Stroup and philosophy professor Steven Viner served as facilitators, crafting the course to blend the mechanics of philanthropic giving with the ethical decision-making tools necessary for such important choices.
For the first two weeks, students delved into the intricacies of nonprofits and philanthropy. They split into five groups and compiled lists of possible organizations to support, then spent a week immersed in research on their prospective grantees, including phone conversations, meetings, and tours. They narrowed the field significantly with each group considering one to three potential organizations.
Sitting with Stroup and Viner, one student group described how they’d honed their list down to one local social services group — the Addison County Parent Child Center. They liked supporting an organization in the local college community and were impressed with the center’s results in reducing teen pregnancy. But will it persuade their classmates?
“I feel like in order for them to keep providing help and education on a case-by-case basis, we need to address the issues of staffing,” said Luke Martinez ‘14. Martinez noted that most of the center’s funding comes mostly from Medicaid and the state, but those sources seem continually at risk as the country digs out of recession.
“That won’t be sexy to present in front of the class, but it’s the fact of the matter,” added fellow group member Emmy Masur ‘13.
Week four marked a transition to the hard work of narrowing the list even further in preparation to make awards. To help create a baseline of shared information about the charities, each student group presented a briefing paper that included background, structures and strategies, financial information, oversight and monitoring, evidence of impact, and reasons why to support them.
They narrowed the field to four finalists: Gardens for Health International, which fights malnutrition; Grassroot Soccer, which works to reduce HIV infection through education; and Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), which reduces parasitic worm infections in Africa, and the local Addison County Parent Child Center.
But along with a smaller field comes stronger advocacy from the student groups. When students had a chance to ask each other for additional information, there were sometimes testy exchanges as students slipped into the role of advocates. They all knew what was on the line for their charity and wanted to make a compelling case.
“I think we expected this,” said Stroup, “that as the decision moment came closer, students were not thinking about these questions in abstract terms. They were thinking about them in the particular context of the charities that they felt passionately drawn to.”
On the last day of class, the moment of truth arrives, when the class must decide — together — how they’ll parcel out the money. Everyone knows how much research and emotion the other teams have invested, but they really want their group to come out ahead.
Stroup and Viner, now in full facilitator mode, guide the students into a decision process that’s fair and logical. Viner has suggested a kind of “Robert’s Rules” system to keep the class on track. Trying to narrow the decision further, the class takes a series of votes: how many charities to fund, which are your preferred charities, if we vote for only three, what would they be, and so on.
Three solid hours of deliberation yields a stalemate, and a new group dynamic. Quite simply, it is difficult to sit in a circle of friends and peers, and tell them you don’t want to support their cause. Ian Stewart ‘14 proposes a solution that breaks the log jam: Each member of the class write on a piece of paper how much money they would allocate to each of the four groups and then tally the class average for each. It’s an imperfect solution — some groups get more, some less — but it nicely illustrates the need for compromise and progress. Gardens for Health and SCI end up with $35,000 each, while Grassroot Soccer and the Parent Child Center end up with $15,000 each.
With a decision finally made, the mood turned from tension to joy, exuberance, and relief. And despite all the wrangling that came before, the class seems satisfied that the will of the group was reflected in their decision.
Viner applauded the students’ efforts, especially their perseverance when it might have been easier to split the money evenly and call it a day. “That’s a sort of life lesson about us learning how to do good with our money,” he said. “These are difficult decisions, but there’s also an undercurrent of another sort of problem that arose, which is coordinating with others to come to a decision about how our projects will clash with, and come into tension with, other people’s projects even when they’re both good projects.”
“Our class introduced students to both ‘what is’ in the American nonprofit sector as well as to perhaps ‘what should be’ in terms of our responsibilities to others,” said Stroup, “and we hope that the conversations that we began over J-term continue as students grow as citizens and leaders.”