PoliSci 236 gives students real-life experience in philanthropy

April 11, 2013, 11:34 p.m.

PoliSci 236: Theories of Civil Society, Philanthropy, and the Nonprofit Sector has always taught its students about the nature and challenges of donating money. Only recently, however, have these students been able to learn through real philanthropic experience.

For the second year in a row, the class will give away $100,000 by the end of the quarter. The Once Upon a Time Foundation in Fort Worth, Texas, provided funds—to this class and to similar ones at other universities such as Yale, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania—to enable undergraduate and graduate students to gain firsthand insight into the progress of giving money.

Visiting Scholar and Lecturer Bruce Sievers has taught the course for 10 years, instructing students on the history, nature and challenges of the nonprofit sector and philanthropy. Sievers said that the donation process is far more difficult than students initially imagine.

“What many people find is that it’s more of a challenge to give money away than you might anticipate because resources in almost all the fields that nonprofits work in are very scarce,” Sievers said. “Students quickly realize what a delicate responsibility it is to be charged with that decision-making but to be working in areas that they may be less knowledgeable in than the people receiving the money.”

The Once Upon a Time Foundation’s grant comes to Stanford through the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS), with the course instructor deciding how he or she will incorporate the funds into the curriculum.

Last year, Sievers divided students into four teams with different philanthropic focuses. The teams sent out a Request for Proposal to nonprofits that align with their group’s interests, interviewed responding nonprofits and donated money to between up to three organizations.

Throughout the quarter, students apply some of the broader knowledge gained in class about philanthropy and civil society in weekly sections, where they do most of the work determining which organizations they will choose for their donations. This year’s team topics are education, environment, international development and policy advocacy.

Sara Conklin, who took PoliSci 236 last year as a graduate student, credited the class and the skills she learned with helping her to obtain her current job at the Human Rights Council in Washington, D.C. She specifically cited the experience she gained working with a board of directors, grant-making and fundraising.

“The grant-making process is so time-consuming, but it was set up really perfectly for spring quarter for us to be able to have a really nice progression and enabled us to feel really confident when we were allocating our funds that we had taken all the necessary measures to make these grants to organizations which we were proud of and to which we were committed,” Conklin said.

Conklin said she was surprised by how intimately and independently students were allowed to work with the organizations.

“Being entrusted with that amount of money was huge and it was a crazy power dynamic,” she said, “because all of a sudden you are being entrusted with all the small details that make up a nonprofit organization and you’re on the other side when usually students are the ones volunteering.”

Sievers said that this experiential approach to learning about philanthropy stresses not just the impact but also the strategy of giving.

“Also, there are these larger questions of strategy,” Sievers said. “What are you trying to accomplish with this money? Are you trying to allocate it to something you think is important? Are you looking strategically, asking where you can get the most bang for your buck?”

According to Kim Meredith, executive director of PACS, classes like PoliSci 236 are particularly important in the current economic climate.

“The value of individual philanthropy becomes even more valuable because there are less dollars of government and people are more mindful and the strategic value is really critical,” Meredith said. “Teaching good philanthropy and grant-making can have a broader effect than simple charity-giving because it influences systemic change.”

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