How to give away $10,000? It's a lot of work, U-Md. students learn

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010

It was getting down to the wire. As the University of Maryland students argued over how to give away $10,000, Robert Grimm kept telling his class, "One at a time! One at a time!"

A sophomore snapped that splitting the money would be a cop-out. Someone interrupted her to argue that if the cash were divided, they could double the number of charities helped. "Can we just vote?" another student pleaded. "We're running out of time!"

After a semester's worth of research, heated arguments and painful negotiations, it had come to this. Twenty-five sophomores had to decide how best to use $10,000, real money that could help local children if they chose wisely.

The philanthropy class, new this year, is one of a small but growing number in which donors write big checks to help students learn how to give.

Philanthropy is relatively new as an academic field; for 25 years or so, some universities have offered graduate-level programs. More recently, driven in part by the surge in volunteerism and social engagement of today's college students, many schools are adding undergraduate options. The latest twist, at schools including the University of Mary Washington and Georgetown, Brown, Cornell, Brandeis and New York universities, is to push philanthropy studies from the theoretical into the real world. With cash.

It changes how young people learn about a huge sector of the U.S. economy. And it turns traditional philanthropy on its head, allowing scores of students, whose financial transactions are more likely to be for burritos and beer, play the role of wealthy donor. The students define which causes are worthy of investment and become proponents of social change.

At Maryland, the idea began with philanthropists Bruce and Karen Levenson of Potomac, who supplied the $10,000 for the students to give away. Grimm joined the faculty this semester to help launch the philanthropy and nonprofit management program that the Levensons envisioned. They hope that this undergraduate class will expand dramatically, with hundreds of students able to participate in coming years.

"To me, philanthropy education has always been like science without the lab," Grimm said. But these students wrestled with the concepts others just memorized. He said they not only felt more strongly about individual charities but also learned to evaluate them objectively.

"This course was the first time we were able to get our hands dirty in something," said Eran Friedman, 20, who is studying management. It challenged them to think more, he said, because the money was real, the potential impact was real and they had to figure out what to do. Donating $10,000, it turned out, was a lot harder than it sounded.

"I didn't realize it was such a detailed process," said Heather Clark, a 19-year-old psychology major from Glen Burnie. Before she took the class, she thought of "people being like, 'Oh, I have all this money, I'm just going to give it away somewhere.' But we took a lot of time to come up with a mission statement, to be sure we were investing the money somewhere worthwhile."

Getting 25 people to agree on that took wrangling.

There were students who were fired up about the environment, education, health care, all sorts of things. "People were butting heads a lot," Clark said. The class divided into two camps, argued about whom to help and got deadlocked. Eventually, they agreed to fund a Prince George's County nonprofit group that supports education and mentoring for needy kids.

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