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Philanthropy class allocates funding to local non-profits

| Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Among the many unique courses offered by Notre Dame, only one is accompanied by a grant worth tens of thousands of dollars to be awarded to nonprofits in the Michiana area.

Notre Dame professor Jonathan Hannah is teaching “Philanthropy and Society” for the first year it is offered at the University. The funding, he said, comes from an outside group.

“The class is interesting in that it’s sponsored by a nonprofit called the Philanthropy Lab. They’re an organization based in Texas. We’re about one of 20 partner schools that offer this class,” he said. “This lab, they grant us between $50,000 and $70,000 to give to the community. The students get to sort of create their own mini-foundation and decide ‘What is the best place to invest this money in our local community?’”

The Philanthropy Lab has worked with over 29 other U.S. colleges and universities to offer similar courses, giving, along with their donor partners, over $9 million since the group was founded in 2011. Hannah said deciding where the money is awarded is entirely up to the students.

“I really don’t influence the grantmaking at all,” he said. “It’s totally on the students. The students get to decide which nonprofits to visit, and then over the next two weeks we’re going to have votes and decide where this money is going to ultimately go.”

Though the class is taught through the political science department and the Hesburgh Public Policy program, it is open to all students. Senior Laksumi Sivanandan said she was drawn to the course after a summer internship at the University’s development office.

“I worked as an intern for Notre Dame’s development office this summer. As a result, I became really interested in fundraising and philanthropy,” Sivanandan said in an email. “I wanted to learn more about philanthropy through lenses other than higher education, and this class has certainly helped with that.”

Senior Evan DaCosta — another student taking the class — was motivated to take the class after reading about how bad actors can abuse the philanthropy process.

(Editor’s Note: DaCosta is a former news and sports writer for The Observer.) 

“It was two things,” he said. “One, it fit my schedule well. Two, it was right at the time when all of the [Jeffrey] Epstein stuff was coming out and people were talking a lot about his philanthropic activity — because he had donated a lot of money to Harvard, MIT and all these schools — so people were criticizing philanthropy at that time as a way people could cover their tracks. … It was topical and newsworthy at the time, so I thought it would be interesting. I didn’t realize at the time that we would be getting money to actually do stuff with.”

While the class focuses somewhat on general philanthropic principles, much of the instruction time is spent on hands-on activities as students decide how the money is ultimately going to be awarded, student and sophomore Ciara Donovan explained.

“The structure of the class and the way Professor Hannah runs things is really different than any class I’ve ever taken,” she said. “Basically, about 60% of our class days are normal lectures in which we talk about varying topics under the category of philanthropy. But the other classes are what we call ‘board meetings’ and every member of our class together acts as a board of directors for our nonprofits. We each have different roles on the board. During these board meetings, we get to vote on issues, and it’s cool because I know the issues we’re voting on will have a real impact on my immediate community.”

At the beginning of the semester, the class — which Hannah said has 25 students — self-sorted into groups based on interest areas. They then compiled a list of potential nonprofits to work with using sources such as the Center for Social Concerns and word of mouth, among others. The groups then narrowed their respective searches to two local nonprofits, which they then visited. DaCosta and Donovan are in the same group, which has worked with an immigrant resettlement program called Neighbor to Neighbor as well as a conservation group called the Shirley Heinze Land Trust. Sivanandan’s group has worked with children’s hospital A Rosie Place for Children, as well as The Logan Center, an organization that assists individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

As the semester wraps up, the class will gather in a board setting to allocate the money to five nonprofits. The amount of money the group will ultimately receive from the Philanthropy Lab varies, for example Hannah said the class receives $2,000 per student enrolled up to the twenty-fifth student. Another incentive involves the attendance of a respective school’s top official: if University President Fr. John Jenkins attends the award ceremony — due to be held Dec. 5 — the Notre Dame group will receive a further $10,000 to award.

The president’s office originally declined the class’ invitation for Jenkins to attend the ceremony, DaCosta said.

“The Philanthropy Lab … offers an extra $10,000 incentive if you get your university president to come to your award ceremony when you give the groups the money,” DaCosta said. “When we first asked him, his secretary wrote back and said he is too busy with travel and everything to come. Then the team that’s responsible for planning the award ceremony reached out again and have not heard anything back from him.”

However, Hannah said in a follow-up email he had heard from Jenkins that the university president’s attendance at the event is still a possibility.

“Actually, Fr. John just wrote us this weekend and he’s trying to make the awards ceremony — but not confirmed yet,” he said.

Sivanandan expressed hope that Jenkins could attend.

“It is a pretty low-stakes commitment, as he does not have to speak or present the awards, so hopefully he is able to attend for about 30 minutes or so,” she said.

While the class has many potential applications, DaCosta said he has learned a lot about the often-complicated nature of philanthropic work.

“It’s a much larger world than I thought it was at first,” he said. “I always thought it was pretty straightforward — you just pick a group and a cause that you like and give money to them. It’s a lot more than that. You have to be able to analyze how efficient a group is, if their executives are being paid more than they should be … there’s a lot that goes into choosing a group that will do actual good with your money rather than just kind of squandering it.”

For her part, Sivanandan said the class provides an excellent opportunity to get real-world experience.

“The fact that we have at least $50,000 to award to local nonprofits is insane. Who would ever trust college students with that much money? Being in such a hands-on class is so illuminating and empowering, as we are essentially acting as grantmakers,” she said. “This class provides a great education on the intersection of philanthropy, business, and nonprofit organizations that students probably would not receive without work experience in the nonprofit world.”

Moving forward, Hannah said he will offer the class again next fall. In the meantime, the class is looking for a donor to allow the Notre Dame course to become financially independent, as the Philanthropy Lab reallocates funding to other schools so they can start up their own programs.

“The Philanthropy Lab basically awards grants to certain universities with the intent of teaching college-aged students the importance of philanthropy, kind of under the idea that no amount of giving is too small, whether that’s time or money,” Donovan said. “Obviously, they have given us a pretty large sum of money with which we can make what I believe to be a pretty big difference with certain nonprofits. But the Philanthropy Lab’s hope is that eventually, schools become self-sufficient and get funded by an independent donor so the lab can redirect their funds to another school, and allow more students to have the opportunity to give. Something that’s important to our class is to get eventually, in the next few years, a donor to back the class, so that we can continue having such an incredible opportunity for students but also so that other schools can experience the same thing.”

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About Tom Naatz

Tom is a senior at University of Notre Dame. He is majoring in Political Science and Spanish and is originally from Rockville, Maryland. When he's not working as the News Editor at The Observer, you can find him juggling, watching D.C. sports, or juggling to distract himself from the stressful nature of D.C. sports.

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