Students who applied to the Yale College seminar “Philanthropy in Action” were in for a surprise when they saw the course’s syllabus: members of the class would have the opportunity to distribute $100,000 to charities of their choosing.
The course is the recipient of a grant from the Once Upon a Time Foundation, which gave between $50,000 and $100,000 to similar courses at eight universities this academic year, said Sam Lett, the foundation’s president. By allowing students to donate such large sums of money, Lett said the foundation hopes to motivate them to engage thoughtfully in philanthropy. He added that he would like to expand the initiative to additional schools in the future.
“What is unique about this is that it’s not just a theoretical course in philanthropy,” Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon said. “The students are actually performing philanthropy.”
Maxim Thorne ’89 LAW ’92, who is teaching the seminar at Yale, said the course will first ground students in the history, political theory and economics of philanthropy, and then ask them to apply the metrics they learn for evaluating which charities to support. The class will also bring in prominent philanthropists throughout the spring. Students will interview the guests on camera through the Yale Media Center, and the interviews will be posted to Youtube and iTunes, Thorne said.
Thorne had proposed teaching a college seminar on philanthropy before the Once Upon a Time Foundation independently approached Yale about providing money for students to donate. Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs George Levesque, who oversees the college seminar program, said the foundation’s grant opened up a “really interesting pedagogical opportunity” that would not otherwise have been possible. He added that the program intentionally did not advertise the $100,000 grant for the course so that only students “genuinely interested” would apply. Student demand for the course was high regardless: Thorne said he received 185 applications and more than 80 students emailed him or attended the seminar’s first meeting.
Frances Sawyer ’12, a student in the course, said she was “thrilled” when she learned about the $100,000 grant from the syllabus.
“Very few people get the opportunity to make these types of decisions, and to be able to do this in a class setting is great,” Sawyer said. “It really makes the idea of philanthropy more tactile and gives you a whole new rubric of things to think about.”
Lett said the foundation’s idea for the initiative sprang from a desire to educate students about the value of giving back to their communities. It first provided funding a few years ago for students at three high schools in Fort Worth, Tex. — where the foundation is based — to donate to prescreened nonprofits. Last spring, the foundation sponsored a course similar to Yale’s at Texas Christian University. Students in a senior colloquium called “Nature of Giving” at TCU’s honors college were given $20,000 by the foundation to donate to local charities in the Fort Worth area, said Ron Pitcock, who taught the course.
Pitcock said after his students studied the evolution of philanthropy in the United States from the days of Andrew Carnegie to Warren Buffett and examined theories behind philanthropic giving, they visited charities and debated the merits of each one. The class started with a list of 100 local charities that they eventually narrowed down to 40, then 10, and finally three, he said.
“The students said it was unlike any class they had taken in their college years,” Pitcock said. “It was the first time where they felt they had a responsibility not only to themselves for learning, but also to the community to make the right decisions.”
This academic year, the foundation expanded its model beyond TCU to seven other universities, Lett said. The University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan offered courses on philanthropy sponsored by the foundation this fall, and Yale joins TCU, Stanford University, the University of Texas, the University of Virginia and Princeton University in offering a course this spring.
Doug Bauer, who has co-taught a philanthropy course in Penn’s urban studies program for over a decade, said receiving money from the foundation this fall to make actual donations was “a real eye-opener” for students. In previous years, his course would use mock scenarios to simulate the experience of running a philanthropic foundation, but with actual funding “it became a very serious endeavor,” he said.
Philanthropists who will visit Yale’s class include Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen and civil rights leader Julian Bond.