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Learning to Give

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    Students in Melissa Byrnes' First-Year Seminar on philanthropy present a check to representatives from the Boys & Girls Club of Georgetown. The students selected the club out of four grant applicants.
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    Students from the FYS on philanthropy visit with Daniel Anstee, director of the Boys & Girls Club of Georgetown (right) and board member Bill Stanley. From left to right are Victoria Flores, Michelle Cincunegui-Legatorm, Nolan Klein and Professor Melissa Byrnes. The class ended up voting to give the organization $3,000 to start a new after-school music program.

New First-Year Seminar introduces students to the practice of philanthropy

What would you do if you had $3,000 to give away?  

That was the challenge facing students in a new First-Year Seminar that was offered at Southwestern this year.  

The seminar, titled “Doing Good and Doing It Well: The Theory and Practice of Philanthropy,” was taught by Melissa Byrnes, a history professor with a particular interest in foreign aid and international development. Byrnes said she decided to offer the seminar after teaching a class on the history of humanitarianism in fall 2010.  

“I thought an FYS with a focus on philanthropy meshed well with our students’ interests and the university’s core purpose,” Byrnes said.

The class included a broad theoretical discussion of philanthropy from multiple disciplinary perspectives such as literature, philosophy, history, religion and even neuroscience. Over the summer, students were asked to read Jane Addams’ book, Twenty Years at Hull House, in which she details her experience running a settlement house to serve the poor in Chicago in the late 1800s. Their main text was a book by Amy Kaas titled Giving Well, Doing Good: Readings for Thoughtful Philanthropists.

The class also included a local, practical project in which they were asked to solicit grant proposals from area nonprofits and select one to receive a grant. To help prepare the students for this exercise, Suzy Pukys, director of civic engagement at Southwestern, helped line up speakers from local non-profit philanthropic organizations such as the Chisholm Trail Communities Foundation and the Georgetown Health Foundation to speak to the class. 

The students originally had $1,500 to give away to a deserving local organization, but when Scott Alarcon from the Georgetown Health Foundation visited the class, he was so impressed with the students that he offered to match what they had. Alarcon matched the funds with one caveat, though – the class couldn’t take the easy way out and divide up the money.  

The students put a request for proposals online and received four proposals before their deadline. Three to five students visited each site and then reported on their experience to their classmates.  

“The opportunity to be part of a professional group doing a real site visit with the local organizations was nerve wracking at first but one of the best things I’ve done here so far,” said Angelyn Convertino, who was one of the students in the class.

The last day of class, the students voted for which proposal they thought should be funded. It was a close vote, but the organization the students selected to receive their grant was the Boys & Girls Club of Georgetown, which plans to use the money to start a new after-school music program called “Club Rock” for the children it serves.  

Students said they were impressed with the relationship between the Club’s director and its board members and also their commitment to making this new program happen even if Southwestern did not fund it. They also liked the fact that the Club is serious about education as well as making sure the kids who go there have fun. Pukys noted that the Club is the only free after-school option in town for parents who work.  

“I’m very proud of our decision to give our grant to the Boys and Girls Club,” Convertino said. “We’re going to support a great cause and help to open the doors to music for any kids in the club who want it. I’m so excited to see where this programs goes and how many kids benefit from it.”

The students presented a check to representatives from the local Boys & Girls Club at an Oct. 25 ceremony.  

“We are thrilled to be able to begin this program and offer it to youth who use our facility,” said Branch Director Daniel Anstee. “Since our yearly membership dues are only $10 per year per child, it is critical that we get community support not only to help keep our doors open, but also to help support the programs and activities that are provided. We are also thrilled to grow our partnership with Southwestern University, which is fast becoming a great resource in our ongoing volunteer needs.”  

Students who took the class said they liked its combination of theory and practice.  

“The readings from Giving Well, Doing Good, provided me with a lot of great facts and opinions about philanthropy and what philanthropy truly is,” said Sarah Ally, who took the class because she hopes someday to enter the non-profit world and get involved in philanthropic efforts. “And the fact that I was able to apply everything I learned from my readings throughout our grant process made the class even better, and I feel like I learned so much more because of it.”

And even the organizations that didn’t get funded may end up benefiting from the class. Several students in the class said they planned to volunteer at one of the sites they visited.