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An Experiment in Giving

An Experiment in Giving

Students in Louise Sawyer's Ex-College course gain the opportunity to immerse themselves in the philanthropic world.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [06.29.09] While bringing real-world experience into the classroom may not be a new trick, Louise Sawyer's Experimental College course "Experimenting with Philanthropy" takes the concept to a different level. The course, offered each spring, not only gives students insight into the principles of the nonprofit world, but also gives them $10,000 to put those principles into action.

Thanks to a five-year grant received in 2007 from the Sunshine Lady Foundation's "Learning by Giving" program, funded by world-renowned philanthropist Warren Buffet's sister, Doris, the class will receive $10,000 each year to distribute to nonprofit organizations of their choosing. The goal of the program is to encourage college-level, undergraduate philanthropy courses.

"Students come from a variety of backgrounds," Sawyer says, "which makes the course really rich. So far they have been diving in with great enthusiasm."

Over the past three years the class has given a total of $30,000 to 17 organizations in Medford, Somerville and Chinatown, including Groundwork Somerville, the Medford Family network and the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center.

The course is broken up into several components, including site visits, grant and proposal writing and a speaker series that brings in representatives from various nonprofits and foundations. The students hear first-hand about the problems that nonprofits tackle to provide services and that foundations face to provide funds.

"Each student gets a 360 degree view of the philanthropic process," Sawyer says. "All students get the opportunity to play the role of an advocate for their nonprofit by writing a grant on its behalf, as well as the evaluators of grant proposals on behalf of the student foundation.We divide the group into two foundations so no one ends up evaluating their own proposal."

Sawyer adds, "How you deal with the competition of so many great organizations is the biggest challenge. The wonderful thing that happens is that students really agonize over the decisions, because it's very real to them having seen the first-hand needs during site visits. I'm glad that they have the knowledge and tools to help them guide through their difficult decisions."

In contrast to the four other programs funded by the Sunshine Lady Foundation, Sawyer's course has students volunteer as grant writers, assigning one student per local nonprofit.



When Laura McNulty (A'08), a Spanish major, decided to take the course during her final semester at Tufts, she had hoped to learn more about grant writing to aid her in a future career in nonprofits. By the end of the semester, however, she says she came out with a whole lot more.

"You wear a lot of different hats in this course, being grant evaluators, writers and students of the philanthropic world," McNulty says. "Going on site visits and learning what to look for when figuring out how to allocate funds to a number of very worthy non-profits -- that side of the experience is so important for people in the nonprofit field to understand how the whole system works."

In her current position as a site coordinator for National Student Partnerships in Somerville, which was startedby a core group of Tufts University faculty and administratorsin 2003,McNulty says she has seen what she learned in the classroom come to life.

"When I took the course, the grant I wrote was on behalf of NSP, and it was one of the organizations that the opposing class foundation chose to fund. This year I have gotten to see how the $2,500 grant that I wrote was implemented, so it has sort of come full circle."

When entering the job market, biology major Carrie Jones (A'08) says what she learned in the course made her look at the interviewing process from a new perspective.

"I found myself asking, 'What is this organization really all about? Do they have a strategic plan?' And I looked at the measurable aspects we talked about in regards to questions to ask at site visits," Jones says. "I started asking those questions when looking for jobs, and it has definitely made me [better able to judge] if it is good fit for me."

Sawyer, a visiting lecturer from the Center for Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, started her career as a lawyer. Fifteen years ago, she began working in the nonprofit world-and never turned back.

Sawyer worked as director of grants and programs for Crossroads Community Foundation, a small community foundation in Boston, where she says, "Part of my job was helping [develop] a program in philanthropy education for high school students that followed a model by the Kellogg Foundation. It was an extracurricular activity that educated them about the nonprofit world and about philanthropy." Sawyer then happened upon an article in The New York Times about the Sunshine Lady Foundation and one in The Boston Globe about the Experimental College. Soon thereafter, she developed the course.

According to Sawyer, "This is a really important time for students to be learning about philanthropy, not only because it is a time when philanthropic resources are so important to nonprofits in general due to the cutbacks in government and state funding, but also because there is a very big need for new, young leaders in the nonprofit world."

Story by Kaitlin Provencher, Web Communications.


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