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Teaching the art and science of philanthropy: Students learning to give

Published: Monday, Feb. 13 2012 12:20 a.m. MST

Laura Rothlisberger, left, and Erin Pew participate in BYU's GrantWell class.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

FORTH WORTH, Texas — A middle-class student with a tuition bill of close to $130,000 hanging over her head, it's no surprise 21-year-old Kathleen Mellano spends a lot of time worrying about money. In addition to working three jobs, the bubbly brunette is relying on scholarships, federal loans and cash from mom and dad to pay for her degree in psychology from Texas Christian University.

This semester, though, it's not bills that are weighing heavily on Mellano's mind. She's been charged with the task of donating $100,000 of someone else's money to charity, and she's not quite sure how best to do it.

"I thought it would be easy to pick who to give the money to," she said. But after spending 15 anxious hours clicking through hundreds of charity websites in one week, she concluded, "It's not easy at all."

Mellano is enrolled in a hands-on course designed to teach TCU students the art and science of philanthropy. During the past decade more than 100 such courses have popped up in U.S. colleges and universities. The classes, offered at state and Ivy League schools alike, are as diverse as the campuses they are taught on. Aimed at both graduate and undergraduate students, they are presented in the context of everything from sociology to business. Some are designed to help students prepare for a career in the nonprofit sector, others have a more simple goal to help students become more aware of the nonprofit sector. But they all have one thing in common: they put real money in the hands of college students and, with it, the power to make real change.

Ballooning interest in philanthropy as an academic subject is part of a larger trend toward civic engagement on college campuses. The number of colleges that offer classes based not just on philanthropy, but also volunteerism, advocacy and activism have steadily climbed in recent years. In a 2010 survey of 1,100 colleges and universities across the country, more than 50 percent indicated they had made community service a requirement for at least one major, according to Campus Compact, a national coalition of educators that promotes civic engagement. Fourteen percent offered students the opportunity to major or minor in community service and 12 percent required all students to log some good deeds before graduation.

"We are talking about much more than an increase in philanthropy and volunteerism among students here," said Sue Kellman, director of communications for Campus Compact. "Engaging with the community through service learning is becoming a part of the fabric of college life."

With at least 25 new philanthropy courses launched within the last year, the trend doesn't show signs of slowing. The movement is driven in part by private foundations interested in training up tomorrow's donors and in part by universities' desires to meet the needs of an especially socially conscious generation of young people. Few of the students who enroll in these courses — most of whom, like Mellano, come from modest backgrounds — will go on to become billionaire philanthropists. But those who fund the programs hope they are inspiring young people to be better citizens with a better understanding of the role nonprofits play in society. Anecdotal evidence, at least, would suggest they are succeeding.

Teaching the art of giving

In a sunny classroom in Brigham Young University's business building last week, a redhead with long eyelashes and girlish cheeks, a balding 42-year-old in a crisp polo and a dark haired international student with a name made up almost entirely of consonants gathered their desks into a circle, laptops open. By semester's end, their professor hopes they'll understand the technical and ethical dilemmas that accompany donating money to charity, but on this day, they simply bantered back and forth about email addresses. The redhead, a 24-year-old master's of public administration student named Starlee Dolman, suggested, "It would seem more professional if we had one email address to have people send grant proposals to." The idea was met with enthusiasm, but what, the students wondered, should they call it?

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