PHILADELPHIA – University of Pennsylvania student Sharree Walls didn't realize when she signed up for a course on philanthropy that she'd actually become a philanthropist at the end of the semester.
Then her professors announced that the class would be doling out $100,000 to local nonprofits. Walls said she was thrilled, excited — and "definitely a little nervous."
"Obviously, it's a huge responsibility," said Walls, a 21-year-old urban studies major from Lombard, Ill.
The funds came from the Once Upon A Time foundation based in Fort Worth, Texas. Penn is among 13 U.S. colleges to receive a grant from the private philanthropy, which has quickly expanded the program since a successful pilot at Texas Christian University in 2010.
"Our goal is to expose students to the importance of giving back, and giving back in a thoughtful manner," said foundation President Sam Lett.
But students must do a lot of learning, and legwork, before the checks are written.
At Penn, an Ivy League school in Philadelphia, Doug Bauer and Greg Goldman have co-taught an urban studies course on philanthropy and nonprofits for more than a decade. Bauer is executive director at The Clark Foundation, a private philanthropy in New York; Goldman is vice president of development at the nonprofit Philadelphia Zoo.
The class was a perfect fit for Lett's foundation, which offered Penn its first grant last year. Bauer said the money hasn't changed how the course is taught, but "it makes all the information and ideas we share during the semester come alive."
The first several weeks include lectures, discussions, readings and papers — all designed to teach students "how complex it is to nurture an urban community, and how critical the role of nonprofits and philanthropy are," Bauer said.
This year's class split up and created four "foundations" that would award $25,000 each. They had to devise mission statements, solicit grant proposals from local nonprofits, make site visits and interview administrators.
Easier said than done, of course, since discussions over mission and grant eligibility can get contentious. Mifta Chowdury, 21, a psychology major from the Bronx, N.Y., said his group had a serious debate about funding a faith-based organization. They ultimately decided against it.
After weeks of due diligence, the awards were made last Thursday.
"It's a little bit scarier thinking about the fact this is really money," Chowdury said. "We want it to be used as best as possible, where it's going to have the most impact."
Chowdury's group ended up splitting its $25,000 among three groups. One recipient was the Mazzoni Center, which got $7,000 for health programs serving the lesbian, gay and transgender communities.
Agency executive director Nurit Shein said the Penn students who visited the agency were enthusiastic, willing to learn and "asked very good, wonderful questions."
"It was really so refreshing, I have to say," Shein said. "We always deal with foundations that are jaded in some ways ... (and) here were these young people with so much openness."
Even as Once Upon A Time expands the program to more campuses — first-time grant recipients this year include Harvard, Middlebury, Northwestern and the University of Chicago — Lett said the foundation has also decided it wants schools to create mechanisms for following up on grants, another key component of responsible philanthropy.
Last year, Penn students gave $7,500 to SquashSmarts, a Philadelphia after-school program that teaches squash to inner-city students while offering mentoring and tutoring. Executive director Stephen Gregg said last week that, among other things, the money helped fund a trip to a tournament at Williams College in Massachusetts.
"It was a surprise, and a wonderful surprise," Gregg said of the grant. "And we were thrilled to be chosen."
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