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Experiential Philanthropy: SPAA Undergraduate Course's Take on Charitable Giving with an Academic Purpose

SPAA Associate Professor Lindsey McDougle introduces her “Volunteerism and Philanthropy" course at the start of the Spring 2020 semester.

SPAA Associate Professor Lindsey McDougle's Spring 2020 undergraduate course, “Volunteerism and Philanthropy,” gave students the opportunity to explore experiential philanthropy in real time with real funds. They participated in a student-driven decision-making process with an ultimate goal of an interactive and immersive experience to understand philanthropy, which was made possible by the Doris Buffett-founded Learning by Giving Foundation generously providing the class with $10,000 to distribute to local nonprofit organizations.

“In the course, we explore what it means to live in a society where individuals voluntarily give of their time and money to others,” said Dr. McDougle, who is the director of SPAA’s Philanthropy Action Lab. “As part of this exploration, and through the generosity of the Learning by Giving Foundation, students were tasked with awarding actual money to local nonprofit organizations.”

This form of service-learning pedagogy integrates charitable giving with academic study, allowing students to learn not just about philanthropy but also about using it to bring social issues to the forefront, as Dr. McDougle explains. By assuming a philanthropic funding agent's role, students get hands-on experience in identifying and advocating community needs and understanding the value of philanthropic responses to local social issues.

Over the semester, the students identified and advocated for nonprofits who have been fighting for important causes within a wide range of social issues, from unemployment to domestic violence. These students followed a systematic approach, outlined in the course module, to identify some of the critical parameters for choosing to fund a nonprofit: mission, organizational analysis, measuring organizational effectiveness, financial soundness, the organization’s ability to contribute to the community, among others.

Even as the spring semester classes shifted to a remote learning format, Dr. McDougle saw that the enthusiasm and passion for making a difference by advocating for deserving nonprofits did not wither down. The students showed remarkable resilience in uncertain times and identified two nonprofit organizations in Newark, NJ, and awarded them $5,000 each: Greater Newark Conservancy, which promotes environmental stewardship to improve the quality of life in New Jersey’s urban communities, and Essex County Family Justice Center, an organization that helps domestic violence victims access needed services.

“We are deeply grateful to you all for your commitment to volunteerism and philanthropy, your concern for and commitment to supporting families who are experiencing domestic violence, and for this generous gift,” said Mary Houtsma, executive director of the Essex County Family Justice Center, to the students upon hearing about their decision.


To learn more about the recipient organizations, the Learning by Giving Foundation, and SPAA's Philanthropy Action Lab, please use the links below: