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Texas Christian University Course Encourages Responsible Giving

Texas Christian University Course Encourages Responsible Giving

College students are often open to donating their time to a charity to help make a difference for a few hours a week, but rarely have the resources available to make a long-term financial impact to propel the mission of an organization.

But students enrolled in the Nature of Giving class in the John V. Roach Honors College at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth are able to do just that. Having $100,000 of real money to donate to nonprofit organizations makes the class more powerful than implementing a simulation where there is no actual impact.

“It’s unlike any class I’ve ever taught,” said Professor Ron Pitcock. “The students take ownership of the class as mature, professional leaders. They truly see the money as their money and regard the course as an opportunity to make a substantial difference. The students in the course have demonstrated a keen ability to navigate their way around the clutter of messages produced by nonprofits and to recognize what is busy work and what is real and meaningful. With $100,000 on the line, they quickly zero in on the strengths and weaknesses of nonprofits. It’s fascinating to watch.”

The money is available to the students thanks to a generous grant by the Once Upon A Time Foundation, a Fort Worth-based organization that is geared to giving back to groups who will put the money to good use. But rather than choosing who will receive the money themselves, the foundation recognizes the benefit of having students make the decision instead.

“The objective was to instill the value of giving back and to discuss the process and challenges that come with philanthropic support for a community,” said President Sam Lett. “Allowing students to make these contributions of real money makes them excited and involved, and it elevates their interest. They become more engaged in the process because they’ve been given this responsibility. We don’t tell them what nonprofits to give to because we want them to figure this out for themselves.  That’s what this course is all about – teaching students the tools necessary to give money in an informed and thoughtful way.”

Oftentimes, a decision to donate money to charity is based off of emotions related to making a difference. While having those emotions is good as a starting point, they can also cloud judgment in ultimately deciding where the money will be put to the best use.

The Nature of Giving class puts the responsibility on students to conduct research on different charities to ultimately decide where the best return of investment will come. After starting with more than 100 potential groups, the class will ultimately decide on five or six to receive a share of the money, and decide how much should go to each one.

“I’m not sure anyone walked out of last week's class happy because the process of cutting so many worthy nonprofits was difficult,” Pitcock said. “Although the process was logical, the emotions probably got the best of them.”

Removing emotion from the equation has been one of the most difficult things students have dealt with in the class. But at the same time, it has helped prepare them to look more critically to decide where the money should be spent.

“How can you choose between funding to create gardens in a classroom over helping the blind community in the area or victims of domestic violence? It becomes sticky but we have to make decisions,” said Kari Berdelle. “For me personally, I had a connection to one of the original organizations because of my sorority. It was really hard for me to watch it be scrutinized by our class and ultimately not move on into the next round.”

Students take all aspects of the organizations into consideration as they make their decision. They actively research the groups 990 tax forms to see exactly how their money is being spent, if their donation would go directly toward making an impact, and how much would likely go to overhead costs.

“The giving process is not easy, but actually extremely difficult,” said Taylor Kopycinski. “You could fall in love with a mission of a nonprofit but if their finances are out of whack, you know your funds would not be used to their full ability.”

Donating $100,000 will have an immediate impact on philanthropy, but empowering students with more knowledge will enable them to donate more wisely in the future and make them a valuable resource as they become involved in nonprofit missions.

“Last year, I had a student who took a part time job working for a nonprofit in town that did not make the final cut for the class,” Pitcock said. “The nonprofit hired him to analyze what it was about their materials that failed to convince the class to give them money. All of a sudden, my student is the expert. Students walk away from this course ready to influence how these organizations operate. They’ll be great candidates for board of directors’ positions or managerial positions with nonprofits.”

After one successful year at TCU, the Once Upon A Time Foundation has implemented similar donations at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, University of Texas, University of Virginia, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton to create an entire generation of well-educated donors.

“Before the class, I thought giving mostly consisted of attending a fundraiser or writing a check,” said Jack O’Brien. “Most college students do not have the income to be able to donate much of their own money to charitable causes. This class has definitely caused me to think about philanthropy at a much younger age than I would have otherwise.”

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