Teaching philanthropy in the ‘Middlebury Bubble’


Alliance magazine


For a small but growing number of professors, philanthropy is being taught in the classroom to students who then engage in philanthropy. In 2013 and 2015, we co-taught a course at Middlebury College in Vermont in which our students had a sum of ‘real’ money to give away to international or local charities, supported by The Philanthropy Lab and the Learning by Giving Foundation.

In this post, we reflect on the experience of helping students learn about engaging in charitable work.

The ethical dilemmas and practical concerns faced by the nonprofit sector are well-known to us as scholars, but took on new meaning when our students became grant-makers. In combining theory and practice, this class helped students think more deeply about a number of questions, including their own motivations, the inequality inherent in philanthropy, and the political implications of charitable giving.

In each class, 25-30 students were broken into 5 small groups that researched national and local charities and then decided whether to give any money to that charity.

Student research was enriched by interviews with and many site visits to the charities. Each group wrote a report, presented it to the class, and the whole class then discussed and decided how to give the money away.

Conversations with charity leaders helped students experience the language of philanthropy, understand the daily life of charitable work, and, when possible, meet the beneficiaries.

Co-teaching this course helped facilitate our exploration of the ethics and practice of philanthropy. Sarah is a political scientist studying international NGOs, while Steve is a philosopher working on global justice and the morality of war. These different specializations allowed us to model from day one productive dialogue (and disagreement!) for our students.

For example, Sarah’s presentation on the actual practices of charities in the United States led Steve to ask how different ethical commitments infused the mission statements and strategies of these charities.

When Steve compared Peter Singer and John Arthur’s conceptions of duties to aid others, Sarah and several students asked about the practical challenges presented by Singer’s demanding moral framework. Beyond the classroom discussions, we also shared a vision for the grant, and explicitly told the students that it was their money, not ours.

This provided the students with a platform to fully explore their own interests. We wanted the hard decisions about awarding the money to come from the students, based on their own criteria.

Our class discussions emerged from the basic concept of inequality: what it is, what we can do, and whether we have moral obligations to rectify great disparities in inequality and power.

The conversations were often linked to questions of distributive justice. We explored whether certain people in need had rights or had simply had needs that should be fulfilled by others, and the individual or institutional moral obligations that might arise.

We also explored how to empower those in need. While committed to empowerment generally, we often knew very little about the needs of our intended beneficiaries (as when discussing refugees in Vermont or women subjected to domestic violence).

In a discussion of basic health interventions in developing countries, students were also divided on whether to provide basic services or address the political roots of suffering. Students also began to understand the power dynamics engaged in an act of giving to the ‘less privileged.’ These power relationships, of course, affect both how givers and recipients come to see themselves.

Across our two classes, we saw a few other recurring themes:

  • Whether there are special moral obligations to give locally or to compatriots. At our internationally-oriented liberal arts college, many students felt strongly about prioritizing the concerns of those outside our local and national community.
  • How groups with ‘reasonable disagreements,’ like citizens in a community, should determine the criteria and procedures for making decisions about aiding those in need. In both classes, we saw a lot of frustration in the last days of deliberation as students had to figure out amongst themselves how to finally allocate the money.
  • How to quantify or analyze the results of charitable acts. Students that could deploy specific metrics tended to prevail in discussions of the merit of their particular cause.
  • The overwhelming need among people in the world and in our local communities.

Our students grappled with their global and local responsibilities. In considering international causes, many students were struck by stark global inequality and the incredible number of people who die daily due to preventable poverty related causes, e.g. diarrhea or not having the money to purchase mosquito nets to prevent malaria.

Locally, the site visits got students out of the ‘Middlebury bubble’ – as one student wrote in her course evaluation, the visit to our local homeless shelter was the “most valuable” part of the course and ‘gave me a perspective of the needs in this community.’

Interestingly, students also had heated disagreements about their local responsibilities– and whether Addison County, Vermont, a rural, largely white community, is their community (as opposed to our more diverse campus or their hometown).

With real money in hand, the stakes of our conversations were much higher than your average class. A discussion concerning power and politics resulted when one of the student groups proposed supporting a charity that advocated for migrant rights. Students debated whether nonprofits can and should embrace political advocacy, and whether they, as a class, should provide such support to a charity that engages in political action.

Another candidate organization was a small local group dedicated to youth mentoring. When some students questioned the capacity of this group to absorb funds and demonstrate impact, other students responded that such criteria for giving only reinforce the power and resources of already-large nonprofits.

We then turned to whether new organizations or underfunded groups were generally “too risky” or whether funding established organizations just reinforces the power that they have to frame our very understanding of the most needy are in our communities.

Finally, the temporary power of students as philanthropists led to some critical self-reflection. Some noted that our status as an elite liberal arts institution likely made us an attractive partner for our supporting foundations.

A few students returned from their site visits openly uncomfortable with the fact that they lacked experience and expertise but still had substantial grantmaking power.

Other students were aware that their future income might allow them to engage in substantial philanthropy and sought to better understand good practices among nonprofits and donors.

In the final days, the discretion and power of donors was made clear to students as they deliberated: as one frustrated student wrote on the last day, “giving is subjective and selfish.” As students deliberated within their respective groups and as groups presented their investigations to the class for criticism and discussion, students became aware of the power of persuasion and the potential exploitative use of images of victims, even as group is trying to do good.

For students interested in political science, the class helped reveal how political institutions shape the regulatory and resource environments in which charities operate. Philosophy and political science provided ways to reflect on individualistic and liberal values that create space for private philanthropy but also might contribute to social inequality.

In short, our class, with a project-based component that dealt with inequality and power, created much deeper engagement with the questions and tasks faced by community leaders.

Sarah S. Stroup is associate professor of political science at Middlebury College and author of Borders Among ActivistsSteve Viner, Ph.D., J.D., is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Middlebury College.

This article originally appeared on HistPhil on 22 May 2017. The original article can be found here.

Tagged in: Learning by Giving Foundation Middlebury College teaching philanthropy The Philanthropy Lab

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