A remarkable experiment in philanthropy is under way in America. At universities across the country, students are being entrusted by philanthropists with thousands of dollars – real dollars – to give to charity. These courses, known as ‘student philanthropy’, aim to engage students with both the norms and challenges of charitable giving, and to cultivate a sense of civic responsibility.
There are now over 50 such courses encouraged by university leaders as part of ‘service learning’ efforts, and funded by philanthropic organizations such as Doris Buffett’s Learning by Giving Foundation and Geoffrey Raynor’s Philanthropy Lab. These courses vary in funding, disciplinary settings and pedagogical methods, but students usually receive around $10,000 to $100,000 to distribute to charity.
On a sunny morning on 1 April 2013, I started co-teaching one such course during a sabbatical at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. After almost a decade leading a family foundation in London, my sabbatical inside the white-hot cauldron of Silicon Valley philanthropy was not short of contrast from life back home.
But it was not the glitz and allure of new silicon philanthropies – established by such titans as Facebook, Google and LinkedIn – that provided the best moments. Rather, it was the experience of being back in the classroom with a roomful of enquiring students and Stanford lecturer and former foundation director, Dr Bruce Sievers.