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What to Do with $50K

A Lesson in Global Giving

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Imagine you’ve unexpectedly received a hefty inheritance. (Congratulations!) Determined to spread the wealth, you plan to donate $50,000 to a good cause. But how do you choose which cause to support?

Students in “Social Justice Through Philanthropy,” a spring quarter seminar course, faced this question after receiving $50,000 to distribute to philanthropic organizations. The money was provided by The Philanthropy Lab, a nonprofit that partners with colleges and universities to spark and expand students’ interest in philanthropy.  

A students takes notes on a large whiteboard in class.

LSJ student Aidan Murray took notes as the class debated and finalized its philanthropic donations. Media credit: Colette Cosner

After a successful career in finance, an anonymous donor founded The Philanthropy Lab in 2011. The donor had experienced the steep learning curve involved in philanthropic giving and wanted to educate future philanthropists. The organization has worked with faculty at nearly two dozen universities in disciplines ranging from philosophy to sociology to nonprofit management. The UW course — offered by the Department of Law, Societies & Justice (LSJ) — focused on global giving.

“My job was to develop in the students this very critical lens so they would think deeply about what they were doing,” says Stephen Meyers, assistant professor of LSJ and international studies and core faculty in disability studies, who taught the course. Meyers assigned readings and discussions on complex issues in global giving, including the challenge of giving across cultures and the tendency for marginalized groups to be overlooked in international development. He also worked with University Advancement to organize a panel of local philanthropists who spoke to the class about their giving philosophy. “They gave us advice about what to look out for when reading through and thinking about grant proposals — things like budget allocations of the organization, transparency, and failure rates of previous projects,” says LSJ major Crystal Song. “All of this helped us as a class formulate our values for philanthropic giving.”

LSJ student Crystal Song writing an oversized check.

“It was my first time writing on a big check like that! I was very nervous,” says Crystal Song, who was chosen to write the presentation checks. “It was pretty cool that my penmanship has its perks.” Media credit: Colette Cosner

To solicit grant proposals, Meyers reached out to Global Washington (GlobalWA), a network of international non-governmental organizations, foundations, and academic institutions based in Washington state. Choosing from ten issues that GlobalWA member organizations address, the students chose five as their focus: human rights, the refugee crisis, global health, food security, and education. The 25 students split into five teams, each assigned to research one of the issues and create a policy brief and in-class presentation summarizing what they learned. They continued as issue experts when grant proposals arrived from GlobalWA member organizations.

The class received 22 proposals representing a wide range of projects, with each proposal totaling more than 30 pages in length  —  sometimes twice that length with appendices and financial documents. Though the students had access to all the proposals, they were tasked with scrutinizing those related to their issue. Representatives from the organizations also visited the class, where they fielded questions from students about everything from data collection to financial solvency to inclusion of people with disabilities. “I was completely impressed with the students,” says Meyers. “They made these NGOs sweat.”

For LSJ major Bhuri Tiasevanakul, assigned to the Global Health team, the most memorable presentations were those where the speakers had a palpable connection to the community they served.  “When the speakers radiated the connection they have with what they do, it helped to further establish a sense of trust for us as students,” Tiasevanakul says. “The presentations influenced our final decision, but the submitted proposals were weighed equally, if not more, in the decision-making process.”

...I’d like to think that we would have chosen the same organizations even if it had been money coming directly from our pockets.

Jessica Niewohner, an LSJ major on the Refugee Crisis team, agrees that the written proposals had the largest impact. Though all the organizations were “phenomenal,” she was most drawn to those that create jobs in the places they work, use local suppliers and products, and are inclusive of diverse local voices. “I felt that these qualities were indicative of a sustainable and well-developed project that would make long-lasting change in a community,” Niewohner says. “Another priority was that the organizations were cost-effective. If an organization could reach a large amount of people without sacrificing the quality of their mission, this would mean that our donation could have a great impact.”

Stephen Meyers speaking at the giving celebration.

“The Philanthropy Lab not only gave us the $50,000 to make this class possible, but they also gave us their trust,” said Professor Stephen Meyers at the giving ceremony. Media credit: Colette Cosner

Each LSJ team summarized the proposals it reviewed, outlining strengths and possible challenges, before recommending one proposal for funding. The entire class then reached a consensus on which organizations should receive a $25,000 gift, a $10,000 gift, and one of three $5,000 gifts (see sidebar). Meyers served as facilitator throughout, but kept mum on his own opinions. “I didn’t tell the students what organizations I liked or didn’t like,” he says. “This needed to be their choice.”

Though the students were not donating their own hard-earned cash, the decision weighed on them. “All of us took these grant proposals really seriously, and I’d like to think that we would have chosen the same organizations even if it had been money coming directly from our pockets,” says Song, who was on the Human Rights team. Tiasevanakul adds that “there were nights where I would fall asleep lost in my thoughts and worries concerning the class. Because it was not my own money, I felt the need to make the most out of it and not waste a single penny.”

The donations were presented to the selected organizations at a giving celebration attended by UW President Ana Mari Cauce, Philanthropy Lab program director Cristina Desmond, GlobalWA executive director Kristin Dailey, LSJ students and faculty, and other guests.

“There were so many organizations we would have liked to support, …but I think that everyone was ultimately satisfied with our choices,” says Niewohner. “I hope that if I’m ever in a position where I can give away a grant of this size again, I will put in as much effort and do as much research to ensure that I am making a positive impact with my money.”

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Want to support this effort? The UW and Philanthropy Lab are currently seeking funding partners to ensure future iterations of this experiential philanthropy class within Law, Societies & Justice. To learn more, please contact Megan Lynn at mlynn25@uw.edu or 206-616-5526.

Students in the Social Justice Through Philanthropy class gather for a photo with the award recipients.

During an end-of-quarter giving ceremony, the class celebrated with representatives of the chosen organizations. Media credit: Colette Cosner