Can Private Schools Teach Philanthropy?

According to a United Nations Foundation supported report published in 2013 by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, nine out of ten children give money to charity. This is an impressive statistic. While behavior and language from parents around charitable giving can certainly have profound effects on children's attitudes toward helping others, what role should schools play in preparing children to become philanthropic adults?

In 2008, San Francisco's Lick-Wilmerding High School, which views itself as "a private school with a public purpose," received the chance to investigate this question. A trustee of the school donated $1 million to endow a program designed to teach students about the importance and practice of philanthropy. "The Philanthropy Initiative," as it is known, challenges students to think of philanthropy broadly, from the simple actions one can take everyday to effect positive change, to the due diligence required to maximize the impact of a large financial grant.

The Philanthropy Initiative creates a one-semester course where students create personal mission statements, volunteer at community nonprofits, , read perspectives on philanthropy from greats like Carnegie and Clinton, draft requests for proposals, review dozens of worthy organizations, speak persuasively about areas of passion, forge consensus with peers throughout the philanthropic process, and journal to reflect on the endeavor. The culminating event of the course is the dispersal of $20,000 to one or two deserving organizations of the students' choosing. For the last two years, at the end of this journey, students have elected to fund nonprofits working in education.

While the Philanthropy Initiative has proven to be popular and successful, its instructors strive to make it more responsive to the demands of the real world. Christy Godinez, executive director of Lick-Wilmerding's Center for Civic Engagement and co-teacher of the course, explains the initiative's current dilemmas. For one, she believes it is too short; she would like to see the volunteering phase last a full semester so students can more fully understand the challenges nonprofits face. Christy wants more students to experience those moments when they really see beyond themselves. "When [students] volunteer," she explains, "the first thing we tell them is, 'It's not about you; it's not about you having fun; it's not about you putting something on your resume.'" Christy also struggles with the fact that the grant money is just handed to the class to disperse, and is pleased that the students struggled with that issue as well. "Something that comes up in the course is the privilege that all of them have... We don't shy away from those conversations. ... Ultimately it's learning how to use those privileges to do good." Still, she thinks fundraising may become part of the course's next iteration.

A sampling of student comments on the course blog indicates that attitudes toward giving did evolve over the semester. For instance, Jamie recognized that "with any practice of philanthropy, one should also practice intentionality." Similarly, Julian learned "that money isn't everything when it comes to philanthropy. There are real impacts that can be made without the help of a ton of money." Oscar, after hearing a presentation from a prominent philanthropist on the question "Why do people give?" revealed that he "started thinking about a more important question...'What prevents everyone from giving?'"

Christy Godinez indeed hopes that all students consider themselves philanthropists when they leave Lick-Wilmerding. That is why she's always looking for ways more students can get engaged in the practice of giving. The latest innovation is the Center for Civic Engagement's Public Purpose Program, a more holistically integrated system of giving that the school will roll out over the next few years. The program will require each academic department to offer one course with a 15% public purpose, so that students in a statistics course might analyze data for a nonprofit burdened by a demand for evidence, or a technology class might help wire a low-income classroom. Christy has many other goals to improve her students' capacity to give back, including making leadership a required class. When asked the most important quality of a leader, she pauses and says, "Empathy."