Philanthropy in the Classroom

Degree programs are empowering a generation to take on an ever-changing world

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Attitudes formed and lessons learned in the college years can truly shape our lives forever. For this reason, it’s not surprising to see that an increasing number of universities have brought philanthropy to the classroom in a highly literal way: with degree programs in philanthropy and nonprofit management.

Considering the rapid growth of philanthropy in recent years, it’s no surprise that institutions of higher learning are adding the art of giving to their humanities offerings. After all, when your enrollment consists, quite literally, of the leaders of tomorrow, lessons in constructive and intelligent giving can end up making a lasting impact not just on students, but also on the charities themselves and the world at large.

While the first School of Philanthropy was introduced at Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis (IUPUI) in 2013, coursework in philanthropy has been a part of curricula for decades- even inspiring a curiosity-laden piece in the New York Timesall the way back in 1997, where the author marveled at a fivefold increase in philanthropy graduate programs nationwide. Today, IUPUI also offers undergrad degrees as well as doctorates in the discipline, a clear indication that this course of study is only growing in demand.

Even now, over twenty years after that somewhat skeptical Times article, some question marks hang over this educational path. What is it exactly that they’re doing in these programs, and why?

The purpose of most organized philanthropic studies is training students for work in the nonprofit sector, which represents an estimated $878 billion chunk of the national GDP. Upon graduation, up to ten percent of matriculating students will enter this field, many holding degrees purposefully designed for navigating the charitable sphere.

While we may not think of philanthropy as a setting for aggressively competitive types, the fact is that these nonprofit jobs are equally as coveted as their for-profit counterparts, with highly rewarding (in both senses of the word) careers to be had by the most ambitious of these graduates. With this in mind, it’s only appropriate that they’re getting the same rigorous education as their peers in finance or communications.

Classes like “Introduction to Philanthropic Fundraising” and “Nonprofit Management and Leadership” address the practical tasks facing nonprofit workers, while “Philanthropy and the Humanities” or “Ethics and Values of Philanthropy” are part of forming a fully-rounded appreciation of all that philanthropy can achieve when thoughtfully applied.

Philanthropy thought leader and founding director of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy Joel Fleishman has long stood at the confluence of education and civic engagement. For much of his career, Fleishman has been a passionate advocate for education as a means to ensure compassion and ethical behavior from the next generation of leaders. Writing on the subject in 1981 with Bruce L. Payne, he said,

“Education…can increase the likelihood that [recipients] will act more ethically — that they will be more sensitive to the responsibilities they have undertaken, more alert to the consequences of their acts, more careful in observing the laws and rules that regulate conduct.”

The line connecting education and philanthropy is made clear here: the goal of all education, according to Fleishman, his coauthor and many others like Eleanor Roosevelt, is to create better citizens. Philanthropy as a degree offering is somewhat of an accelerator, then, which leads interested students directly to a career from which they can satisfy their ambitions while simultaneously making the world a better place.

Follow-up studies have a lot of good to say about the effects of teaching philanthropy. Namely, that it creates future leaders in a field that can always enjoy more of them. Researchers found that students who learned philanthropy in the classroom were more likely to make charitable contributions, volunteer, and serve on nonprofit boards at a much higher rate than others. Such programs let us watch in real-time the creation of philanthropy’s future. And that future is bright.

With the growing professionalization of the charitable field represented by such academic programs, major groups like the Gates Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies are now able to choose from the most well-trained cohort of future nonprofit leaders in perhaps all of history. Philanthropy has become a professional field all its own, and these academic programs are further proof of this development, and a beacon for its future.

All this isn’t to say that the next generation of philanthropists will need to be fully accredited in order to lead. Even the students in more traditional majors will benefit from these programs, and can bolster their schedule with one or two philanthropy classes. The mere existence of a concentration in philanthropy is a major step forward for the charitable world, and the more young people are given the tools to help, the more benefits those we serve are sure to enjoy in the near future.

Taking all this into consideration, it’s clear that the next generation of philanthropists will have among them some of the best-informed givers yet. Though there are no entry requirements for philanthropy, a higher degree of preparation will surely provide the benefit of a more professional, efficient, and wide-reaching approach to those in need.

Personally, we are excited and fully embrace this development within the higher education world as we all win. We hope our children and others avail themselves of this wonderful opportunity, even if it is only for a class of two.