A lesson in making a difference | Brown University News and Events
Students in “SOC1870A – Investing in Social Change: The Practice of Philanthropy” get a real-world immersion into the strategic giving process, taking on the challenge of awarding $45,000 in grants to local community organizations. This semester, for the first time, the class has partnered with United Way of Rhode Island, with employees from the nonprofit offering guidance and community connections as students navigate the complexities of the philanthropic world.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — How would you make a difference with $15,000?

It may sound like a daunting question, but it’s one that students in a sociology class at Brown are working hard to answer. “SOC1870A – Investing in Social Change: The Practice of Philanthropy” immerses students in the philanthropic process in a very real way.

Since its inception in 2007, the class has charged students with awarding up to $45,000 in grants to local nonprofit organizations during each of the five semesters that the class has been held. Using funds provided by donors Marty Granoff and Win and Anita Himsworth, three teams of six students operate much like a foundation would, researching social issues, designing a grant strategy, soliciting proposals and, at the end of the semester, awarding funding to a local organization of their choosing. To date, the class has awarded $175,000 to organizations around the state.

Meeting of the boardThe United Way’s Kyle Bennett and other professionals function as a board of directors for the class.Meeting of the board
The United Way’s Kyle Bennett and other professionals function as a board of directors for the class.
This semester, students focused on three social issues — graduation rate improvement, housing and homelessness, and fiscal stability — ultimately awarding $15,000 grants to Providence After School Alliance (PASA), Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, and Crossroads Rhode Island.

Navigating the complexities of the strategic giving process is not something the students take lightly, according to Ann Dill, associate professor of sociology, who teaches the class with Roger Nozaki, associate dean of the College and director of the Swearer Center for Public Service.

“To be interested in the topic, it’s a particular form of the larger question of how do you make change happen? Many students are interested in that larger question and want to approach it from as many different angles as possible — and this is a particular angle,” Dill said. “But those who are interested enough to take this approach, I think, have an intrinsic desire to make change happen. And the fact that it does involve a fairly substantial amount of real money kicks it over the top.”

Paige Warren-Shriner, a senior who took the class this semester, agrees that the decision weighed heavily on her and her classmates. “There was certainly pressure to ensure our funding has a significant impact,” she said. “While this was in part due to the fact that it wasn’t our own money we were giving away, the satisfaction that comes with feeling like you fully understood the problem and found a feasible solution was a more important motivator. We invested a huge amount of time in working with the community and really understanding the problem and wanted to see positive results.”

The three teams that made up this semester’s class did extensive research on their chosen focus area, localizing it to the Providence community and figuring out the best strategy for maximizing the impact of their grant.

Dill said she and Nozaki try to toe the line gently between helping students along the process and letting them learn on their own.

“We feel an accountability not just for the money but to the community. This is part of an ongoing set of relationships that the Swearer Center and the University have with the community, and we’re very aware of that,” she said. “But we hold back as much as we can, because it is a process that the students have to go through on their own. They have to own it.”

While groups do much of the work independently, they do benefit from additional guidance thanks to a partnership this semester with United Way of Rhode Island. Two fundraisers and two grant managers from the organization, along with Alan Flam and Janet Isserlis from the Swearer Center, act as a “board” for the class, attending group presentations, connecting students with organizations, and generally acting as a support system to answer questions and provide feedback to help each group to its final decision.

“It’s a pleasure to work with Brown University and their students,” said Anthony Maione, president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island. “We’re supporting Brown University, a highly valued partner, in their efforts to deliver a high-quality and relevant educational experience to their students. And, from our perspective, we’re helping to cultivate a new generation of philanthropic leaders, who will positively impact communities and individual lives for years to come. This is a great example of what it means to live united.”

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[Thanks: news.brown.edu]



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