Quick: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a philanthropist?
If you’re anything like the students in Lindsey McDougle’s “Philanthropy, Volunteerism, and Community Service” course at Rutgers University–Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA), odds are good that some of the wealthiest people in world history come to mind: John D. Rockefeller Sr., Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, and so on.
McDougle is on a mission to change that.
Rather than confining the “philanthropist” label to only the wealthiest few, McDougle strives to empower students to identify as change agents—no matter the size of their bank accounts. “The idea is to inspire them to recognize that they are philanthropists and they have the power to change any condition that they see in their community,” McDougle says. “And it doesn’t take an overwhelming amount of money to do that. It really is just a way for students to think about ‘What can I do, with what I have, to make a difference?’”
That’s a lofty goal, but McDougle has found a data-backed strategy for achieving it in the form of experiential philanthropy—a type of service learning that gives students opportunities to study social problems, research nonprofit organizations, and make decisions about investing in nonprofits. The idea has taken off at colleges and universities across the United States and is gaining traction in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Here’s how it works: The class is assigned $10,000 to distribute to area nonprofits either as a single sum ($10,000 to one nonprofit) or multiple smaller gifts ($2,000 to five organizations or $5,000 to two nonprofits). The class’s 30 students are divided into six groups, each of which is tasked with identifying a social issue in Newark, New Jersey. Each group researches a related area nonprofit and then develops a pitch for the rest of the class that spells out why their chosen nonprofit should receive funding.
“So now all 30 students in the class know more about six different social issues facing the city of Newark,” McDougle says. They also have full discretion over how the money gets divvied up. “It’s a great exercise at giving students full agency in taking responsibility for a major decision that will affect a number of people’s lives and the organizations.”
Empowering students to identify and operate as philanthropists often leads to radical changes in their self-concept and significantly increases community engagement.
“This type of engaged pedagogy…inspires students so much to want to give back to their communities,” McDougle says. On pre- and postcourse surveys, students consistently report a much greater interest in volunteering and donating after taking the course. “If you’ve never been given the identity of a philanthropist but someone now tells you, ‘You are a philanthropist,’ you start to absorb the identity and you see yourself as a philanthropist,” she adds.
McDougle’s research also suggests that students who participate in experiential philanthropy are much more likely to be aware of social issues and nonprofits in their communities.
That was the case for Adwoah Adomako SPAA’21, a former student of McDougle’s. “Working with Dr. McDougle showed me that I am a philanthropist and although my work does not come in the shape of financial support, being an advocate and informed plays a huge role in creating upward mobility for these programs,” she says. She plans to carry that lesson into life beyond graduation. “As an alum, I hope to stay engaged with philanthropy. I feel like it’s a part of my purpose on earth.”
Sharod Delain, a current student in McDougle’s course and a public administration major who intends to create a financial literacy and wellness program after graduation, has also found the course to be transformative. “Being in [the] class has helped me a whole lot, because I realized that I really do like philanthropy,” he says. “I really do like giving back; I really do like helping people.”
The course has also inspired Delain to expand his vision for the nonprofit he plans to create. In the class, his group is focused on teen suicide in New Jersey, and researching that issue prompted Delain to draw connections between financial literacy and mental well-being. He’s learned that “lack of money leads to depression” and has become a strong advocate for mental health. “Teen depression and suicide happen mostly in disadvantaged families—those who are living right there at the poverty line,” he says. “For everybody in general, mental health is something that we need to speak about more.”
Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from exercises in experiential philanthropy. So do area nonprofits, who are not just benefactors of student funding but also tend to recruit interns and gain some publicity from McDougle’s courses.
“A lot of the organizations that students provide funding to are organizations that would probably never be funded by large foundations” because they’re smaller or more localized, McDougle says. In many cases, students have personal knowledge of the nonprofits for which they advocate because the organizations have touched their lives in some way.
Students who engage in experiential philanthropy are also more likely to give back as alumni, both at Rutgers and elsewhere, through donations of time, talent, or funds. “You’re building the next generation of philanthropists and people that are going to give back to their university and to any organizations that they truly have a passion for,” McDougle says. “It really does let students know, ‘You don’t have to have $2 million.’ Any little bit can make a difference toward helping organizations and causes that you see in your community.”
Get involved with the Rutgers–Newark community and give back in your own unique way. Learn more here: newark.rutgers.edu/information-alumni-and-supporters.