Social Psychology Network

Maintained by Scott Plous, Wesleyan University

2012 Action Teaching Award: Honorable Mention

SPN Action Teaching Award    The Social Psychology Network Action Teaching Award entry below received Honorable Mention in 2012. Instructors are welcome to use or adapt this material for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given to the Honorable Mention recipient.

For additional details, please see the SPN Action Teaching Award home page.

Honorable Mention
Title: Teaching Business Students Through Philanthropy-Based Education
Submitted by: Marsha Huber (Youngstown State University)
Shirine Mafi (Otterbein University)
Category: Classroom activity, student assignment
For students/learners in: College
Objective(s): To help students (1) understand the management and accounting issues that not-for-profit organizations face, (2) learn how to critically evaluate grant proposals and presentations, and (3) become aware of the social needs in their community and effective strategies to address them


Business students often learn about management and accounting in a way that focuses on dollars and profitability. We decided to take an action teaching approach that instead focuses on people and directly addresses social needs in the community.

Students in accounting and management classes were given amounts ranging from $500-$4,000 to distribute to not-for-profit organizations (NFPs) in any way they felt would do the greatest good. Students were given two ground rules: (1) they had to be deliberate in their decision making process, and (2) they had to be selective (meaning that some NFPs would be denied funding).

The class began with students identifying areas of general philanthropic interest, such as children with special needs, animal welfare, and homelessness. Class members then formed 6-8 person teams that each generated a list of 12 potential grant recipients within a given interest area. To centralize this list and provide easy access by all team members, students developed a wiki page for each NFP displaying the organization's mission, key contributors, web address, and contact information. Students also confirmed that the NFPs would submit a proposal if invited. The class then wrote "Request for Proposals" (RFP) guidelines, and the professor sent these guidelines and a deadline to the nonprofits. After the grant proposals arrived, students scored each proposal based on criteria that they developed.

After scoring the proposals, students spent a class session choosing three organizations to receive funds, and they subsequently invited each organization to give a presentation to the class. During this phase of the funding process, students asked each prospective grant recipient to submit financial statements with a budget and to describe the impact that a grant would make. After these presentations, students deliberated on how best to allocate the funds. At the conclusion of the course, the class and grant recipients attended a banquet that celebrated the learning experience.

Learning Experiences

Presenting $1,000 to Habitat for Humanity This exercise in philanthropy provided business students with learning opportunities not offered by traditional education. For example, introductory accounting students were exposed to NFP financial statements and economic measures. In addition, students were given an opportunity to donate a substantial amount of money to make a tangible difference in the local community.

Thus, the project offered a unique opportunity for students to learn and contribute to society at the same time. Here are a few distinctive elements of the learning experience:

  • During the presentations, students heard from the executives of each organization and could see that these individuals were motivated by a desire to do good rather than simply earn money. They also learned about the needs of the community (e.g., that one out of every six local families lived in poverty).

  • Students learned that being a non-profit didn't mean being "poor" (one organization actually had a million dollars in its checking account). As the class heard executives tell stories about their struggles and victories, students were introduced to the NFP sector in a way that made it come alive and suggested it as a possible field of employment. In fact, one business graduate now works at one of the organizations that participated in the grant process.

  • Students also learned how NFPs benefit the local economy (one organization brought over a million dollars' worth of new jobs into the local economy).

An important aspect of the learning experience is that the project was not a simulation -- students made real decisions that had positive consequences for certain groups. The project's rules also meant that students had to turn down worthwhile funding requests from some organizations. Indeed, one class felt so bad about denying a funding request that the students collected personal donations to offer the organization.

Instructor Observations

It was exciting to see students become passionate about their philanthropic and civic duty. Students grappled with issues such as whether an animal shelter request should take precedence over funding for human needs. After looking at the financial statements of one large NFP, students decided to fund a smaller organization that they felt would benefit more from a grant. Students also decided to reject proposals when the application was not filled out properly (giving them first-hand understanding of how important it is to follow application instructions).

Student Reactions

In some cases, students were so touched by an organization's presentation that they were moved to tears or reported being exposed to a world they didn't know existed. Some students also commented on how they had a renewed appreciation of their own life after learning about the lives of others who were less fortunate.

After the grant decisions had been made, students were required to write reflection papers about the experience. Three themes emerged from their written comments:

(1) Everyone can make a difference.

"We can all make a difference in the world. It is not someone else's job. We are all responsible for our world."

"It was great to see how we could make a difference in these small organizations. I was happy to see how all of us could have a big influence on the lives of those who need help the most."

(2) I understand much better how non-profits operate.

"The process of assessment allowed me to gain a better understanding of how non-profits work by studying their financials."

"I learned the different names of the financial statements of nonprofit organizations. I learned how they function and their methods of funding. I was able to relate what I learned in the course to an actual case."

(3) There is value in collaboration.

"Through group collaboration we were allowed to decide which organizations would profit from our contribution. The presentations by the non-profit organizations made us aware of how our donation would be used and provided a personal connection to those who benefit from the money."

"It was a valuable community service tool for students to learn about local organizations and put some analytic thought into how to best select a charity for donation. This is often an afterthought for non-major donors."


The first challenge we faced was fundraising. Initially, we received funding from the Ohio Campus Compact -- a statewide coalition designed to promote the civic purposes of higher education. When that funding ended, one professor donated her own funds for the project, and the other professor started an endowed fund at her university in support of the project.

A second challenge was that the class had to remain on a schedule with tight deadlines in order to complete the project. This challenge can be stressful for faculty because it takes time to cultivate relationships with organizations, guide students, and arrange a celebration banquet at the end of the term.

The final challenge was to make sure that core disciplinary learning wasn't displaced by the philanthropy project. Professors with experience teaching traditional and philanthropy-based versions of the same class have reported that students tend to learn more book content in the traditional version than the philanthropy-based version (due to the extra time demanded by the philanthropy project). This difference is especially pronounced with courses taught on the quarter system. On the other hand, students in the philanthropy-based class tend to be more personally invested in the course, develop more leadership skills, work harder, and spend more time learning outside of class.

Civic Impact

The Ohio Campus Compact collected data from 144 courses on 34 campuses receiving support for a philanthropy initiative. Approximately 1,500 students, donating 46,000 hours of volunteer work, completed a survey with the following item:

How likely are you to do the following? Before After
Stay involved with the campus community 27.0% 43.0%
Volunteer after graduation 47.5% 75.5%
Give donations to local non-profits 40.2% 68.9%
Believe you can make a different in the local community 57.8% 85.0%
Plan to volunteer or engage in philanthropic activities throughout their lifetime 45.1% 74.4%

Although these results are not specific to our project, they suggest the civic and teaching potential of philanthropy-based educational activities.

Variations of the Project

In our most recent iteration of the project, students volunteered 15 hours at one of the funded organizations. As a result, students in one class wrote a risk assessment of an organization's accounting system and discovered that the local Special Olympics organization did not have an inventory list of its equipment. Another team discovered an inventory flaw that was reported to the upper management of Habitat for Humanity, which subsequently corrected the deficiency.

It is also worth noting that this project can be adapted for use in a wide range of disciplines. For instance, variations of the project have been used in public relations, management, and marketing courses. To take just one example, students in a management course conducted onsite research and created a multimedia presentation for each organization rather than inviting executives to give a talk.

Additional Resources

We have developed a step-by-step manual with forms and templates to help other instructors adapt this project for use at their institution. This manual includes a template for wiki pages, a syllabus, invitation letters to organizations, RFP guidelines, scoring criteria, award letters, and rejection letters. Please see our web site for details.

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