Late last year, Hamilton's McMaster University received a rare and welcome boon: a $10,000 grant from the Massachusetts-based Sunshine Lady Foundation to create and administer a philanthropy class, titled the Strategic Philanthropy and Leadership Course, at the university's DeGroote School of Business. The course is offered to the school's fourth year commerce students and may be the only one of its kind in Canada, according to its instructor and chief architect, Maria Antonakos.
Since 1996, the Sunshine Lady Foundation, headed by Doris Buffett - sister of billionaire investor Warren Buffett - has existed for the express purpose of fostering a sense of civic-mindedness and philanthropy in the general populace.
The McMaster grant comes out of the foundation's "Learning By Giving" program, set up as a way to "support new schools interested in offering classes that will enrich this area of study and arm the next generation of philanthropic leaders with the tools necessary to make important decisions about how to effectively allocate scarce resources to the causes that need them the most," according to the foundation's website.
Have money, will quarrel
The four month, three-hour-a-week course essentially boils down to the following: the students in the course are given $20,000 - using her connections, Antonakos was able to get a matching grant from local philanthropists to use for the course - to donate to a charity of their choice, "while learning the fundamentals and procedures of philanthropic decision-making," Antonakos explains. "As students get into the course, they realize [grantmaking] is challenging. The needs are great, the solutions are difficult and consensus is required, which is not always easy. They learn about the charitable sector in an overview manner, and from the perspective of what it is to be a good grantor. We look at tax laws and what foundations do," she explains. "All the great philanthropists have said that good granting is much harder to do than making money."
The interesting thing for students at the beginning of the course, she says, is that they're only told how much money they have to grant, what their time frame is to reach consensus, and that the grants need to stay local, as per Buffett's stipulation for the foundation grant.
"In a way, the students acted as a foundation in that they had to take into account the donor's wishes," Antonakos says, adding that the $20,000 is held in a fund administered by Tides Canada until such time as the students decide where best to use it.
Antonakos' students ultimately ended up granting to three causes: the North Hamilton Community Health Centre Children's Gardening Program, the YWCA Girls Zone Healthy Living Program, and Settlement and Integration Services Organizations family literacy and peer mentorships. But students had a very hard time reaching consensus on those, she points out.
Ask and you just might receive
Some might ask, as CharityVillage did, "How does a US foundation come to grant money to a Canadian institution of higher learning?" The answer is much simpler than you'd expect.
"McMaster really took a chance on this course; they didn't know me," Antonakos admits.
Aside from her duties as a new university teacher, Antonakos is also Principal of Opus Philanthropic Strategies Inc., her own boutique consulting firm. In that capacity, she had occasion to meet Buffett at an event for major donors some time ago and the two "stayed in touch" over the years.
To hear Antonakos tell it, one day Buffett chanced to overhear her musing about wanting to teach a philanthropy course and all the potential benefits such an initiative might produce, to which Buffett said, "If you want to do this, I have $10,000 available for you."
From there, it was only a matter of pitching the idea to McMaster, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Teaching tactics and compassion
In her inaugural course outline, Antonakos sets up the lessons as ones that can fundamentally alter the direction of the nation's future captains of industry.
"Living in North America," she writes, "many of us have a privileged perspective on making a difference in the world. As we experience this course together, we will endeavour to explore the implications of this privilege as scholars, global citizens, future business leaders, and community-minded individuals."
For the 30 students in last year's initial course, the experience was an eye-opener, according to Antonakos, who will be the sessional instructor again this year for the September to December program. But don't just take her word for it; the students also filmed a video, posted below, to publish their feelings and thoughts on this course.
Antonakos says she's also learned from her experience teaching the course last year and intends to add "site visits" and invitations for guest speakers from the "third sector" so that students can get an even more direct, philanthropic experience in the class's second incarnation this year.
"I think there's a great need for this, regardless of whether students move into the charitable sector to work...my belief is that everyone is a philanthropist at heart. And this course comes at a pivotal time in students' lives, when many of them are only thinking 'Me. Me. Me.' and stuck on career planning," she says, adding that one of the most surprising and "special" revelations for her as an instructor was realizing that her students truly wanted to "see the world as a better place."
To that end, Antonakos says discussions are taking place to see whether this course, or something similar, could be taught at other institutions around the country.
Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf is president of WordLaunch professional writing services in Toronto. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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