A class of SUNY Cortland students this fall will give away $10,000 in real money to local charities that they decide are the most deserving.
These future philanthropists, foundation administrators or civic-minded individuals are enrolled in a new course, funded by the sister of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, that allows students to have an immediate and significant impact on the community.
As part of the course, Philanthropy and Civic Engagement: Teaching Students How to Give, students will evaluate proposals from a long list of local, non-profit agencies and charities. The students will then devise a fair and effective selection process to identify the most creative, efficient and beneficial community organizations to support, and determine how large a slice of the grant pie to serve each. They might give all the money to one organization or 20 small grants to 20 entities.
“What this is solely about is giving the students an opportunity to decide how to give the money away,” said Christopher Latimer, one of the course’s two instructors.
Latimer, who will be promoted to associate professor of political science this fall, had the connections was instrumental in obtaining a highly unusual private donation from The Sunshine Lady Foundation, Inc. which provided the $10,000 as a Learning-by-Giving grant. To date, only about 20 other colleges or universities have received the Learning-by-Giving grants. Only one other SUNY campus, Binghamton University, has received a grant.
The program is the brainchild and gift of Doris Buffett, the sister of famous hedge fund manager and philanthropist Warren Buffett.
Doris Buffett’s program focuses on undergraduates. She wants to introduce as many students as possible to the power and potential of philanthropy and to encourage those who may not have explored this area in their undergraduate career.
The philanthropy classes must be full credit courses, as the foundation’s vision is that colleges and universities will eventually include the study of philanthropy as a regular offering in the undergraduate curriculum.
The mission of Doris Buffett’s 15-year-old Sunshine Lady Foundation, Inc. reflects the mid-western values and no-nonsense approach to decision-making that Doris Buffett grew up with in Omaha, Neb. Each grant is considered an investment, and the decision to grant funds is always based on an expected successful return.
Not one penny of the grant can be spent on administration or, for that matter, any other aspect of offering the course.
“Actually, I find that I agree with how they restricted the grant,” Latimer said. “Henry and I have no role in influencing which group in the local community will get the money. So, we don’t get money for overhead expenses. We’re bringing in speakers and we’ll have to come up with another way to fund that.
Latimer, the College’s associate director of the Institute for Civic Engagement, will teach the class with Distinguished Service Professor Henry Steck, who brings an international twist to the course.
A professor of political science, Steck directs the Project on Eastern and Central Europe and is busy recruiting foreign exchange students to provide a much-needed international perspective on fund-raising. Three Romanian students coming to campus this fall as part of a federally funded Atlantis exchange scholar program he oversees are already enrolled in the course.
“I think that it’s important for our students to learn that it’s not just about helping a group here in Cortland or the United States, but to understand how other societies work,” Steck said. “Our country and certain western European countries have taken similar turns, We’re suffering from national economic downturns. In Great Britain, for example, today’s government is trying to push more activities into the philanthropic, not-for-profit sector.”
Not-for-profit organizations are what Steck describes as the “third sector” of American society. Compared to the first and second sectors — private industry and government — non-profits are on the rise in terms of employment potential for trained and savvy students.
Not just any group can apply for funding through the Sunshine Lady grant. All Learning by Giving grant funds must go to local organizations with confirmed tax-exempt status as a non-profit or charitable organization.
Steck and Latimer are lining up a series of speakers to visit the classroom. The list already includes:
• Amy Henderson-Harr. The College’s assistant vice president for research and sponsored programs, she helped Latimer prepare the grant application to The Sunshine Lady Foundation and is adept at training the College’s faculty and staff at submitting successful federal and private grant applications.
• Janet Steck. Director emerita of SUNY Cortland’s Dowd Gallery, she is a seasoned fundraiser in the arts.
• Cynthia Eberhart. Currently the federated campaign coordinator for the United Way of Cortland County, she previously has led the Cortland SEFA campaigns.
• Kimberly Nelligan. Nelligan is the chief operating officer for the Low Income Investment Fund, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to creating pathways of opportunity for low income people and communities.
Latimer and Steck acknowledge that the class didn’t fit any existing political science curriculum so they created the new course with the hopes of continuing it even after the money is distributed.