Try to get a classroom of 37 SUNY Cortland students to agree on any given day. It’s nearly impossible.
Unless they take a philosophical approach.
At the end of a recent class aimed at making students better at philanthropy, those 37 students managed to agree about how to divide $10,000 in real money among the 11 competing local charities that submitted applications.
They chose to split the money between three non-profit organizations: the Cortland County Community Action Program (CAPCO), the Cortland Free Library and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). The three grant winners were formally announced on May 7 during an award ceremony in Brockway Hall Jacobus Lounge.
The unique SUNY Cortland course that handed out the checks, Philanthropy and Civic Engagement: Learning by Giving, focuses on the practical side of philanthropy.
Every year, for the last eight years, the national Learning by Giving Foundation has helped provide $10,000 for the class to help students gain skills in using limited resources to make a significant change in their community. The Boston-based foundation seeks to advance the next generation’s understanding of philanthropy by providing the financial, technological and intellectual tools to maximize community impact.
Previously taught at SUNY Cortland from the perspective of political science or community health, this year for the first time, philosophical theories on ethics and logic guided the students in picking the fund beneficiaries. In all, $80,000 has flowed back into Cortland and to charities and agencies through the program.
This year’s winning projects were:
The philosophy course was intended 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. It required students to visit the applicants’ work sites, analyze the requests, write about them and discuss them logically.
“Is it still worth giving money to an organization even if it doesn’t have the most immediate impact on the community, for example, donating to one’s alma mater rather than donating to the poor?” said the course instructor, Sebastian Purcell, an associate professor of philosophy at SUNY Cortland. “Does it make sense to save up your money for 50 years and then donate, or just to give a little bit along the way? It’s the philosophical aspect of philanthropy.”
According to Purcell, philosophical ideas about giving as well as logic can be applied to achieve the seemingly impossible task of persuading individuals to agree on which organizations will use the money most effectively and how much each should receive.
“I was hired as an ethicist,” Purcell said. “I organized the first third of the course roughly to be discussion about the various ways to think about philanthropy from an ethical point of view.”
For the 37 students assigned to spend money that was not their own, philosophy built on the more traditional, financial management or political science perspectives about distributing such assets led to consensus.
“Having a lot of background knowledge in philosophy made him really compassionate,” said Jade Taulis, a sophomore inclusive childhood education major from Wantagh, N.Y., of Purcell. “He had a lot of different angles to look at a problem. He had a lot of added expertise.”
“I think I learned a little bit more about how to make decisions about philanthropy rather than about charities themselves,” said Julianne Robinson, a senior social philosophy major from Pawling, N.Y. “I learned how to put your money in the right place, where it will be most useful. Especially when there are 30-plus people in the class all wanting something different to happen.”
For the sake of comparison, one prior year a Philanthropy and Civic Engagement class as small as 15 students divvied up the $10,000 among seven charities. This year, the 37 students considered 11 applicants and shrunk the pool to seven. Then they set out to pick only three recipients.
Two of the ultimate award recipients had requested large amounts, Purcell said.
“If you don’t give a certain nonprofit X amount of money, there’s not really a point as they can’t fund the project anyway,” Purcell said. “But the students were very good at breaking a proposal down into components and saying, ‘Yeah, they can still do this.’”
“The main argument was we wanted the money to go to a project with a direct impact,” Robinson said. “Advertising, promotions, as good as they can be, were not enough. We wanted the grants to go to programs that would be able to affect people immediately. That made it easy.”
But with different 37 points of view, even carrying on a class discussion was difficult, Purcell said. So he served as moderator, taking the group from one new idea to another. Students also compared data about the non-profits’ proposals on their laptops.
Purcell had class members take a Myers-Briggs personality test to determine how they would work in a group setting and then assembled groups of four that purposely contained people of different character traits.
“Looking back at it, I realize that every single group worked really, really well together,” Robinson said. “Everyone brought something completely different to the group.”
“Some people in the class were democrats about it,” Purcell said. “They wanted to take an egalitarian approach. Other people said, ‘If we’re going to do the best thing, we should fund it with the most money that we can.’”
Students were assigned a term paper stating their position on the best philanthropic approach and their reason why.
Purcell shared some more practical solutions that philosophy gives people to build consensus.
“With philosophy, there are better ways to make decisions than simply voting,” Purcell said. “In this class, they got to have their favorite choices without making strategic compromises as we do in our own political system.”
For example, the group tried a kind of applied logic called the alternative voting method, which enabled class members to pick their top three choices from among, say, five applicants.
“Each voter has three picks,” Purcell said. “If they pick something that is out of favor the first time around, we’ll eliminate that choice and move all their remaining votes into their second choice. We run the system three times to give them their preferences for their three top voting choices.”
“We tried a style of voting that gave everyone a group decision,” Robinson said. “And I think with that vote the money went to the best places possible where it will be most beneficial. I’m proud of that decision, especially when there’s $10,000 on the line.”
As the class narrowed the pool of applicants, Purcell organized the applicants’ proposals for funding online so students could pull up the details on their laptops.
Robinson said she found the required site visits to agencies applying for grants helpful.
“After we went to these places, we had a chance to go around the class and discuss why we felt this site visit helped or hurt them and if this organization should get funding,” Robinson said. “And then we voted. We were pretty happy about what we decided in the end.”
“We felt it was better to divvy among fewer groups, for whom we were able to do more, rather than give to many, and for them to just be able to start a project,” Taulis said. “We really wanted to create a long-lasting impact on the community.”
During the Learning by Giving Foundation Grant Awards Celebration, students who took the course met representatives from the organizations that will benefit from their many hours of analysis, discussion, consensus-building and decision-making.
Half of this year’s grant money was donated by the Cortland Community Foundation, in keeping with the Learning by Giving Foundation’s requirement for communities to raise part of their own support.
To date, $80,000 has been distributed to community organizations through the program. All of the funding is given to the local agencies and none can be spent on grant administration.
The course is sponsored by the Philosophy Department, the College’s Institute for Civic Engagement, the Dean of Arts and Sciences Office and the Cortland Community Foundation.
For more information, contact Purcell at 607-753-2192.