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SUNY Cortland students ‘Learning by Giving’

SUNY Cortland students ‘Learning by Giving’


The premise is simple for the students in Associate Professor Sebastian Purcell’s course, Philanthropy and Civic Engagement: Learning by Giving.

Those SUNY Cortland students get $10,000 in real money provided by the Learning By Giving Foundation and decide how to split it among worthy non-profit organization applicants from Cortland County.

Every year, their careful deliberation of how to distribute those funds, is a difficult and complicated process rooted in ethics and philosophy.

This year, they did so while collaborating remotely and considering the needs of non-profits during the COVID-19 pandemic. The current crisis also influenced how and why the students chose certain organizations.

At the end of this semester, students chose to donate to four local charities: the Franziska Racker Center, Lime Hollow Nature Center, the Cortland County Community Action Program and the Seven Valleys Health Coalition.

Ultimately, those students wrangled with the question of how to address wellbeing comprehensively and robustly, in a way that has long-lasting effects in the greater Cortland community.

 “Some years, students may have picked artistic activities,” said Purcell. “Given the whole balance of things that are needed in Cortland, why that? The answer is that I’m viewing it as kind of a multi-year portfolio of what we’re trying to affect in Cortland.”

Purcell begins the process by dividing his class into groups. The groups are strategically created through personality profiles to avoid bunching together too many students who tend to behave in similar ways.

“Putting people together who think differently is the source of careful deliberation,” Purcell said.

Then, the students solicited and reviewed applications from local non-profits. The discussions that followed were informed largely by the work of philosophers Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Their development of an alternative to welfare economics, known as the capability approach, which goes beyond economic indicators like gross domestic product to evaluate success by including individual opportunities for health, education and economic advancement in policy considerations.

Students considered philosophical readings while also investigating economic and demographic data on the state of Cortland County. This year, Cortland Mayor Brian Tobin provided additional, real-time information on how the area was dealing with COVID-19 that wasn’t reflected in previous reports.

“While having previous knowledge about philanthropy, the Learning By Giving class taught me so much more than I thought I knew,” said Abby Raus, a junior childhood and early childhood education major with a concentration in the humanities.

“I really enjoyed the behind-the-scenes of donating to a non-profit organization. I absolutely loved talking to the candidates about their passion for their specific organization. This experience honestly has inspired me to become a better person.”

Then the class debated the merits of how they could do the most good for the most people over the longest period of time. Students were challenged to argue their position while considering both the economic data and their philosophical studies.

"Philanthropy is a subject that I thought was very clear cut: get money to help people,” said Eilott Duran, a junior social philosophy major. “As the semester passed, I learned that those two simple objectives had many complications, and that the process was much more difficult."

One of the topics the class discussed this year was the role of philanthropy in a crisis such as COVID-19. Does the urgency of demand shift the ethical nature of the debate? For example, should billionaires donate their money now to help people in need or should they invest it and grow it so they can help more people later?

Considering big-picture questions like these helped SUNY Cortland students decide how to distribute the $10,000 this semester.

“The Learning by Giving class will remain one of the most memorable classes I will have taken during my time at Cortland,” said Jonah Schumacher, a senior social philosophy major. “Short of working for a non-profit, I cannot imagine another opportunity where one would be fully involved in the task of donating large sums to organizations in the local community.

“This class allowed me to see the other side of the application process, giving me the chance to review and judge applications instead of writing and submitting them. But I also learned that there are many problems with big philanthropy and that sometimes philanthropic actions can cause more harm than good.”

Ultimately, students used a ranked-choice voting system to split the funds as follows:

  • The Franziska Racker Center will receive $4,000 for two types of chairs for students with disabilities in integrated preschool classrooms. The chairs will be used for at least 20 years and will benefit an entire generation of students.
  • Lime Hollow Nature Center’s summer camp program will receive $2,500 to allow financially disadvantaged children to participate.
  • The Cortland County Community Action Program will receive $2,000 toward its Cares Bags initiative that provides items such as bowls, utensils and feminine hygiene products to the homeless in Cortland County.
  • The Seven Valleys Health Coalition will receive $1,500 for its food rescue program, which distributes food to area shelters.

This class, which had 31 students this semester, faced several challenges when COVID-19 forced students to work and learn remotely. Group discussions were harder to do online and in-person interviews with the non-profit applicants had to be scrapped.

More than a dozen local agencies applied for funds this year and most of the proposals were excellent, making normally tough decisions even more challenging.

“Every project that came in was worth giving money to,” Purcell said.

Purcell was proud of how seriously his students took their task, especially in the face of unexpected challenges.

“I was just really impressed by my students,” Purcell said. “Many of them went above and beyond to make sure this worked this year. They did an outstanding job because there were so many additional hurdles. Sometimes I had sophomores stepping up to lead their groups and sometimes I had introverted students calling more than two dozen organizations. They stepped up in a lot of ways to get this done.”

The Boston-based Learning by Giving Foundation seeks to advance the next generation’s understanding of philanthropy by providing the financial, technological and intellectual tools to maximize community impact. 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. In all, $100,000 has flowed back into Cortland and to charities and agencies through the program. All of the funding is given to the local agencies and none can be spent on grant administration.

In addition to the Philosophy Department, the course is sponsored by the university’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.