USC Price School of Public Policy

Giving Money Away Is Not Easy

Knowledge in Action:

Giving Money Away Is Not Easy

By Cristy Lytal

Inner-City Arts USC student A. J. Benjamin, center, and USC Price professor Richard Sundeen, right, deliver a check to Inner-City Arts co-founder and artistic director Bob Bates.
Photo by Tom Queally

During the fall, USC students who signed up for the course, “The Nonprofit Sector and the Public Interest,” found themselves with $10,000 and a tough assignment. They had to give the money away to up to five deserving Los Angeles-based nonprofits.

“When I heard that, I was like, ‘What? I have $10,000 to give? What is this? Is this a class?’ It’s pretty cool,” said Wilhelm Meriwether, a senior majoring in health and humanity and minoring in nonprofits, philanthropy and volunteerism.

The money came courtesy of the Learning by Giving Foundation, which funds philanthropy courses in a variety of academic departments at 27 colleges and universities across the nation. Started in 2003 by Doris Buffett, sister of investor Warren Buffett, the growing program has awarded more than $500,000 in grants, which students have distributed to more than 130 nonprofit organizations.

As part of the USC course, offered through the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, professor emeritus Richard Sundeen asked each student to choose a Los Angeles-based nonprofit to research. At the end of the semester, they presented their findings to the class as persuasive pitches asking for $2,000 to $10,000 gifts to meet specific needs of the organizations.

“Most of their proposals dealt with social issues, most of which had something to do with either poverty or inequity,” Sundeen said.

Compton Salvation Army Professor Sundeen, left, and USC student Wilhelm Meriwether deliver a check to Robert Davidson and Steven Wimberly Jr. of the Compton Salvation Army.
Photo by Tom Queally

Ultimately, the class decided to give $5,000 to the Compton Salvation Army, $3,000 to Shine on Sierra Leone and $2,000 to Inner-City Arts.

Meriwether, who made the pitch for the Compton Salvation Army, first visited the organization during a summer community service project through Athletes in Action. The site director told Meriwether about the organization’s plans for a youth music program, which needed funding.

After extensive research and interviews, Meriwether felt confident that the Compton Salvation Army would make good use of a $5,000 grant from his classmates because of the organization’s transparency and military-like accountability.

“One of the major lessons for the class is that giving money is not easy,” said Meriwether, whose family has a foundation. “But now I’m more excited and more prone to do it because I know more about it. This course enabled me to be a better giver in the future.”

Sophomore Hayley Sherman received a $3,000 gift for Shine on Sierra Leone, the nonprofit where she interns. The money will pay five months of salaries for six teachers at Sierra Leone’s Muddy Lotus Primary School.

“Shine on Sierra Leone is very worthy of this,” said Sherman, an international relations major with minors in business administration, as well as nonprofits, philanthropy and volunteerism. “We’ve been working so hard to do all that we can to implement these new programs and support all of the people that really need help there. It’s exciting that the money is going to make such a difference.”

A. J. Benjamin, a fifth-year architecture major with a minor in urban policy and planning, received $2,000 for Inner-City Arts, which provides arts education for children on Skid Row. Benjamin sat in on a class called the “Creativity Studio,” a new program that needed additional funding.

“Getting to know and talk to this organization was one of the best learning experiences I could ever ask for because [the members are] so good at what they do,” Benjamin said. “It was great to see how a group of artists could work in the community and really make a positive change. And it was also great to have the information that I learned in the class so I could actually see what allows their organization to work.”

The students’ enthusiasm keeps Sundeen coming back year after year to teach the course, even though he is officially retired. He strives to shape citizens who will contribute to better communities and a better quality of life for people in the future.

“My hope is that students will become more generally involved in citizen roles, such as participation in nonprofit groups,” he said, “and that they will also become more effective and critical participants in philanthropy.”