USC Price School of Public Policy

Students Learn by Giving

Knowledge in Action:

Undergraduate Students ‘Learn by Giving’

By Matthew Kredell

Emma Fish at LA Orthopaedic Hospital SPPD professor Richard Sundeen, SPPD student Emma Fish, surgeon Mauricio Silva and senior director of operations at Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital Deborah Justice
Photo by Tom Queally

Students at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development chose seven nonprofit organizations to give a total of $10,000 as part of the Learning by Giving program sponsored by the Sunshine Lady Foundation.

College students often volunteer their time but rarely are in a position to donate money. As part of a project in “The Nonprofit Sector and the Public Interest,” a course taught by SPPD professor Richard Sundeen, students were afforded the opportunity to have their academic research make a real-world monetary impact.

Twenty-six students in the fall semester course took on the assignment of choosing a worthy Los Angeles-area organization, based on criteria taught in the class, research and interviews with people within the group. The students then made a presentation convincing fellow classmates why their organization deserved the money. The $10,000 could be divvied up in any way the class saw fit — the full amount could be given to one group or split among many, with a minimum grant of $1,000.

The seven organizations chosen for donations were the Downtown Women’s Center ($2,900), Starlight Children’s Foundation ($1,600), Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital-Children’s Center ($1,500), Liberty Hill Foundation ($1,000), Para Los Ninos ($1,000), Beckstrand Cancer Foundation ($1,000) and A Place Called Home ($1,000).

“I was so interested in this project, and I know everyone else was as well,” said senior Emma Fish whose organization, the Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital-Children’s Center, received the most votes from classmates.

According to Fish, the center is using the donation for its downtown facility, providing car seats for patients in spica, or body, casts.

“Getting to give actual money to an organization isn’t something you normally get to do in college. It definitely made everyone a lot more invested in the project, knowing you could actually make a financial difference for the organization you were studying.”

The donations were made possible by the Sunshine Lady Foundation founded by Doris Buffett, the sister of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. The foundation began the Learning by Giving program in 2003 to promote the study of philanthropy at the undergraduate level. This is the first year USC has participated in the program, which provides $10,000 grants to 17 colleges across the nation.

In previous years, Sundeen taught the class on a purely academic level. In the fall of 2009, he was having breakfast at the annual Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action conference when he struck up a conversation with Louise Sawyer, a consultant for the Learning by Giving program. She said his class sounded like a perfect match for the program and invited him to apply.

The grant elevated the class to a level higher than Sundeen had seen in its 15 years of existence.

“I’ve had a lot of experience teaching the class, and the excitement in wrestling with real-life problems has added real value,” Sundeen said. “It seemed typical that the students learned more about why people give money, the motivation behind it and some of the important factors donors use for giving.”

As many of the students plan to work in the nonprofit sector – 17 of the 26 students have a minor in nonprofits, philanthropy and volunteerism – the opportunity to learn how a donor thinks figures to be beneficial for future careers at nonprofits seeking funding.

Organizations that helped children were naturally popular with the students. Looking deeper, students said they were attracted to proposals in which the money was targeted for a specific purpose rather than just the general fund and presentations that included statistics to quantify the organization’s impact.

Katherine Risbrough, a sophomore who secured $2,900 for the Downtown Women’s Center, which provides meals, showers, computers, classes and shelter for women, drew support for her cause with the statistic that 98 percent of women are able to maintain independent housing for at least a full year after they stay at the center.

“It is very special to have been chosen for this donation, particularly when the students so thoughtfully researched the many great organizations in our community,” said Lisa Watson, chief executive officer of the Downtown Women’s Center. “The center has always maintained strong ties to the local universities and relies upon students to volunteer and intern at the center.”

Risbrough previously had volunteered at the center as part of the USC Helenes all-female service organization. She said the money will go toward a project to expand the center with an additional 50 apartments.

Sundeen hopes to have the Sunshine Lady Foundation grant renewed so that USC students can continue to learn by giving in the future.

“If the assignment had just been analyzing the center and writing a paper on it, I don’t think I would have been as excited to do it,” Risbrough said. “Once I saw that this class could help them, I was much more motivated to talk to coordinators, see more aspects of the center and really put a lot more time and effort into the paper and my presentation.”