Students in the SESP Learning Philanthropy course benefited from real-world lessons in philanthropy from Northwestern alumnus Peter Bloom, himself a philanthropist and board chair of the nonprofit DonorsChoose.org. Sprinkling his talk with intriguing quizzes, a magic trick and case studies of upstart nonprofits, Bloom challenged students with comments about the nonprofit arena, an area with “no easy answers.”
Bloom flew from New York to Chicago to address the unique undergraduate class that SESP dean Penelope Peterson co-teaches with Lauren Young, director emerita of the Spencer Foundation. He is advisory director for General Atlantic and served as managing director for 15 years.
Bloom enthusiastically discussed his work with DonorsChoose.org, an online charity that seeks funders for educational projects. “Teachers request projects for schools, and donors choose” is how Bloom describes the nonprofit, which raises about $1 million a week to improve education, often in high-poverty schools. “Being chairman has been a transformative experience,” Bloom said.
DonorsChoose.org was started by a history teacher in the Bronx, Charles Best. Over the past 14 years, the nonprofit has received gifts from 1.4 million donors totaling $243 million, and these donations have funded projects ranging from field trips to books to digital resources.
Bloom’s commitment to the charity came through loud and clear as he handed out $50 gift cards to students in the class to use on the DonorsChoose.org website.
He made a point to tell the students about mistakes he’s made in philanthropy. One of his earliest lessons came from being involved with a Wall Street “do-gooder project to shower a school with goodies.” He was soon stunned to learn that a certain student was homeless and needed not gadgets but a place to live. “We had a concept of what people needed that was totally different from reality,” he said.
The experience led to “focusing on impact and what people need rather than what I think people need,” he explained. It also made him rethink his giving. Rather than simply giving to large nonprofits or the charities that made requests, he advised students to think about ways to make an impact by giving to smaller charities.
Bloom engaged the students with dynamic case studies to emphasize key points about successful philanthropy. He highlighted several individuals who started innovative nonprofits out of an unswerving dedication to a cause. “More nonprofits in the US are driven by one person’s passion than by the practical ability to make a difference,” he said.
His examples included Eli Beer, who brought ambulance motorcycles to Israel in order to lower first responders’ response time. He also profiled Jessamyn Rodriguez, who moves immigrant women out of poverty through her Hot Bread Kitchen and was able to fund the purchase of a tortilla-making machine so the bakery could supply Chipotle.
“What’s the most viable product (MVP) that can make a nonprofit take off?” Bloom asked the students, referring to the Hot Bread Kitchen story. “Focus on the MVP.”
Illustrating one of the challenges of running a nonprofit, Bloom told the story of DonorsChoose receiving a $600,000 gift at a time when the charity was extremely strapped for cash. However, the strings attached would have required abandoning the nonprofit’s core values. After much debate, DonorsChoose returned the money. The Learning Philanthropy students initially grappled with compromises but came to accept Bloom’s point about never abandoning core values.
“It’s hard to build a great nonprofit,” Bloom concluded.
The Learning Philanthropy addresses issues related to philanthropy with the goal of introducing students to the history, role and process of charitable giving. A key component of the class is that students actually give away $50,000 to nonprofits. Funding for this lab experience comes from the Once Upon a Time Foundation.
“The course approaches philanthropy from many angles, especially from the point of view of giving to improve the lives of children and adults,” Peterson noted. “Northwestern students are leaders of the future, who likely will be making important decisions about charitable giving, and many may even be considering a career in nonprofits.”
BY MARILYN SHERMAN
May 28, 2014
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