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Students get charity lesson

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By Kevin Eagan

DAVIDSON, N.C. – John Pitts, a junior political-science major at Davidson College, has designed an educational program to teach fellow students about autism while continuing his work with an autistic child.

The inspiration for his project has been a class he is taking this semester that aims to teach students about philanthropy and nonprofits by turning them into volunteers and philanthropists.

Ken Menkhaus, an associate professor of political science, has taught a class in philanthropy and nonprofits since 1999 that encourages students to volunteer for local charities.

But this year, thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Sunshine Lady Foundation, a private foundation in Wilmington, N.C., founded by Doris Buffet, the sister of investor Warren Buffet, Menkhaus’ 30 students also will make grants based on applications from charities.

“We are seeing our class lessons come to life in real time,” says Pitts. “It is hard to walk away without a desire to utilize our abilities to effect change in our communities.”

In class and on their own time, students have established eligibility requirements for nonprofits seeking grants, created a web site for the class and designed the process for applying for grants, including criteria for judging proposals.

“Because we have $10,000 to give to a worth charity or charities, we are all personally invested in this project,” says alumna Amy Poe, who is auditing the course.

Nonprofits’ needs are growing, she says, making decisions on grants that much more difficult.

Menkhaus says he tries to expose his students to all sides of the nonprofit sector and does not take a “cheerleading” approach to philanthropy.

“The non-profit sector has deep problems and challenges, and it’s important that students are given full exposure to criticisms of the sector, but I’m also not interested in producing a classroom full of cynics,” says Menkhaus, who has worked as a political adviser for the United Nations in Somalia, and as a consultant for the Swiss-based War-Torn Societies Project.

March 20 was the deadline for submitting grant requests, and the class will make its decisions in April.

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