CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The typical college student’s experience with nonprofits may involve volunteering for a service-learning project or participating in a basic internship.
But a class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is giving undergraduates a different perspective of the nonprofit scene — a view from the top.
Eileen Hannan, a professor of social work, started her Promoting Change through the Nonprofit Sector class in 2004 as a brief training course for students interested in nonprofit work.
Since then, it has become a grantmaking organization in its own right, though not an actual 501(c)3 nonprofit.
The organization, the Committee for Promoting Change, consists of the 10 to 13 students in the class.
During their semester, they design guidelines, publicize and award a grant to benefit one or more North Carolina nonprofits.
Since its start in spring 2004, the organization has awarded a total of $25,000 in grants to 19 agencies.
This year, after discussing their interests and researching areas of need in the state, the class awarded grants to organizations supporting education and health care for North Carolina’s immigrant population. The two $1,500 grants went to the Literacy Council of Union County and the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center.
The grants are awarded from a donor-advised fund created by Campus Compact and Fidelity Investments, who partnered in the project to provide hands-on experience to a new generation of philanthropists.
While students must be enrolled in the university’s public service program, the course has no other prerequisites, and classes usually have an eclectic mix of students from a range of undergraduate years and majors.
This year, the 10-person committee is composed almost entirely of sophomores, with only three upperclassmen.
Each semester, the committee starts its work from the ground up, with students deciding how to publicize and award the grant money.
The first half of each class period features a guest speaker who discusses an aspect of philanthropic work or grantmaking, after which the committee meets to make decisions about their organization.
Kelly Kilburn, a junior in the class, describes her role as a gatekeeper of sorts.
“I’m one of the people in charge of answering questions [from interested nonprofits] and confirming we’ve received applications,” she says.
A critical decision was outlining criteria for choosing grantees, says Kilburn.
Together, the students decided they wanted to fund nonprofits that had a proven ability to collaborate with other organizations to accomplish their goals.
They also wanted assurance that programs were sustainable and would not end once the committee’s funding was spent.
Kilburn, who is majoring in public policy and international studies, says the class has been a good experience, and that she wants to pursue a career in a nonprofit organization in Africa.
Hannan says the program has succeeded in whetting students’ interest in philanthropy.
Previous classes included one student, still at UNC, who was inspired to start her own nonprofit, Project Heal, which works to support sustainable development in Ghana.
Another went on to work at the N.C. Network of Grantmakers, a forum for cooperation among North Carolina’s funding organizations.
Hannan says she hopes these successes will convince foundations to become more involved in the university’s public service program and other similar efforts.
Giving students a view of philanthropy from the top, rather than the street-level view they get through volunteering and internships, helps them better understand the work of philanthropic groups, she says.
And it allows them to show their maturity and leadership qualities, she says.
“This is just the start of a national conversation,” she says, “about what students are capable of in leadership and service learning.”