Philanthropic Satisfaction Through Trust

When faced with many outstanding candidates, what role should the desire for “ownership” of your philanthropic contribution play in your decision?  This question was at the forefront of my mind when I went to class on Thursday to help decide on the final allocation of our grant.  Fellow students have frequently used the argument that organizations with a smaller budget, of which our grant would make up a majority share, should be preferred over a much larger budget, of which our grant is a relative drop in the bucket.  This argument is based largely on an appeal to the emotional satisfaction of being able to directly trace our contribution to its real world impact.  But is this feeling of satisfaction somehow morally wrong?  Should we instead exclusively focus on putting our contributions in the hands of the most demonstrably capable organization, and put our desire for “ownership” aside?  In the case of “The Eight Levels of Tzedkah (Giving),” an ancient Jewish book that we read towards the beginning of the semester, the highest levels of giving those where the donor has no knowledge of the recipient.  Upon first reading, I had thought that the donor must sacrifice some personal satisfaction in an attempt for “pure” giving.  But this makes a subtle and erroneous assumption: that giving up enjoyment and satisfaction is somehow necessary in order to achieve the “best” kind of giving.  Trusting the recipient is one method by which you can experience satisfaction, even without knowing for sure where your contribution ends up.  Giving at any level, whether it is to a homeless person on the street or to an organization focused on shrinking the achievement gap, requires a certain trust in the recipient’s ability. Satisfaction is simply a subjective emotion dictated by one’s attitude, and can be found regardless of budget size or project scope by simply believing that your contribution is being used for its intended purpose.  I intend to keep this in mind when considering options for future philanthropic contributions.

-Ashton W.

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Time is Ticking

As time dwindles, we are left with two organizations. One of which has a deep passion and tugs at our heartstrings, whereas the other has a strong statistical backing – that is not to say that the latter didn’t have a passion for the subject as well. To summarize, in our proposal we stated that we are looking for an organization that will improve the academic and attendance of students and provide personal support to the most at-risk or underserved from grades K-8. The latter fulfills both parts whereas the former fulfills the second part extremely well. Logic would dictate giving to the latter but we are human and the heart is also important. We have clearly outlined what we are looking for in our request so what is the point if we don’t follow it. We all have gone through the battle of head and heart in order to aid the problem that is the achievement gap, both the nonprofit organization and the class so the problem in the selection is a matter of priorities, I believe. Should we prioritize the criteria we laid out or what our hearts want? There has been much debate between these two organizations stating the former will give our money more impact but to put it another way, is the impact guaranteed? Are we going to bet our money on an organization to bring the bottom up or are we going to bet our money to bring an organization up for a collective contribution in closing the achievement gap? Time is running out for the class but whatever the class decides, it will be a hard decision nevertheless.


– Tommy T.

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Head and Heart Can’t Make Up Their Minds

It’s been an entire semester since Robert Payton’s “A Dialogue Between the Head and the Heart” reading was assigned, but my classmates nevertheless couldn’t stop referring to the ongoing battle between the head and the heart when it comes to philanthropy during last week’s class. This concept became especially clear on the topic of whether or not to give our $10,000 grant to Little Lights Urban Ministries, Higher Achievement or Prince George’s Tennis & Education Foundation, which were our three final contenders. On one side of the argument, people such as myself touted the idea of giving to PG Tennis because our contribution would make up almost half of the program’s funding, allowing us to see the difference our money was making. Additionally, the fact that the program has an inspiring role model and a family atmosphere really resonated with a few of us. Even those supporting Little Lights couldn’t say enough about the community aspect of the program, and how it provides a caring, supportive environment for children who might not get that love and support elsewhere. However, other students were quick to argue that we were letting our emotions get in the way — that our want to make a tangible impact and our admiration for what those programs stood for was preventing us from using our “head” and acknowledging what program would use our money most efficiently. Many argued that Higher Achievement is an established, structured organization that reaches the most students and makes the largest impact, and is therefore worthy of our funding. Even after the discussion — which has now come down to Little Lights and Higher Achievement — I’m still struggling to find a balance. What’s wrong with using the heart, for believing and having hope in a smaller organization even if it isn’t the best in regard to numbers? Is it wrong to feel a sense of satisfaction when one donates? Is it selfish to use the heart, as I’ve been doing? I’m interested to see how those questions, and the fight between head and heart, play out next week.

-Taylor S

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How Can One Measure Impact?

Throughout the semester, our class has delved into case studies about philanthropists, held stimulating discussions about what construes philanthropy, and witnessed how charities operate on a daily basis. Having been exposed to a myriad of examples, now is the time for our class to reflect on these experiences in order to determine what impact we expect our grant to make, how we can measure this impact, and how to use this measurement to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the finalist programs. By working together to develop this measure, our final deliberation process in choosing the grant recipient will be more efficient, and less likely to be mired by ideological disagreements. One place where we can draw inspiration for our criteria is our mission statement, which is “To narrow the achievement gap and increase attendance rates among disadvantaged students from kindergarten to eighth grade in Prince George’s County and/or the Washington D.C. region.” We should keep these tenets in mind when comparing organizations, and also consider the “before” and “after.” In other words, has the organization made progress over time? Where did they start from before? Where are they currently? Where do they plan to be in the future? What has their net impact been? By weighing these different measurements of impact, we will be able to form a better-rounded picture of each organization’s accomplishments and future trajectory. I look forward to hearing my classmates’ suggestions, and working together with them to decide on the final recipient.

~Christine S

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Choosing The Gem Amongst the Rocks

With the Thanksgiving holiday behind us, and the season for giving right around the corner, the need to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves becomes especially relevant at this time of year. We are at a critical juncture in the course, where we have to decide which philanthropic organization is most deserving of the $10,000. It goes without saying that the site visits from last week have given us much to think about. In my opinion, it seems that all of the organizations that we visited are very excited about getting awarded the $10,000 grant. This is why I think that in making our final decision it is important to look at organizations that really stand out from the rest. For me, this does not necessarily mean an organization that is picture-perfect and ostensibly better than the others—submitted a decent proposal, gave us a smooth site visit—especially if it is an organization that already receives adequate funding. For me, this means an organization with its heart in the right place, and that is truly needing of funds. Therefore, I urge my fellow classmates to look for the organizations for which the $10,000 that the Levenson family has kindly donated would really make a difference, and steer clear of the ones that may seem attractive but for whom the $10,000 will be a drop in the bucket. Personally, I would rather donate to an organization that is truly genuine than an organization that is merely presentable.

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Meeting Our Top Contenders

This past Thursday, our class had the opportunity to visit a nonprofit that provides after-school programs for students in low-income neighborhoods. This brief interlude from our classroom setting served as an excellent opportunity to see a philanthropic organization in action. We were not only able to talk to the managers and coordinators, but also able to witness the program being implemented firsthand. At first, I was a bit taken aback by the location of the organization: initially expecting something of an office setting, we instead arrived in the basement of a residential complex. A few minutes into our introduction, however, the wisdom behind the location became apparent. Being close to the residential area, the kids can commute to their homes easily after the program ends, as well as having the added benefit of feeling at home with other kids from the neighborhood. The small space of the organization was divided up into different areas for various activities, and students rotated between these areas to maximize space efficiency. As we walked around the space, we saw students engaged in various educational activities with their mentors. They even had games- including a foosball table- to keep them active and energetic. The founder of the organization was especially inspiring for us: he founded the organization 20 years ago at the young age of 25 and has run it ever since. He was obviously quite passionate about his organization and its objectives. However, I could not help but reflect on the balance of head and heart in philanthropy. Despite being well-managed, there was a noticeable lack of statistical evidence for the efficiency of the organization. The founder spoke keenly of his past students who had turned their life around after receiving special help and focus through his program. The anecdotes – while inspiring – are a far cry from hard data that can attest to their effectiveness, as well as help them in self-evaluation.. It should be noted, however, that many of the students move around frequently so it is difficult to track all of them and their progress. This in turn raises the question of whether or not we want to invest in an organization that lacks- through no fault of their own- some of the accountability that others have. All in all, the site visits have raised some interesting questions on all of the contenders. It has certainly been inspiring to see these philanthropic organizations dedicate themselves to bridging the achievement gap in our educational system. The balancing of head and heart, as well as ironing out other details of our grant usage will be a challenge for our class, especially since all organizations are such strong contenders at this point.

-Atifah S

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Site Visit Reflections

We recently went on a site visit to to an organization providing afterschool program in various schools in the DC area.  We were greeted by a senior director and two middle schoolers in the program.  As we were shown around, I was really struck by that maturity and enthusiasm of the middle schoolers.  The program was clearly effective and it had been nationally recognized for its successes in education.  The director was an extremely effective advocate and knew exactly when to step back and allow the kids to share their experiences and thoughts about the program.  Despite the program being four hours, our two middle school tour guides were glad to be there and both had either walked or taken the bus to the school to participate in the program.  Some concerns were definitely addressed at this site visit.  We were concerned that the kids would get tired and unproductive by the end of the program, yet they were still enthusiastic and engaged.  We thought the lack of grade requirements for the kids before entering the program would detract from its impact.  However, we were soon assured that this program was holistic and focused on all ends of the academic spectrum.  Their study halls and mentoring sessions on average increase GPA by 1 point.  This is a huge achievement, and is, in my opinion, an example of where following your heart causes an outcome to be optimized.  In this way, the program is a good balance of head and heart because it uses effective methods but is not blinded by a need for prestige and accepts kids with all GPAs.  This program also trains new generations of advocates as well, as many of their alumni offer monetary support and mentoring to the middle schools.  The organization also nurtures networks very effectively, as they have partnered with various organizations, like a health foods provider and various other mentoring organizations, in order to assist with the running of their program.  In my experience, after school programs can only keep the kids engaged if there is a balance between educational and recreational activities, and this was evident at the organization.  There were guitar lessons, hula hooping, and various other activities provided.  I have also found that if educational activities seem too contrived, it is hard for the students to retain any knowledge after doing them.  These activities all seemed to have a fun and direct purpose (ex. Model UN, mock trial, writing contest, etc.), and provide the kids meaningful rewards, like being able to recite their piece of writing in the DC Shakespeare theatre. Additionally, the program is clearly sustainable, as it just celebrated its fortieth anniversary.  This is an exemplary program that will make the final grant recommendation decision even harder.
-Tula R

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