Explore the Public Service of Giving with SP.256

December 16, 2021

SP.256: Informed Philanthropy in Theory and Action is one of the PKG Center’s core academic courses. The course explores the potential and pitfalls of philanthropy as a mechanism for social change, and the class ultimately decides how to grant $7,000 (in real cash!) to local community agencies. Students analyze the work of community agencies to address challenges and opportunities facing MIT’s neighboring communities, with particular focus on community representation, equity, and social and racial justice. The course considers organizations in the health, climate change, and tech sectors. The class culminates with students making a group decision on how the Learning by Giving Foundation (which is partnering with the class) will disperse $7,000 to local community agencies. 

Three students who took SP.256 in Spring 2021 shared their thoughts with us about the course:  

  • Jasmine Chen ’24 (Course 6-9) explained that this experience was unlike any other course she has taken at MIT so far. She appreciated the opportunity to meet other MIT students who are also passionate about giving back. She also enjoyed the sense of community this created during the course and expressed how good it felt to give back to local organizations. 
  • Shaida Nishat ’22 (Course 7) shared that the experience with this course, and other PKG Center opportunities, had a significant impact on her career path. Before taking this course, she had been planning to attend medical school, however, she has re-evaluated her career goals and will now be pursuing graduate studies in public health after graduating next year. 
  • Brindha Rathinasabapathi ’24 (Course 7) enjoyed the opportunity to discuss topics she was passionate about and share her experiences with other students, and the knowledge she gained broadened her perspective on public service. She also found the ability to apply the skills learned during the course to create direct impact to be a really cool way of learning. 

Though these students were from different class years, courses, and backgrounds, they all shared a passion for helping others and an interest in learning more about nonprofit organizations and ways to help others. They also had varying degrees of involvement with public service and philanthropy before taking the class, such as youth STEM education programs, Red Cross, Global Health Alliance as well as roles in student government and MedLinks at MIT. With the disruptions of the pandemic, they found that traditional volunteer opportunities were more difficult to find, and thought this experience would be a good way to give back, especially with the opportunity to give the donation to an organization(s) of their choice. They were thrilled to be able to recommend organizations they were personally passionate about for the donation. They also felt that SP.256 would allow them to gain knowledge and skills in a subject that they cared about and that would complement their academic pursuits, but that was not covered in their more technical courses.

The course started with students learning the fundamentals of nonprofit organizations and philanthropy. Students heard directly from industry experts in different areas of practice, from large higher education institutions to small local community groups, which they found very insightful. They also learned specific frameworks to assess a nonprofit’s ability to fulfill its mission effectively, efficiently, and ethically to make an impact and create social change. The students then took the knowledge they had gained and put those skills into practice in real time. At the beginning of the course, the instructors provided students a list of local nonprofits they might consider giving the donation to, and students added organizations they were passionate about to this list. The students then researched these nonprofits using the knowledge and skills they had gained throughout the course. They realized the importance of truly evaluating the organization’s impact, and not only the impact they have already made, but the impact that they have the potential to make. They also learned how to assess the financial health and spending priorities of the organizations by reviewing their tax returns. In addition, students used their skills to navigate other resources for evaluating and comparing nonprofits. One student even compared this process to the hands-on research in her other MIT courses. 

According to Jasmine, Brindha and Shaida, choosing the organization to donate to was a very democratic process. After they had researched the organizations throughout the course, the class voted to determine the recipient of the donation. The organization with the greatest number of votes was Friends of the Children, which received the largest donation. The students then decided to give two additional runners up, Haley House and Friends of Payir, a smaller portion of the donation as well. Seeing all of their work come together to provide a real and direct impact to these three organizations was very rewarding. After the donation had officially been sent to the organizations, the students also had the opportunity to write thank you notes directly to the organizations to share more about their experience and what the organization meant to them. 

Throughout the course, the students’ understanding of philanthropy also expanded. They learned that philanthropy is not only about a financial contribution to an organization. Individuals can give back in myriad ways, which may change depending on the time in their life, their involvement with the organization, etc. Therefore, philanthropy should not be seen as only how the most wealthy contribute, but also how people give back to organizations every day. Whether that be through time: volunteering with the organization, talent: sharing your skills, your network, providing a level of expertise to the organization, or your treasure: giving to the organization financially, which even a small amount can make a big impact for small community organizations. Students were also surprised to learn about intersections of academia and nonprofits.

Overall, Brindha, Shaida and Jasmine were grateful for this experience and highly recommended the course to other students. They appreciated that they had gained a concrete way to evaluate and compare nonprofits and a way of thinking about their own personal giving. The knowledge and skills they gained also helped them learn how to evaluate organizations from different perspectives, such as from the lens of a potential funder, to the voices of the organization’s leadership, its team members, and the individuals it serves. Taking this course energized the students to pursue additional public service opportunities. Brindha and Shaida went on to participate in PKG Center’s Social Impact Internships with the City of Miami Beach and the Navajo Nation. In addition, Jasmine dug deep into the academic side of public service by taking another PKG Center course – SP.250 Transforming Good Intentions into Good Outcomes. They are looking forward to participating in additional public service experiences through the PKG Center and other organizations. 

Beyond the coursework, the students were grateful for how kind and understanding the instructors were, and felt very supported by them throughout the course. They especially noted how much they appreciated the student-centered approach to learning, and the opportunity to help guide their learning with the “choose your own adventure” portion of the course. 

If you’re interested in taking this course in the spring, click here to learn more and register

Tags: Academic Courses, Philanthropy, Public Service, Social Impact, SP.256

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