A variety of Texas A&M University students have engaged with Brazos Valley nonprofits through the "hands-on," experiential strategic philanthropy course offered through the Mays Business School.
Instructor and professor Kyle Gammenthaler guided 18 students this fall through the course, during which the students began with more traditional coursework exploring the history of philanthropy, and ended the semester making hard decisions about how to allocate $72,000 worth of funding to area organizations.
The course began in the spring semester of 2016, Gammenthaler said, and will surpass $500,000 worth of allocations to area nonprofits at the end of the 2019 spring semester.
According to a Mays School news release, the most recent semester's class culminated with a public "check celebration," at which the course's students presented mega-sized checks ranging from $5,000 to $21,400 to five nonprofit organizations: Aggieland Pregnancy Outreach, The BEE Community, Save Our Streets Ministries, Still Creek Ranch and Voices for Children. The check celebration took place Dec. 5, one day before George H.W. Bush was brought back to College Station for burial at his presidential library.
Amy Sharp, who today serves Texas A&M University as its student body president, took the course as a sophomore in spring 2017.
"The class is a transformative one for students," Sharp said Friday. "It's so easy to get in the system and just memorizing information and regurgitating it on the exam. All of that is important, but something like philanthropy is important for every person to understand. Most of us went into that class thinking philanthropy just meant money, and the class made it clear that it's so much more than that. Your time and your talent is equally valuable to give back to the world. It's so important to do so."
Gammenthaler said the course participants' journey from the start of the semester to the check celebration provides students with opportunities to challenge perceptions, process new information and collaborate across differences. It is an upper-level undergraduate course, he said, but some underclassmen also enroll.
"Philanthropy as a topic is just massive, and it doesn't have really clear boundaries on what it means," he said. "[The course] really stretches the students' thinking, and we ask a lot of big questions."
In the final weeks of the class, the students review dozens of profiles of area nonprofits and whittle down their selections through what Gammenthaler called a "board-like" process. Gammenthaler and Sharp both said the process of determining which local organizations would receive funding could be intense.
"Once it got down to it," Sharp said, "We had multiple private meetings with leadership to try and understand more about the nonprofit, and go out to the site, and maybe even meet some of the people they would work with -- and then it gets to the point where you want to advocate for these different people who are advocating so hard for people in the community."
Sharp also said experiences gained from the course have helped her during her presidency.
The $72,000 worth of funding for the students to allocate came from the George H.W. Bush Library Foundation, The Philanthropy Lab and The Bethancourt Family.
"For me as an instructor, the difficult part and the fun part is not to use my own personal beliefs in the discussions, but letting the discussion simmer a bit and really let the students work through some of this," Gammenthaler said.
He also said that the course helps students challenge their own perceptions.
"If my students walk away understanding that a hungry person is probably not hungry just because they decide not to work…the reality is that a hungry person could have two jobs and three kids, and just be trying to make it, but due to these larger factors…these issues are just really complicated, and I also want the students to see that there is some hope to operate in.
"Our local nonprofit sector does an incredible job of seeing people as people, and that's the biggest thing. There are these larger issues to education or homelessness or poverty or hunger that are deeply rooted," Gammenthaler said.
Emily Anderson, who was part of the first philanthropy course in spring 2016, has served as a grant evaluator for the course in subsequent semesters, and works to assess how the funds donated were used in each organization.
Anderson said the course was hands-on. "There is no sitting back and watching. Everyone in the class participates," she said.
"It was by far one of the most valuable experiences during my four years at Texas A&M. I learned so much about generosity, accountability, scalability and sustainability. It continues to shape my life and my work today."
Gammenthaler said he plans have the course's students engage even more deeply in the local nonprofit sector in the future. "The beauty of philanthropy is the diversity of philanthropy," he said.