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College students learning to give — $10,000 at a time

MIDDLEBURY — A group of 25 Middlebury College students this winter has been given the kind of assignment any civic-minded person would dream of: Give away $10,000 to one or more charitable causes.
The Middlebury students in question are enrolled in a course called “Philanthropy: Ethics and Practice.” It is being taught by Sarah Stroup, assistant professor of political science, and Steve Viner, associate professor of philosophy. In a J-term class that will last almost four weeks, the students will discuss and debate philosophical questions about altruism, justice and the ethics of giving.
To top it all off, they will have a pot of $10,000 to award — in increments of no less than $2,000 — to one or among several charitable organizations that must be located within a 50-mile radius of the Middlebury campus.
“It helps you see what’s going on under the surface,” Dylan Peters, a Middlebury College junior and environmental studies major, said of the philanthropy course. “I really like it. And of course it’s real money, which increases the sense of responsibility more than if you were talking about giving in a theoretical sense, where there’s not as much skin in the game.”
The $10,000 is being provided by the Learning by Giving Foundation, created by Doris Buffett, the sister of famed entrepreneur and philanthropist Warren Buffett.
This will not be the first time a Middlebury College class will have had the opportunity to give a large amount of money to charity. Two years ago, the Texas-based Once Upon a Time Foundation awarded Stroup’s class $100,000 to give away as it saw fit. After considerable debate and study of a large number of philanthropic organizations, the students that year agreed to give $35,000 to Gardens for Health International; $35,000 to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative; and $15,000 each to the Parent-Child Center of Addison County and Grassroots Soccer of Norwich.
This year’s pot of money is smaller, as is the list of potential recipients (because of the 50-mile rule). But the benefits of the course remain ample. Some lucky nonprofits will receive some additional financial help that is sorely needed during this period of state and federal cutbacks. Meanwhile, the participating students will have a chance to get a first-hand glimpse at area social service organizations, while also discovering how to maximize the value of their future philanthropic dollars.
“It is useful for our students to get off campus and into Addison County,” Stroup said.
Students have formed individual “assessment teams” to vet potential recipients of the $10,000. As of Jan. 8, the class had compiled a list of 32 charities that students will slowly winnow down to five finalists over the next three weeks, according to Stroup. The class will transparently determine which charities receive money, and how much. It is that build-up to consensus that Stroup and Viner look forward to seeing as their young charges make choices based upon the research they will have done during the preceding three weeks.
 “What’s interesting about it is it will give us a good opportunity for the students to really evaluate, and talk to, local charities, to really understand what people do at the charities, and how that charity might evaluate itself,” Viner said. “It will force students to come up with good questions for the charities, and it will force the charities to come up with good answers. That interaction is pretty valuable.”
Tuesday saw the students meet with representatives of the Vermont Community Foundation to learn more about charitable giving.
Stroup possesses a great deal of knowledge about how charities work, while Viner is able to lead students through some of the philosophical questions with which donors often struggle. For example, the students will be asked if they think they have a moral duty to help others; whether giving should be motivated out of a sense or justice, or duty; and whether the act of giving raises any kind of ethical questions.
Freshman student Meredith Tulloch did a lot of volunteering through high school, an experience that has whetted her appetite for philanthropy.
“I’ve always had those values instilled in me that it’s really important to give away as much as you can to the community,” she said.
Tulloch has made a point of spending a lot of time in downtown Middlebury, seeing many nonprofits — such as Addison County Transit Resources — delivering services to those in need. She sees this J-term course as a road back to the volunteerism she enjoyed in high school.
“I thought this was an opportunity to get more engaged within the community,” Tulloch said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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