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Imagine that you were given a pot of money to disperse to the most worthy causes in your local community. That’s the real life exercise that played out this spring in the Harvard Kennedy School course MLD-805, Philanthropy and Problem Solving, co-taught by Christine Letts, Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in the Practice of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership, and James Bildner, adjunct lecturer in public policy.
Open to both undergraduate and graduate students, the course aims to connect the dots between philanthropy, the nonprofit sector, government, organizational assessment and the impact of private action for public good. And the students who enrolled in the course this spring had the unique opportunity to put their lessons learned into practice.
Thanks to a $100,000 donation from the Philanthropy Lab of the Once Upon A Time Foundation in Fort Worth, Texas, students had the opportunity, working in teams, to investigate a social problem in Boston and then choose organizations addressing that specific need to receive grants.
“Our students not only learned how to analyze a problem and assess organizations, but they grappled with how to think about trust and accountability in giving. They learned how to account for their own preferences and motivations alongside rigorous analysis," said Letts, who also serves as interim director of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations.
“The class saw firsthand the kinds of needs, challenges and opportunities that exist in Boston and around the country,” said Bildner. “For me, the most teachable moments were when we were with families who struggle every day to climb out of structural poverty or other impediments that prevent them from accessing basic human needs. For some students just recognizing that the needs outside their door are often as great as the needs thousands of miles away will have long lasting impact on how they look at their own lives and careers.”
The students choose to award gifts to more than a dozen non-profit organizations in the Boston area, including the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative; the Family Independence Initiative; the Hyde Square Task Force; Miss Representation; Read to a Child, Rediscovery Inc.; Reflect and Strengthen; Sociedad Latina; Youth on Fire; the Big Sisters Association; Boston GLOW; Bridge Over Troubled Waters; Camp Harborview; Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation; Roca Inc.; Urban Edge; and the Women’s Lunch Place.
"Before taking the class, I was convinced that nonprofit work was unsustainable and that I should pursue a career outside of this sector," said Bari Saltman '14. "I now understand the nuances and the great potential of philanthropy and nonprofit financing, however, and I feel passionate about applying this new knowledge post-graduation."
“This class encouraged us to grapple with the tension between the knowledge that service providers have through their experience, and the perspective and evaluation tools that outside observers, and people who work in foundations or academia can bring,” said Sam Greenberg ’14.
This was the first year that the course was taught at Harvard, which was one of 15 institutions, including Penn, Princeton, Stanford and Yale, which received the funding. The Once Upon A Time Foundation has committed to continuing funding the course for another two years.
MLD-805 students do a site visit at Urban Edge
“Our students not only learned how to analyze a problem and assess organizations, but they grappled with how to think about trust and accountability in giving," said Christine Letts.
Christine Letts, Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in the Practice of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership