04/18/2013 03:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2013

Why Teach Philanthropy -- and How?

Reading, writing, 'rithmetic... and philanthropy?

Granted, philanthropy is not the first topic that comes to mind when thinking about standard offerings at liberal arts colleges. But increasingly, students studying humanities, social or hard sciences, or business can learn about philanthropy, and it's easy to see why. Philanthropy represents annually an approximately 300 billion dollar sector of the American economy. Americans appear uniquely to value civil society responses to social problems, contributing generously through philanthropic means of their time, talent, and especially, treasure. As observers since de Tocqueville have discovered, when Americans identify a concern their instinct seems to be to form a little group, raise some money, and make things better. In today's lingo it's sometimes called "social entrepreneurship." But the term philanthropy, the Greek for "love of humanity," continues best to capture the pro-social, virtuous thrust of the practice of giving and giving well.

And, like any virtue, philanthropy can be learned. In his recent book, Philanthropy and Fundraising in American Higher Education, University of Maryland professor Noah D. Drezner summarizes some of the research on how seeing one's parents give can influence later giving and altruistic behaviors in children. For example:

...Bentley and Nissan (1996) explored how primary school students learn philanthropy and altruistic behavior. The study suggests that witnessing an influential adult (parent or guardian, teacher, religious or youth organization leader) engage in acts of philanthropy is most effective in passing along the importance of helping others. Schervish and Havens (1997), using the 1992 Survey of Giving and Volunteering in the United States, found that witnessing at least one parent or guardian engage in volunteer work, watching a family member help others, or being the recipient of help while young was associated with higher levels of giving as an adult. Hunt (1990) referred to it as "modeling theory." This teachable moment is intensified when it is coupled with a discussion about the importance of such actions (Bar-Tal, 1976; Bentley and Nissan, 1996). (p. 59)

If giving is teachable, then the college years represent a tremendous opportunity to instill such behaviors in the next generation -- and the need is arguably greater than ever. In the future, all of us are going to have to be more savvy about philanthropy. As taxpayers are increasingly less willing to fund public giving, everyone in the non-profit world has to get out, beat the bushes, and make the case for why we are deserving of funds. As globalization ramps up competition, many of us are now competing with the best from around the world. Finally, the rise in social media fuels a need for us to be vivid, authentic tellers of our own story. The key to successful philanthropy is story, that is, understanding and telling the story of what the problem is, why the giver is the best leader to respond to the problem, and why the recipient is the best candidate for solving the problem on the ground.

Earlier this month, the first national school for philanthropy -- at Indiana University -- was renamed in honor of the Lilly family and the Lilly Endowment, a leading American foundation that was established 75 years ago. But another, less well-known foundation has also been propelling the study of philanthropy in higher education into the news: the Once Upon a Time Foundation. As the Yale Daily News reported, the Forth Worth, Texas foundation has been approaching professors at elite universities and providing 50-100,000 dollars for students to give away to charities of their choice. Professors at Harvard, Northwestern, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, Yale, Stanford, University of Texas, University of Virginia, Princeton and elsewhere have incorporated the philanthropic activity of students into their class syllabi, using foundation funds to equip their students to learn how to give money away.

When I recently stumbled upon articles about these activities, I thought I was misreading. I had assumed that students in a class about philanthropy would be, well, learning how to get some philanthropy! I had imagined that, in addition to learning the history, theory, and social science of philanthropy, students might also study practical skills such as grant writing, foundation and prospect research, how to make a three minute pitch to a potential donor, or even the timeless and endangered art of writing a handwritten thank-you note.

After all, the likelihood that today's college students will become philanthropists any time soon is slim. Unless their families have already established foundations, or they get a rare, coveted job in the foundation world, and especially given increasing economic inequality and concentration of wealth, it's far more likely that in the near future today's students will be grant seekers rather than grant givers. And, there is something about college students giving away money they have not earned that seems a little, well, offensive. Giving away your own money, which you have often earned through sweat, risk, long hours, and sacrifices of other interests you might wish to have pursued (such as being with your family, or having more leisure), is much harder than giving away money someone has handed to you. What, realistically, are these students learning?

Time will tell. Perhaps, like the student-led "Pennies for Patients" campaign at my children's elementary school, graduating seniors who have studied philanthropy will find creative ways to pool even limited resources to bring about social change. Perhaps they will be like the Binghamton University graduates who this month won 10,000 dollars and gave it to a community health program they learned about when taking professor David Campbell's "Philanthropy in Civil Society" course. Or, perhaps they'll become disgruntled, stymied, would-be philanthropists, wondering why after slaving forty hours in a cubicle no one is giving them free money so they can be lauded leaders in their communities.

I am willing to believe that my skepticism is for naught. I am more than willing to believe that today's students, taught the principles of giving and serving humanity, and even given a chance to take those principles out for a spin thanks to the generosity of a Texas-based foundation, will find new ways to improve our nation, surprise us, and make us proud.