For the past 10 years, the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Undergraduate Studies has offered a philanthropy lab course — Philanthropy: The Power of Giving — taught by Pam Paxton, a professor in UT Austin’s Department of Sociology. One of the first universities in the United States to establish a national philanthropy lab where students can immerse themselves in the nonprofit sector, this semester-long class provides a unique opportunity for students to identify, research and carefully evaluate regional, national and global nonprofit organizations with the goal of giving donated funds to six nonprofits at the end of the course.
This past academic year, three students, Phoebe Platt, Hannah Holliday and Kaiden Zapanta, who were then in their first year at UT Austin, selected Room to Read as a recipient of a $10,000 gift from the philanthropy lab, which draws annual funds from a partner foundation and individual donors. After a thorough vetting process, Room to Read was chosen out of numerous nonprofits around the world to receive this gift and recognition.
Professor Pam Paxton recently spoke with Room to Read about the philanthropy lab course structure sharing how she provides students with substantive instruction on the nonprofit sector.
Students form small groups and spend hours conducting research, finding strong nonprofit candidates that align with the group’s primary focus area — such as education, food security, gender equality, etc.
Phoebe, a sociology major, and her fellow group members were drawn to the education space — girls’ education in particular. The group discovered Room to Read using Charity Navigator as a guide to nonprofits with consistently high ratings and found our mission of creating a world free of illiteracy and gender inequality both compelling and transparent. The group also shared their interest in our Girls’ Education Program, which supports young girls in continuing their secondary school education with guidance from mentors.
After extensive research, the class compiled a list of 12 finalist nonprofit organizations, diving deeply into each one. This next phase of research involved everything from interviewing nonprofit executive directors and CEOs to analyzing an organization’s social return on investment. Phoebe’s group first reached out to Room to Read CEO Dr. Geetha Murali via LinkedIn to learn more about Room to Read’s mission and vision, our strategic priorities and organizational commitments and structure.
The semester concluded with a formal debate during which each small group presented their research findings and their top-choice nonprofit to their classmates, arguing why their chosen organization should be selected to receive donated funds. Phoebe and her group argued for Room to Read, and their classmates supported the decision.
We are inspired by the hard work and generosity displayed by these students through their coursework and philanthropic endeavors. They showcased the invaluable role education plays in supporting the next generation of givers and changemakers, and we are deeply grateful for their support!