December 03, 2020

Elliott Professor of Economics and Business Saranna Thornton is in her eighth year of teaching the course Good Men-Good Citizens: Philanthropy in Theory and Practice (INDS 320).

Hampden-sydney student volunteers working at FACES food pantryPartnering with the Learning by Giving Foundation (LxG), a national organization whose mission is to “inspire and educate a new generation of philanthropists,” Thornton’s course is one of 312 LxG-sponsored philanthropy courses taught in colleges and universities across the nation.

“I first learned about the Learning by Giving Foundation 10 years ago when I read a profile of a sociology course that examined philanthropy,” Thornton says. “I thought a philanthropy course certainly fit into Hampden-Sydney’s mission of forming good men and good citizens.” Instead of approaching the topic from just one academic discipline, however, Thornton harnessed the power of the liberal arts and created an interdisciplinary survey of philanthropy. Today, the course studies everything from the philosophical roots of philanthropy to its permeation across all cultures and religions, its economic implications, and even contemporary influences like social media.

Hampden-Sydney student volunteers on a Habitat for Humanity building siteBut as a hallmark course of Compass, H-SC’s experiential learning program, students do more than just analyze academic theory—they also work side-by-side with Farmville-area community members serving as volunteers and learning how to manage and run nonprofits. Students this semester worked with six local organizations: Farmville Area Community Emergency Supply (FACES), a local food bank; Heartland Horse Heroes, an equine-therapy program for middle school students; Heart of Virginia Free Clinic, a free healthcare clinic for low-income citizens; Virginia Children’s Book Festival (VCBF), an organization that champions childhood literacy; Piedmont Senior Resources, a home-healthcare service for the elderly; and Piedmont Habitat for Humanity, an organization that builds homes for housing-insecure individuals and families.

I used to think of philanthropy as just being charitable, but I’ve realized it’s more about understanding the needs in your community and finding ways to address those needs.

Tony Talbert ’21

Hampden-sydney student volunteer petting a donkeyThe course culminates in grant proposal presentations, where the students vie on behalf of their organizations for a piece of the $10,000 grant, which is funded 50/50 by LxG and the generous $6 million gift made earlier this year by Rob ’87 and Cindy Citrone to support Compass programming. Representing the organizations that they worked with throughout the semester, students harness their rhetoric skills to persuade classmates that their organizations’ funding requests should be met.

But there’s a catch. “The minimum grant allowance is $2,500. And it’s set up that way because we want the students to have to make hard choices,” Thornton says. “It would be easy to just split the $10,000 evenly between each organization. But in the real world, there are always more requests, so students have to think critically about how to best allocate scarce resources.”

Hampden-sydney student volunteers introducing people to a horse Growing up in the Charlottesville area, Tony Talbert ’21 has always been involved in philanthropy, working alongside his father and brother coaching underprivileged kids in football. A Tiger Football player himself, Tony says that, despite his prior experience, his understanding of philanthropy evolved during his time in Thornton’s class: “I used to think of philanthropy as just being charitable, but I’ve realized it’s more about understanding the needs in your community and finding ways to address those needs.”

“The students gain a real sense of what’s going on off the Hill,” Thornton says. “But they also gain personal agency. They learn that you don’t have to be rich to be a philanthropist; just the work the students do through the semester makes fundamental changes in people’s lives.”

Interdisciplinary academic inquiry, active learning, and good citizenship—this may just be the quintessential Hampden-Sydney class.

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