Blog home

Reflections by a new philanthropist

By Brendan Hurley
July 21, 2020

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

Never. Never have I had a course that has had such an influence on my academic life, as well as my personal life, as this one. Philanthropy & Civil Society, a course offered at Binghamton University through the Learning By Giving Foundation, changed my outlook on philanthropy completely. The course’s intent is to allow students to have a glimpse into the nonprofit sector and learn more about global philanthropy, with a real grant decision of $10,000 to make, to give to local nonprofit organizations.

Never have I been challenged in my student career to make a decision that had so much moral weight and would impact real lives that were otherwise beyond my control. With this hefty grant decision looming over us since day one, I knew that I had to be an active, engaged student in this course to learn how to make that decision. In the end, we had more than 70 applicants, and we donated our funds to VINES and RISE, who work with providing food to their community and comprehensive aid to domestic abuse victims, respectively.

With that said, I’ve learned so much more from this course than I ever could have imagined. At the beginning of the course, I expected to learn about the different methods and impacts that philanthropy has on the world, and where I would fit in to it. I did not expect to meet so many people who were just as passionate about changing the world as I was and had such incredible stories of what drew them to this course. After I met my classmates, the faculty, and heard from grant applicants, I was able to comprehend the magnitude of this class, and how it calls for a unification of go-getters and dreamers.

This year, however, was unique. Not only did we have the grant choice to make, which was a tremendously beautiful burden, but, because of the coronavirus pandemic, we had to adapt and conduct our course online. But despite an inability to go on site visits in person, we poured our time into reading every word of grant applications, until it seeped into our dreams ... well, maybe that was just me.

Anyway, in all honesty, I knew making this choice was going to be one of the most challenging things I have ever done in any class I’ve taken at Binghamton. Therefore, I knew I had to reflect on what I had learned throughout the course.

One concept that demanded my attention was that of effective altruism, Peter Singer’s brainchild. Effective altruism concerns itself with asking if our donations do the most good, instead of what feels right at the time. It asks people to support organizations that do the most good per dollar, based on their statistics. For example, your favorite organization to donate to may be Feeding America, but say there is another organization that distributes more meals per dollar. An effective altruist would then donate to that one.

Although I appreciate the notion that we should contribute to organizations that do the most good per dollar, I can’t help but reject that we should disregard emotion when we donate. I have tried and tried to separate my own personal beliefs from my decision and see an organization as its statistics, but only to my own failure. Should we have to do that? After spending time researching this specific approach to philanthropy, it made me question my own personal philosophy, which doesn’t happen frequently.

I personally believe that everyone should do their research to find organizations that they believe in, and if they can, donate to them. In order for me to support an organization, I have to believe in its mission, I have to see its dedication, and I have to know that it is transparent with its decision making. Both VINES and RISE more than met those requirements. I also believe that when people get that feeling of pride after they make a donation, they are more likely to do it again. If they donate to an organization that they don’t have a personal connection with, they might not want to again.

Questioning my beliefs like this made me love this course. In my opinion, the only way we change is by having our beliefs challenged and keeping an open mind. I frequently find myself thinking about issues unrelated to the course from a philanthropic view, because of the lessons we had. This course opened my eyes to new ways that I could help people. I can't put a price on that.

I expected my question after this course to be about if I could ever become a philanthropist, but I realized that I am a philanthropist. Philanthropy is not some out-of-reach phenomenon. If you want to change the world, change someone's life, all you have to do is do it. Your move.

Tags: Giving; Social sector