The science of giving


Photo by Michael McDermott

UO freshman Kait Huff (left) helps eighteen-year-old Shyanne and her year-old son find warm clothes at Hosea Youth Services, a Eugene nonprofit dedicated to homeless youth.


“Giving money away is tougher than it looks.”

That’s the opening line in the syllabus for PPPM 199 American Philanthropy, a freshman seminar where for nine years students have competed for $5,000 Wells Fargo grants—not for themselves, but for deserving nonprofits.

Along the way, they learn about the history and science of giving, with emphasis on how to evaluate the success of a philanthropic effort.

Like most of her classmates, Kait Huff signed up for the course hoping to learn more ways to help her favorite cause. Since arriving in Eugene last fall, the sociology major from Honolulu has spent Friday evenings volunteering with the winner of this year’s grant—Hosea Youth Services, a Eugene nonprofit devoted to street kids.

“I had the most humbling experience my first night at Hosea House,” Huff said. “When the director asked how many would be sleeping outside that night, seven people raised their hands, including a pregnant girl. It broke my heart. It was so cold—I was wearing two sweaters.”

Huff said the steps leading up to the check presentation ceremony (right after the final exam) turned out to be as real—and as rigorous—as it gets. For the first assignment, writing a case statement, she found herself competing against twenty-nine other compelling causes. Next, the class developed criteria for evaluating the proposals and voted for the top five. The students whose organizations lost sorted themselves into teams around the winners. They spent weeks preparing grant-worthy presentations by visiting the organizations and doing intensive research.

“The students were thorough,” said Ken Harvey, Hosea’s executive director. “They learned to dig in and find out how things work. That was impressive.”

The process mirrored the way that many companies and foundations handle funding requests. The teams gave their presentations, answered tough questions, and then the students each voted for their two top picks. Huff’s team won for Hosea by a single vote.

“I literally jumped out of my seat screaming when the last vote came in,” she said. “I was so stoked—but I would have been extremely pleased with any of the top five.”

The measurable impact that $5,000 could have for Hosea—a thousand hot meals, twenty-five warm beds, and fifteen temporary jobs—helped put Huff’s team over the top.

“About a thousand homeless youth come through our drop-in center each year,” said Mike Langley, Hosea’s program director. “We provide food and a safe place where they can shower, do laundry, get clothes, bus tokens, and job referrals—and rest.”
Paul Elstone teaches the course, originally developed by Renee Irvin, an associate professor of planning, public policy and management who directs the UO’s graduate certificate program in nonprofit management.

“The power of philanthropy is thrilling,” said Elstone, a senior development director at the university. “With the help of Wells Fargo, this course enables students to get out of the classroom and establish ties in the community right at the start of their college careers.”

Huff and Andrea DeMichiel, unofficial leader of the second place team, say the skills they learned will apply to everything else they do in life.

“I wanted to go from theory to real-life experience,” said DeMichiel, who works part-time as a caller in the UO’s annual giving program. “That’s exactly what we did. It’s what school should be about.”

DeMichiel and Huff hope the class can expand beyond its current limit of twenty-three students. “Maybe,” DeMichiel said, “if more people and companies follow Wells Fargo’s lead, this will happen.”

—Melody Ward Leslie