Last fall Ariel Ritter—a 2021 University of Tennessee, Knoxville, animal science graduate—took Professor Alex Miller’s Leadership in Nonprofits and Social Entrepreneurship course in UT’s Haslam College of Business to gain expertise in nonprofit operations and challenges. It turned out that Ritter got much more—a real-life taste of Volunteers joining together in an energizing experience that also made the world a better place.
Ritter, a Murfreesboro, Tennessee, native, has already used the skills she learned in class as a board member of Exotic Pet Wonderland, Tennessee’s only nonprofit sanctuary for captive-bred wildlife and difficult exotics. The sanctuary works with foxes, raccoons, bobcats, and other wild animals that people purchase but can’t keep, providing them with positive socialization and a forever home.
“I’ve shared the teachings from each lesson with my nonprofit and even suggested changes as a direct result of what was being taught in this class,” Ritter said.
For Ritter and her classmates, the most inspiring part of the course—commonly called Learning through Giving—came in evaluating proposals from area nonprofits and awarding grants to those they deemed most worthy.
Learning How Nonprofits Work
In the course, Miller, the Pro2Serve Director of UT’s Consortium for Social Enterprise Effectiveness, teaches students like Ritter how successful nonprofits function. He also tasks them with giving money in an informed, thoughtful way to teams of regional nonprofits that have applied for grants through the course. Miller introduces a simple framework of five Ms—mission, method, means, money, and metrics—and guides students in using them to evaluate nonprofit performance through a series of case studies.
The exercise prepares them to assess the regional nonprofits’ capabilities and decide which ones will receive grant funds. The students review proposals, visit the nonprofit teams, and do background research. Since the course, offered each fall, is open to all majors, students bring a variety of experiences, motivations, and academic backgrounds.
Sarah Norris, a junior in aerospace engineering from Knoxville, was part of the team that evaluated Girls Inc. of Tennessee Valley and Centro Hispano de East Tennessee. Their joint project, a period equity program that promotes access to feminine hygiene products and reproductive health education for girls, held deep meaning for her.
“As a woman from a lower-income background raised by a single father, working on a program that will educate families and younger children about periods and period equity was powerful to me,” Norris said. “I was so happy to help other girls in that situation.”
Making Decisions and Awarding Funds
Miller’s rules for the course require 100 percent consensus on the funding allocations, which means the whole class must debate each proposal’s merits.
“The decision-making process is intentionally difficult,” he said. “Students have $20,000 to allocate across $40,000 of deserving proposals. As they wrestle with this dilemma, they learn about what makes for stronger nonprofits and how to make tough choices. Perhaps most importantly, they learn a lot about themselves and what they value.”
Each fall, at semester’s end, the students present checks to nonprofit teams. In December, the 2021 Learning through Giving class made grants to four nonprofit teams:
- Family Promise of Blount County and Family Promise of Roane County—$5,756
- Girls Inc. of Tennessee Valley and Centro Hispano de East Tennessee—$5,000
- Center for English and Friends of Literacy—$5,000
- Interfaith Health Clinic and Sertoma of Knoxville—$4,244
Family Promise of Blount County and Roane County serve families experiencing homelessness. In their proposal, they sought funding to make desperately needed upgrades to their technology so they could better help their constituents use computers for educational purposes and in job training and job searches. They also wanted to integrate their website and database to make it easier to register for a space in the program and for the staff to access participant data.
“The students involved in the program are doing amazing things,” said Lorrie Crockett, Blount County community engagement officer, “and to be a small part of that was really huge. It’s such a great program—I can’t say enough good things about it.”
With the grant of $5,756, each county’s organization was able to purchase four Chromebooks and two tablets for the use of program guests and to start on getting their database and website to communicate. This is the second year in a row Family Promise has received a grant.
“We were blown away by the amount,” Crockett said. “The needs are so great, and we love to see young people so engaged in what is going on in the community. They will be the future world-changers, the future board members, the people running our nonprofits. To be awarded funding from this group of students is truly an honor and a privilege.”
The Learning through Giving course is offered in collaboration with the Consortium for Social Enterprise Effectiveness, housed in the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Haslam College of Business. The consortium is funded by donations from supporters like David Schumann, a professor emeritus and former administrator at UT, who describes the course as a great opportunity for students to learn about nonprofits and the criteria needed to judge their value.
“It gives them a perspective on their own future giving, and I appreciate the careful way in which they award these grants,” Schumann said. “This course is a great way to both support nonprofits and advance student learning.”
Scott McNutt, (firstname.lastname@example.org, 865-974-3589)
Brooks Clark, (email@example.com, 865-974-5471)