Teaching Students How To Give Away Thousands Of Dollars

Mar 3, 2015

Chloe Castro talks to her team about installing solar panels on a Camillus House residence.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

The names of prominent South Florida philanthropists are hung on buildings, printed in program notes and regularly thanked at cultural gatherings -- names you probably recognize: Arsht, Knight, Frost.

Unfortunately, many South Floridians are not in a position to give away thousands of dollars to a cause they believe in. But a new course at Florida International University is giving a few students a taste of what it’s like – the accolades and the work that comes from charitable giving.

“The course was the idea of having the students discover the value of money,” says Herb Gruber, who proposed the course, “so that in their future life, as they go through it, this will be an example for them of how money can benefit mankind.”

Gruber is well into his retirement from a successful career in finance. Ten years ago, instead of spending his time on a golf course, he started taking classes at FIU for fun. Looking around his classrooms, he saw some students were a little less than enamored with the idea of being in a lecture.

“A university needs classrooms, it needs laboratories, it needs sports, stadiums, but it also needs ideas to keep these millennials concentrating and get their thumbs off their tweeters,” explains Gruber.

Chloe Castro surveys the roof of a building to see if it could hold an array of solar panels.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

Hands-on ideas that bridge the ever-looming “gown and town” divide. He agreed to donate $25,000 for an experimental course in which FIU students would learn how to design charitable projects and advocate for them. Then, the students would compete for Gruber’s money and get a chance to actually try out their idea.

It’s a similar model to philanthropy courses offered at universities like Harvard and Gruber’s alma mater, Stanford, but it’s the first time FIU has offered its students a class about philanthropy.

Elena Nuciforo taught the inaugural class, which finished up in December. She said the course had to start by explaining the most basic ideas of philanthropy to her students.

“A lot of them think it’s a bunch of rich people… and they didn’t know how much work it is actually for the donor,” says Nuciforo. “It changed their perception of philanthropy that it’s not just given, it's actually strategically planned.”

These numbers captures grants and donations made in 2014 by 110 of the largest charitable organizations in the Florida.
Credit Florida Philanthropic Network

Students had to figure out which strategies were right for their projects: Do they start from scratch, or piggy-back on an existing initiative? And how can they make their money go as far as possible? Can they get matching grants? Can they get people to donate time and services?

FIU senior Chloe Castro won the first competition. Along with a local environmental organization called IDEAS, she’s retrofitting a Camillus House residence building with a 20-kilowatt solar panel array, LED bulbs and adaptable thermostats.

“We’re saving Camillus House money,” says Castro, money that the organization can use elsewhere.

One of the biggest obstacles for Castro was finding a way to get people to buy into something as abstract as “the environment,” her initial proposed use of the money.

“They can’t see it in the air,” explains Castro. But retrofitting a Camillus House residence, being able to say her plan would reduce the building’s energy usage by almost one half? That was the winning ticket.

This semester, a second group of FIU students is competing for a slightly smaller purse of Herb Gruber’s money: $10,000, but Gruber says he’s working with FIU on other types of interactive courses to be revealed in the future.