Learning by Giving Class Focuses on Need, Awards Funds to Local Nonprofits

February 27, 2020

It’s often said that giving should have no season. In one class at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, students think about charity all semester long. In Professor Alex Miller’s Learning By Giving course, students study how to give money away thoughtfully. They evaluate teams of local nonprofit agencies to decide which will be awarded funding to further their missions.

The course is open to students from any major. Area nonprofits are invited to submit proposals for funding. Throughout the semester, Miller teaches his students how successful nonprofits function and trains them in methods to evaluate such programs, including running them through a series of case studies on real non-profits.

“Through case studies you learn about nonprofits, their failures and successes and how dealing with that benefited them,” mechanical engineering senior Brooks Leftwich said, adding that students are expected to apply critical thinking to the case studies to determine how to make a nonprofit successful.

To assess nonprofit proposals, students use the five Ms: mission, method, means, money and metrics. They also consider how funding would support the nonprofit teams’ ability to collaborate on their mutual endeavors.

One of the course’s rules is that all students must agree upon the distribution of monies, which leads to strenuous debate of the merits and shortcomings of proposals. At the end of the 2019 fall term, the class found itself evaluating five times as many requests as they could meet. This made deciding on finalists challenging.

Evan Rodberg, a senior in management, said the process was methodical, with students reviewing the proposals on posters and awarding points to each with colored markers.

“We marked which one we liked the most and then we tallied up all of that to see who definitely was getting the donations and who we were probably going to cut,” he said. “Then we reevaluated it until we made a final decision.”

Miller described the review as a committed, painstaking effort.

“As always, the students took it very seriously, and they were very engaged,” he said. “They spent close to five hours arguing in the class that reached the final decision of who was going to get what money and how it was going to be divided up.”

The course gave Jordan Puckett, a marketing senior, insight into how important nonprofits are to a community, and the hurdles they must overcome to pursue their missions.

“I felt the gravity of specific organizational needs throughout this process,” Puckett said. “My group was able to see just how crucial even a small amount of money is to these nonprofits. These organizations put tremendous effort into the needs of the community, and it was eye-opening to see that process from start to finish.”

Upon completion of the deliberations, award recipients were selected. The class presented checks to the following organizations:

  • InterFaith Health Clinic and Mountain Hope Good Shepherd Clinic, Inc. – $5,000
  • Knoxville Internationals Network and Center for English – $5,000
  • Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless and Clinch-Powell Resource Conservation & Development Council – $3, 500
  • Medic Samaritan and Seed International – $3,500
  • A Step Ahead Foundation of East Tennessee and Centro Hispano de East Tennessee – $3,000

Learning By Giving is offered in collaboration with the Consortium for Social Enterprise Effectiveness, housed in the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Haslam. The consortium is funded by a grant from the national Learning by Giving Foundation and additional donations from James A Haslam, II (HCB, ’52), and James L. Clayton, Sr. (UT, ’57, ’64).


Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist (865-974-3589, rmcnutt4@utk.edu)