Learning by Giving Course Introduces Students to Social Entrepreneurship

July 15, 2019

Course will become foundation of new Social Entrepreneurship minor launching in 2020

Each year, students in one class at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business give away money. Professor Alex Miller’s Learning by Giving course teaches students how individuals and organizations pursue solutions to socially relevant and community-based issues through social entrepreneurship.

As part of their social entrepreneurship, Learning by Giving students distribute money to area nonprofit groups. Miller, the William B. Stokely Chair in Management at Haslam, says he aims “for the students to learn about philanthropy and nonprofits by intelligently giving away money.”

For the course, which is taught each fall semester, area nonprofit teams submit grant proposals. Miller teaches his students how to evaluate these so that funds can be dispersed most effectively. Stone Pinckney, a student in last year’s class, explained how the students assessed each organization’s strengths. 

“We used an evaluation form and a set of questions based upon the ‘five M’s,’ which include mission, method, means, money and metrics,” he says. “We wanted to ensure they ran their nonprofits as if they were a for-profit organization. Professor Miller taught us that great nonprofits are structured and run the same way great businesses are.”

In evaluating the proposals, participants must justify which nonprofits they choose to assist.

“One of the rules of the class is that we only give away the money if 100 percent of the students agree with the decision,” Miller says. “So, they typically spend many hours arguing with one another about the relative merits of supporting one versus another, and that really teaches them something about their values.”  

Because the course is open to all majors, that rule also means that as many as 35 students with dissimilar academic backgrounds, including engineering, music and veterinary majors, must reach consensus on who receives funding. They do it without Miller’s input, because making the final decisions amongst themselves is part of the learning process.

“This was a fun challenge in which we worked diplomatically to make sure all voices were heard,” Pinckney says. “As a result, I saw how money being given away is about logic and emotion, along with mission and objectives. My classmates eventually all compromised, as no one, except perhaps the top choice, got exactly what they wanted.”

Pinckney and the other students also saw the concrete value of the work done by several area nonprofits. In recognition of that value, the fall 2018 class presented $20,000 to five nonprofit teams, including:

  • Great Schools Partnership and the American Marketing Association, Knoxville: $8,000
  • Emerald Youth Foundation and the Restoration House of East Tennessee: $5,500
  • Girls Inc. TN Valley and the Episcopal School of Knoxville: $5,000
  • Bridge Refugee Services and the Center for English Language Learning: $750
  • Stepping Out, Inc. and the Kingswood Home for Children:  $750

The Learning by Giving course is part of a broader university effort to develop a series of service-learning courses, under the auspices of UT’s Teaching & Learning Innovation program. Service learning is an experiential education strategy through which students engage in meaningful service with community partners. The university offers 17 such courses in a variety of disciplines, such as business, architecture and philosophy.

Additionally, the Learning by Giving course will become a linchpin in a campus-wide social entrepreneurship minor in 2020. The minor, like the course from which it sprang, will be open to any major on campus.

The course is offered in collaboration with the Consortium for Social Enterprise Effectiveness, housed in the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Haslam. The consortium seeks to develop leaders of social-mission organizations and foster their organizational strategy building skills. It is funded by a grant from Dorothy Buffet’s national Learning by Giving Foundation and additional donations from James A Haslam, II (HCB, '52) and James L. Clayton, Sr. (UT, '57, '64).