Students in Learning Through Giving Class Present Nonprofits with Grants

February 3, 2022

Alex Miller’s Leadership in Nonprofits and Social Entrepreneurship course, commonly called the “Learning Through Giving” class, introduces students to nonprofit operations and challenges. The course at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business is open to all majors, so students bring a variety of experiences, motivations and academic backgrounds to the class.

Ariel Ritter, a new animal science graduate, joined the 2021 class to gain expertise in nonprofit operations, which she uses as a board member of Exotic Pet Wonderland, Tennessee’s only 501(c)3 sanctuary for captive bred wildlife and difficult exotics. The nonprofit works with foxes, raccoons, bobcats and other wildlife that people purchase but can’t keep. It provides these animals 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.

In the course, Miller, the Pro2Serve Director of the 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 through how to use them to evaluate nonprofit performance through a series of real case studies.

This prepares them to assess the regional nonprofits’ capabilities and decide which ones will receive grant monies. The students review proposals, visit the nonprofit teams and do background research.

Sara Norris, a junior in aerospace engineering, was part of the team that evaluated Girls Inc. of Tennessee Valley and Centro Hispano de East TN. Their project, a period equity program that promotes equal 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.”

Miller’s class rules require 100 percent consensus on the funding allocations, which means the class as a whole 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 year, 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 TN – $5,000
  • Center for English and Friends of Literacy – $5,000
  • Interfaith Health Clinic and Sertoma of Knoxville – $4,244

The Learning Through Giving class 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 donations from UT supporters like David Schumann, a professor emeritus and former administrator at Haslam, who called the course 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, business writer/publicist,