An Education in the Common Good
Recognizing that serving the common good is often - and necessarily - accomplished with a checkbook, Bowdoin sends students out in the world educated in philanthropy.
It's noon on a beautiful spring Saturday, and the students from the Common Good Grant Committee are holed up in the basement of Sills Hall with $17,500 to spend. The wood-paneled walls of the Peucinian Room are lined with 13 large sheets of paper, one for each of the non-profit organizations asking them for money. The students have dotted them with red, blue and yellow stickers to signify how much they like or dislike the proposals. They've spent nearly an hour establishing the criteria they will use to judge the requests - geographic diversity, making the greatest impact, having a long-term effect, reaching a variety of people in need, and the critical need specifically for their help - and the time has come to make the hard choices.
The requests total $24,500 - $7,000 more than the committee has - so the students decide their first goal is to weed out the ones they can agree not to fund. A project to research clean energy alternatives for Maine communities and a fair organized by a local peace group are the first to go. They like the clean energy proposal, but don't want to spend their limited resources on it, so they agree to pass it along the to the environmental studies faculty for possible use as a service learning project. As for the fair, most of them just don't like it.
"They're going to do the fair with or without our money," said Wyneiceia Hyman '09. "We'd be taking $2,000 away from an organization that actually needs the $2,000."
Andrew Combs '06 agreed: "I wanted to help people in dire need. This isn't an essential service. We can benefit some other organization much more effectively."
Geoffrey Yeterian '09 was more concerned about making a political statement: "If it's going to cause controversy, considering current events, we don't want to do it. It's a highly biased organization."
"I thought it was a cool idea," countered Suni Vaz '09. "Promoting peace isn't necessarily a statement about this war. It's cool to get older people and younger people together like this."
But Lisa Peterson '07 and Katharine Kindick '09 questioned the peace fair's apparent lack of organization, while Taneisha Wilson '07 was disturbed by the fact that half the grant money would go toward renting tents for the fair, which is not the lasting community contribution she had hoped to make.
This is just the kind of thoughtful consideration the founder of the Common Good Grants was hoping to generate. These students - and a separate group of eight fundraisers - have met almost weekly since October as part of an unusual lesson in philanthropy. The Common Good Grant Committee operates like a foundation, soliciting funding requests from local non-profits, and awarding grants to the top applicants. Meanwhile, the Extension Committee raises money to supplement the $10,000 given to the program annually by the founder, an anonymous Bowdoin alumnus.
Over the course of six months, the students have transformed themselves from a loose, tentative group of strangers into a hardworking, cooperative team committed to learning about what it means to be a philanthropist, the challenges involved in funding a non-profit, the time it takes to write and evaluate grants, and how hard it is to ask a complete stranger for money. More importantly, they learn the breadth and depth of the need that exists just off campus, and how much of an impact a small donation can make.
"I love the way this is part of a Bowdoin continuum that started more than 200 years ago," said Scott Meiklejohn, assistant to the president and vice president for planning and institutional advancement. "This value [of serving the Common Good] is one of the most important things about Bowdoin."
"This is one of the great experiential learning opportunities available at Bowdoin," said Craig Bradley, outgoing dean of student affairs. "How else could [students] become so well-acquainted with the needs of the community? It's so important for them to know how much suffering and despair there is in the community. That is an education in itself; it will stay with them."
Bowdoin is one of only a few colleges in the country that offer undergraduates the opportunity to be philanthropists, and no other involves students raising the money themselves.
"This teaches them about the whole cycle of philanthropy," said Eric Foushee, Bowdoin's director of annual giving.
It also exposes them to the non-profit sector as a career path they might not otherwise have considered.
"Non-profits are less visible from a career-planning point of view," Bradley said. "This opens up that world to them. Now they know you can make a living doing this, and have a meaningful career."
The Common Good Grants were first awarded in 2001, the brainchild of a 1964 Bowdoin graduate and Grace Brescia, the College's former director of annual giving. It began with a $10,000 donation from the alumnus, who majored in economics, spent his career as an entrepreneur and now runs a philanthropic foundation in Massachusetts. He gave the money on the condition that it be passed on to non-profits in grants no larger than $2,500, and that the students be in charge of how it is distributed.
The donor is passionate about philanthropy - not just giving his money away, but giving other people the opportunity to be philanthropists, teaching them to care about how the money is used, and to understand the importance of reaching out to the community in a way that leverages their donation to do the most good.
"A liberal arts education should prepare you to give back," said the donor.
He is equally passionate about remaining anonymous, though he continues to work closely with the College.
"I feel that giving is a very private, personal thing," he said. "It's like religion to me."
He and Brescia developed the grant program as a way to serve the Common Good in the broadest way possible. At their most basic, the grants give crucial financial assistance to local non-profit organizations dedicated to improving the lives of people living in and around Brunswick. But that is just the first stone in the water. The ripples that emanate from that activity extend far beyond it. The experience gives students the opportunity to contribute to the community, and teaches them the value and mechanics of philanthropy, a lesson the donor believes will remain with them throughout their lives. Students also learn fundraising techniques from the College's development officers, who volunteer their time to the committee as their own contribution to the Common Good.
"If we can play a little part teaching them a subject they're not going to pick up anywhere else, that's ideal," Meiklejohn said.
Non-profits also benefit in a number of ways. Not only do they have the opportunity to compete for the grants, but they also can attend a free grant-writing seminar run by the College Development Office. In the long run, the Common Good Grants strengthen the intangible bonds between the College and the greater community, and between the students and the College.
"I leave these sessions with the hope that one of these students will be an executive director of some non-profit that will make a real difference in the world," said Cindy Stocks, associate director of corporate and foundation relations, who runs grant-writing workshops for students and the community. "This is one of the ways I can give back. This is a way I can personally help the community in the here and now, and also hopefully plant some seeds."
"The Common Good is what we're a part of here at Bowdoin and what we're trying to accomplish," said Will Hales '08, co-leader of the Extension Committee.
The first committee of 12 students met several times to draw up a request for proposals, and then to evaluate the applications when they arrived. They met once to select the winners, and again to present the grants at an awards ceremony.
Now in its fifth year, the Common Good Grant program has exploded under the energetic leadership of Susan Dorn, director of the Community Service Resource Center. She presents a curriculum that draws on the expertise of the College's own fundraisers and the people who run the non-profits in the Brunswick area. Hour-long meetings - frequently beginning at 9 p.m. to accommodate students' schedules - focus on learning the definition of "non-profit," "foundation," and "philanthropy"; exploring the types of organizations the students would like to support and those which would not qualify for grants; visiting past winners to learn how grants have impacted those organizations, and establishing criteria for evaluating new proposals. She asks the students to examine their own pre-conceived notions of "philanthropy" and "charity," and their role in the community.
Students last year received 35 requests and were able to fund only six with the $10,000 the program offered. They were so frustrated by the number of worthy proposals they had to deny that they raised an additional $2,700 on their own, enough to fund one more. The Class of 2005 then donated $4,000 to the program, so the Committee started this year with $14,000 to give away. With the donor's blessing, the students created a second group - the Extension Committee - dedicated solely to fundraising. The two groups meet jointly for presentations, and to discuss issues that affected the program as a whole, but frequently they work separately on parallel tracks.
"They've matured into a very effective foundation," the donor said. "I'm impressed with that. I'm just blown away by the students. It's so inspiring, it makes you want to give more. They're passionate about it and serious about it, and these are students who are busy with other things."
Dorn starts the day-long Saturday retreat the same way she will start most of the meetings for the next few months, with an icebreaker designed to relax the students, to get them to open up to each other and work as a team, and, more practically, to help them learn each other's names.
"I sat down with the student who ran the Extension Committee last year, and he told me that come April 1, they didn't know each other," Dorn explained. "He said it was awkward; they couldn't speak their minds. So this year, I added group-building exercises."
One of the goals of the retreat was to make the students write a mission statement, then draft a request for proposals to attract the kinds of non-profit projects that would fulfill that mission. They broke into small groups and generated a list of five issues they wanted to address with the grants.
"We had a debate about whether to fund operating expenses," Hales said. "In the end, it's easier to fund a pony than a pony's hay."
"We had a similar discussion in our group," said Pooja Desai '08. "We'd have to read the proposal. It might have a bigger impact to fund Big Sisters/Big Brothers than to build a new playground."
They also considered how far afield they should look, and whether they should accept proposals from Portland.
"It's important to focus on our immediate community," Peterson said. "Bowdoin owes it to the community."
"It also will be a lot more work to review a lot more applications," Hales said.
They decided to exclude Portland by limiting applicants to organizations within a 20-mile radius of Brunswick that serve the greater Brunswick area. The students also agreed that they would not fund an organization two years in a row, and would not fund endowments or capital expenses.
They mailed the RFPs in November and gave the organizations a February 7 deadline to apply.
Foushee and Meiklejohn have developed a list of potential donors, people who are familiar with the College, have donated in the past and are willing to mentor students who are learning the fine art of fundraising. The job of closing the deal still rests with the students, so Foushee and Meiklejohn have been coaching them on their technique for the past two months.
"There's a lot of talk about donor fatigue, with the tsunami, the hurricanes, Pakistan," Foushee had told them in November. "You can make a case that this is for local Maine causes right in their backyard. You need to be able to say the kernel of what you're pitching in less than one minute. Try to be really spare.
"Then be quiet and let them respond," he said. "That might be one of the hardest things to learn. They might be quiet for a while; sit on your hands, bite your lip. If you talk too much, you might end up talking yourself out of a sell."
"Giving is not a transaction, it's more of an organic relationship," Meiklejohn told them. "There's a lot that goes into successful getting."
By now, they are getting down to the wire, with only a month to go before spring break and six weeks before the deadline to collect all donations. They schedule a meeting with Foushee and Meiklejohn to conduct mock "asks," a fundraising dry run to polish their technique.
"We're going on our first asks next week, only, we don't know how to ask yet," said Alicia Wong '07.
"It's time to start articulating this while looking someone else in the eye," Meiklejohn told the committee.
"Last year, (one potential donor) wanted us to ask young alumni for money, and they'd match the donations," Wong said. "What do we say to that?"
"Have them contact us or Susie," Foushee told her.
"Seize on the positive and turn it around," Meiklejohn added. "Start by saying thank you for your support last year, and for giving us the time to talk to you about it again. Say that's exactly what we want to do, to expand the program, but use it to emphasize the need for more money. Realize when you're getting to that point. If he keeps asking questions, great, that means he's learning about the program. If there's a lull, you can see if he needs more information. Then you ask."
"So ...," Wong said, still too hesitant to actually ask for the money, "... do you ... have any more questions?"
Meiklejohn clucks at her like a chicken, and the group erupts in laughter. They all know that the hardest part about asking for money isn't describing the program or the people they will help. It's asking for the money.
"We need to be cheerleaders for Bowdoin," Hales tells them. "Don't be afraid to say we've done a lot of good, and we'll continue to do more good with your help."
"This is a way to allow Brunswick community members to give back to the community and for Bowdoin students who may be temporary members of the community to be a part of that," said Anne Cathcart '08. "The biggest selling point is that they're helping to cultivate future leaders in philanthropy; it's a learning process for us."
"Someone might ask you why they should give to you and not directly to the local organization," Meiklejohn said. "Stress that educational aspect. You might mention that 100 percent of their gift goes to the non-profit."
In fact, Hales and Desai were asked that question the following week, on their first ask; Hales, who is from New Orleans, was ready:
"I told them, 'We can't tell you one cause is better than another - I'd love for everyone to give to the American Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity when my city got hit by a hurricane - but for us, this is a very valuable experience, and is very valuable for the community.'
"We were most effective when we talked about how passionate we are about it," he said. "That couldn't have made more of a difference. This sort of thing is probably much easier when you have a good cause behind you."
Dawn Riebeling '07 had a similar experience: "I ended up phrasing it like an opportunity, being confident in our project and not being on my knees asking for money."
Meiklejohn and Foushee were impressed with the students.
"No one really likes to ask for money," Foushee said. "It doesn't come naturally. But I thought they were very smart and articulate."
"I think they learned really quickly," Meiklejohn said. "They got how important it is to deliver your message in a concise, compelling way. It sounds easy, but until you get in someone's living room, you don't know how hard it can be."
In the next two weeks, the Extension Committee solicited nine potential donors, most of whom gave, and raised $3,500 for the Common Good Grants. It was enough to fund three additional grants.
The Grant Committee has received 31 proposals from non-profit groups in the area. The committee and the proposals were divided into four groups, and each group was asked to pick their top three choices to consider for funding. That proved harder than some had expected, but the exercise helped them establish the criteria they would use in the final round.
"I looked for things that would have a lasting impact on the community, things that would continue on," Yeterian stated. "Some of these guys have a lot of money. I found that I'd rather fund a small organization that's scrounging for every penny they can get rather than a national organization that can raise money anywhere."
"I was looking for something that was already established but needed that extra oomph, because these are such small grants," Wilson said.
"I wanted to know whether they could do what they wanted without the grant," said Laura Small '08.
"I looked at the feasibility of the whole idea, whether it would even work," Combs noted.
That process alone was one of the most profound learning experiences for Peterson, Wilson and Small, who spent more than two-and-a-half hours examining the merits of each proposal through their own personal lens. They credit that conversation with opening their eyes to a world of issues they'd never considered.
"I was surprised how much I was blinded by my own experiences," Small admitted. They spent a lot of time talking about their own backgrounds and exploring how that colored their view of the proposals they had to consider.
Small grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia and attended The Baldwin School, an all-girl private school in Bryn Mawr, Pa., for 13 years before coming to Bowdoin. Her parents met while they were both students at Bowdoin. She said her family is very athletic, and sports dominated their free time when she was growing up.
Peterson is from Pembroke, a small town in Massachusetts, and graduated from a regional public high school. Her mother was a school volunteer, and Peterson was involved in many church-related public service projects.
Wilson was born in Jamaica to a young, single mother, and went to boarding school there until she was 13, when she and her mother moved to Boston. She graduated from Boston Latin High School. Her exposure to community service was limited to the sewing she did at boarding school.
"My mom was working too much to volunteer," Wilson said.
One of the proposals they considered was a parenting class for young, inexperienced parents, which was a hard concept for some of the students to grasp until Wilson shared her own experience.
"Laura didn't think you needed to learn how to be a mother," Wilson said. "My mom was single and 20 years old when she had me, and she didn't always know what she was doing. Listening to her stories, you don't forget."
Wilson, on the other hand, was wary of giving money to any church program, because she assumed their main function was to proselytize. Peterson, who is very active in her church, explained some of the work that churches do providing food and shelter to the homeless.
"My eyes were opened about churches," Wilson said. "They need money, too, and they do good work. We so lost sight of that, that it's not about converting people."
Come April 1, it was hard to convince the rest of the committee that a church was a legitimate non-profit for them to fund, but that program and nine others made the final cut.
Their job was made much easier by the fact that they had learned to work together as a cohesive group, and had $17,500 to spend.
"This was relatively pain-free," Combs said at the end of the day.
At one of the last meetings, Dorn asked students to reflect on their experience on the committees.
"This is the beginning of my discovery of the world of non-profits," said Vaz.
"I'm amazed at how much my own passions about community service have grown," Peterson said. "I can't imagine pursuing a career that didn't make an impact."