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Philanthropy students compete for grants

Students on the two winning teams of a recent grant-proposal competition celebrate with American Savings Foundation President Maria Falvo, Central President Emeritus Richard Judd, and Psychology professor and course co-instructor Carol Austad. The students pictured here are Don Naples, Laura Morency, Priscilla DiMichele, Desiree Harrison, Alejandro Bermudez, Jeffrey Flores, and Rebecca George. Missing from the photo is student Victoria Wallington. (Photo by John Atashian)

By Loretta Waldman

Rebecca George was looking for an elective to take in her final semester at CCSU when she noticed a course called Peace Studies 210: Introduction to Philanthropy. The senior sociology major knew nothing about philanthropy and wasn’t even sure what it meant.

“So I looked up the word and thought ‘this might be interesting,’” she explains.

George’s hunch was right. The course, created by Central President Emeritus Richard Judd, not only taught her what philanthropy is, it gave her some real-world experience in the field. On May 2, she was one of 20 students divided into four teams that made presentations on behalf of four New Britain-based nonprofit organizations in the hopes of winning one of two $5,000 grants from the American Savings Foundation.

The capstone presentations on the final day of the course represented months of work for the four teams and ran the gamut. George and her teammates — seniors Jeffrey Flores and Alejandro Bermudez and sophomore Desiree Harrison — made a passionate pitch on behalf of New Britain Roots, a nonprofit that promotes accessibility to fresh nutritious food in the community. The grant, if awarded, would be used by the group to construct a greenhouse.

Proposals by the three other teams sought to fund an afterschool program for high school girls at the New Britain YWCA; backpacks and school supplies for disadvantaged students served by Pathways/Senderos; and video and other equipment for Community Mental Health Associates.

“These are four good ideas,” American Savings Foundation President and CEO Maria Falvo told the students after their presentations. “You have done a great job at making our job really hard.”

Judd proposed the course because the current generation of students — so called centennials — don’t seem to know a lot about philanthropy, he said. It is the first course in philanthropy offered at a public university in Connecticut, according to Judd.

The course, co-taught by Judd and psychology Professor Carol Austad, considers philanthropy as a method of social change within international, national, and local communities. It covered the history, theory, practice, research, and motivation involved in giving and featured an impressive roster of foundation and philanthropic experts as speakers. 

In the final minutes before their presentations, students huddled and scribbled last-minute changes to index cards with their talking points. Students had to write case statements and budgets and argue persuasively about their organization’s need. The presentations went through multiple revisions, Judd said, and a dry run the week before in front of a panel of faculty members.

The faculty critiques were harsh but helpful, said George.

“It was nerve-wracking,” added Bermudez, “but otherwise beneficial.”

The teams had 15 minutes each to make their case after which members of the review panel asked questions. In addition to Falvo, they included ASF staff members Maria Sanchez, director of grant-making and community investment, and Cierra Stancil, associate program officer for grants; former ASF president and current board member, David Davison; and Michael Carrier, a New Britain attorney who also serves on the ASF board. 

Falvo talked to students about what members of the foundation staff and board consider when deciding who gets a grant. A perfect presentation does not necessarily mean you win, she noted. A number of other factors play a part in the decision, the first of which is the impact of the funding.

Carrier discussed the legal and fiduciary responsibilities that come with serving on a foundation board. Sanchez spoke about the rewards of a career with a charitable foundation.

“You get to see direct results of the work of the foundation,” she said. “We will go out and visit these organizations as part of the due-diligence process to make sure that everything in the proposal is outlined and executed.”

In addition to a greater understanding of philanthropy, Judd hopes the course inspires students to become board members and volunteers with nonprofits.

“It was a very enlightening class,” said Don Naples, a New Britain alderman and auditing student.

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