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Maria Antonakos will be teaching a 'Startegic Philanthropy and Leadership' course at McMaster University during this winter semester. (Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)
Maria Antonakos will be teaching a 'Startegic Philanthropy and Leadership' course at McMaster University during this winter semester. (Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)

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Philanthropy's new class act Add to ...

This is part of The Globe and Mail’s in-depth look at the evolution of philanthropy. Read more from the series here.

Around the DeGroote School of Business at Hamilton’s McMaster University, it was known as a “bird class.”

Most of the students who registered in Strategic Philanthropy and Leadership were looking for a credit that would spare them late nights of math assignments or long essays on management, explains Roger Brown, a 24-year-old graduate of the school.

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“It’s a good balance of pretty much not doing that much work,” he said.

But a few weeks into the course, Mr. Brown, now a senior credit portfolio analyst in Hamilton, says he felt the vibe of the class change. Since $20,000 (in total) from Doris Buffett and various Canadian investors was at stake for the 28 students, they couldn’t just “phone in” the assignment. Doing so wouldn’t just leave a blemish on their transcripts – it would potentially impact thousands of real people served by local charities.

Forget charity runs and volunteering for Girl Guides. There’s a sea change under way in academe, as educators at all grade levels experiment with the place of philanthropy in the classroom.

“If you want to make a decision to be a strategic philanthropist ... it has to be something you’re deeply passionate about,” Maria Antonakos, instructor of the DeGroote philanthropy course, says. “It’s not sustainable unless you’re in it for your emotional connection.”

At McMaster, the academic trial, which happened over a semester in 2008, received such positive feedback from students, the school is bringing the course back this winter (it was put on hold after Ms. Antonakos had children).

Before she joined DeGroote, Ms. Antonakos had spent years as a philanthropic consultant, counselling executives how to distribute millions of dollars to community causes.

She never thought she’d eventually advise empty-pocketed students in the same way until she met Doris Buffett (billionaire Warren Buffett’s older sister, who has distributed much of her wealth to charity) through fundraising work.

Ms. Antonakos was invited to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., to see Ms. Buffett’s latest venture in philanthropy. She had set up a foundation that gives schools $10,000 meant to be distributed by students enrolled in an experiential philanthropy class, which now exists in 26 universities.

While the Cornell course was run through the College of Human Ecology, Ms. Antonakos thought of a better place for it at McMaster (Ms. Antonakos chose McMaster after she moved to Hamilton for a new job). “I took it directly to the business school. I want to teach people who will be handling money and sometimes large sums of money,” Ms. Antonakos says. She even persuaded three Canadian philanthropists to offer up an extra $10,000 to match Ms. Buffett’s contribution.

Students drafted a request for proposals, broke into groups to vet the proposals from local charities, and then debated where the money should go – quite heatedly.

“I can still see people on desks jumping up and going to the chalkboard. I can still feel the passion for it,” Krystina Roman, 25, one of Ms. Antonakos’s students, says.

They distributed the money among three Hamilton charities: a children’s gardening program, a girls’ health program and a settlement organization for recent immigrants.

The class also discussed philanthropy from a philosophical point of view: What is the point of giving?

While corporate philanthropy has become an essential part of many businesses’ marketing plans, Mr. Brown left the class with a more principled rationale: Because corporations tap into community resources, it’s their responsibility to give back.

Some students, at least partly inspired by the class, took up work in the non-profit sector, Ms. Antonakos says. Others, such as Ms. Roman, a technology consultant, have participated in corporate social responsibility programs at their for-profit places of employment. She recently completed a pro bono consulting project with a non-profit organization.

“I got that willingness and passion to do that project and add a lot of value because of that course,” she says. “I really think there should be a course like this in high school.”

Ms. Roman’s wish is becoming a reality in many Canadian elementary schools and high schools, where the traditional encouragement of trick-or-treating for Unicef or volunteering as a candy striper has given way to compulsory classes on philanthropy.

Toronto-based philanthropist Julie Toskan-Casale (who co-founded cosmetics brand M.A.C.) spent years working on the company’s philanthropic campaigns. A decade ago, Ms. Toskan-Casale decided she was better off putting money into the hands of community groups, to reach more people across the country.

“The best place for that to happen,” she says, “would be an environment where going out and looking could be mandated.”

She developed the framework for a course on experiential philanthropy that could be taught to Grade 9 or 10 students. The idea: Include the program in the curriculum, and students would do their due diligence when it came to research, make site visits, and then give a presentation to their peers. Presentations would be judged by a panel of teachers and community leaders and the winning charity would receive a $5,000 grant (which comes from the Toskan Casale Foundation and corporate partners). Since 2002, the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative has granted $6.1-million and reached 1,304 schools in Canada, the United States and the U.K.

Ms. Toskan-Casale was anxious to see the money land with grassroots charities that didn’t have the marketing muscle to attract many grants on their own. And students were excited to see that cash making an impact in their own communities.

“The dollar amount was a really big prize for them,” says Heather MacDonald, one of the teachers who led the project this past spring at Sacred Heart High School in Halifax. “They aren’t used to at their age seeing that amount of money up for grabs.”

The key component in all of these programs: experiential learning, according to Ellen Schwartz, the founder of Project Give Back, a curriculum-based program that teaches philanthropy to students in Grade 4 or 5.

“I had seen that empathy was something that children weren’t learning,” says Ms. Schwartz, a former elementary school teacher.

Her program is currently taught in 16 Ontario schools (it’s incorporated in the language arts curriculum) and reaches 1,000 students. Students choose and research a charity, discuss why it’s important to give (both time and money), then organize “fun-raisers” to teach their peers about their charity.

With early exposure (even if it is structured and graded), Ms. Schwartz says, it “paves the way for [kids]to be responsible adults.”

Editor's note: The original version of this article contained incorrect information about Cornell's philanthropy class. This version has been corrected.

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