Lesson Learned: Students in Philanthropy Courses Graduate into Community Leaders

by Jesse Call

A local university has discovered that college students that participated in a student philanthropy project as part of an academic class are more likely to be engaged with non-profit charitable organizations after graduation.

A recent research project by a faculty member has revealed that alumni who participated in the Mayerson Student Philanthropy Project at Northern Kentucky University, a program designed to allow students to use what they learn in courses to benefit community agencies, became involved in nonprofit organizations at much higher rates than the general U.S. population. These graduates exceeded national rates in volunteering, financial contributions, and service on an organization’s board of directors.

Julie Olberding, an assistant professor primarily teaching graduate-level nonprofit management courses, polled alumni participants and compared her results to federal figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Olberding has taught Mayerson classes before.

71 percent of Mayerson alumni volunteer with nonprofit organizations, compared to only 28 percent nationally, according to the research study. Olberding also discovered that three times as many Mayerson alumni served on the board of nonprofit organizations compared to the general population.

“The evidence that we have collected shows that student philanthropy does have an impact on students in the long-term,” Olberding said. She said that she was glad to see “to what degree [student philanthropy] is changing students lives to be better doers and better citizens in the region of Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati.”

Until now, there had been no research designed to measure if students continued to be engaged in the community after graduating. However, research and evaluations had indicated that students wanted to get more involved as a result of the courses.

Nonetheless, Olberding remained cautious in her research findings. She said that her research shows that alumni get more involved, but does not necessarily prove that the Mayerson Student Philanthropy Project was the main cause or catalyst.

“Further study is needed,” she said. “One way to look at this further would be to look at them in a control group. We just looked at alumni who participated in the Mayerson project.”

She said other factors that are part of the NKU education could be leading graduates to serve.

However, she said she does not believe that the information is skewed by the kinds of students who would be willing to participate in a class which includes a philanthropy project.

The Mayerson project incorporates a related philanthropy project into existing classes across courses in almost all of NKU’s academic departments. Olberding says many students do not even realize a philanthropy project is part of the class when they enroll in it.

Mark Neikirk, the director of the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement at NKU, which oversees the Mayerson project, was more optimistic about what the research indicates. He said the research “proves what I thought would be so… [and] what you would expect to be so.”

He said Mayerson classes have already been show to increase engagement in the classroom when students feel what they learn is being used to make a difference. To him, it makes sense that that sentiment would linger beyond graduation.

The movement to include community outreach as part of the academic process has been on the rise at colleges and universities in recent years, but not without a few naysayers that doubt its usefulness or feel it pressures students to care about certain causes and not others.

But Neikirk said national research, and not just this recent NKU study, have demonstrated that service-learning works and benefits students, colleges and communities.

Olberding said she has never felt any discouragement among NKU faculty for including service-learning in the curriculum. In fact, she feels it is expected under the university’s mission.

“I just honestly haven’t heard criticism. That indicates [service-learning classes] are to be expected and people see it a positive light at NKU,” she said. Neikirk agreed.

216 organizations have received funding from the Mayerson Project, including the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, the publisher of Streetvibes. Program organizers say total funding has exceeded $500,000 to organizations helping a wide range of charities including human services, animal and environmental protection, advocacy organizations, art groups and faith-based programs.

The program is funded through the Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation after a partnership was solicited by NKU’s president, James Votruba, and is in its 11th year.

Northern Kentucky University is a public university located about seven minutes south of downtown Cincinnati in Highland Heights, KY.