News and analysis
May 21, 2012

5 Receive Nation’s 1st Undergraduate Degrees in Philanthropic Studies

As a sophomore studying anthropology at a college in southern Indiana, Mark Lighthizer took a spring-break trip to build houses in the Dominican Republic. He saw a lot of needy people, but he didn’t know how he could help them.

Back at school, it gnawed at him until he discovered a new major starting in the fall of 2010 at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, in Indianapolis. He was one of the first to apply.

In May, the 22-year-old became one of the first five graduates of what is believed to be the first-ever bachelor’s degree in philanthropic studies, a liberal-arts program based at the center. The program, say its organizers, is intended to produce future nonprofit leaders who are not only well-versed in the nuts and bolts of nonprofit management but also comfortable weighing the philosophical questions they will encounter on the job.

During the degree program’s first two years, 21 students have declared philanthropic studies as a major. By 2015, Indiana expects that number to reach 75. “This is part of an explosion of undergraduate nonprofit programs,” says Ben Nemenoff, an official at the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance (formerly American Humanics), in Kansas City, Mo., which offers a nonprofit certificate at about 50 colleges and universities nationwide, designed to prepare students for careers at social-service and youth organizations.

He points to other academic programs in nonprofit studies around the country as evidence of the trend, as academic institutions are stepping up to meet charities’ demand for more trained professionals.

Not Overly Theoretical

Most undergraduate nonprofit programs teach basic how-to skills, such as fundraising, program evaluation, and management of volunteers. The classes at Indiana, however, also cover the philosophical underpinnings of philanthropy and the social, cultural, political, and economic roles that charities and foundations play.

“Philanthropy is approached as a human activity within society rather than how do I manage an organization,” says Julie Hatcher, director of undergraduate programs at the Center on Philanthropy.

The goal is to create strong­er leaders who are prepared to understand and think through diverse perspectives and complexities that arise, often over finances and how best to use limited resources, Ms. Hatcher says.

Philanthropic-studies majors are required to complete an internship, and most do more than one, Ms. Hatcher says. Many also take classes in a more traditional undergraduate nonprofit-management program through Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

“If the program sounds too theoretical, it’s really not,” Mr. Lighthizer says. Many of the students drawn to the program, like him, have been volunteering most of their lives.

“Action plus reflection is how I sum up our degree,” he says. ”We talk about and learn from what we do and see.”

Classroom discussions have helped him understand his own motivations about giving and to focus his formerly far-flung interests on environmental and social-welfare issues.

Students are being groomed to be able to handle the complex issues that will come their way as leaders of organizations, Ms. Hatcher says.

For instance, in classes last fall, students discussed a controversial monument proposed for downtown Indianapolis that was to be paid for by the Central Indiana Community Foundation. Some city residents complained that the monument, which featured a freed slave, degraded African-American history, while others thought it was an appropriate tribute. Nonprofit leaders were at the center of the debate, and grant makers from the community fund ultimately chose not to support the project.

A Hiring Advantage

Of the first five graduates at Indiana, two are going on to graduate school and others are seeking entry-level jobs at nonprofit organizations or foundations.

Mr. Lighthizer is continuing at Indiana in the master’s program in philanthropic studies. He’s deciding between a career in fundraising and social entrepreneurship.

Arishaa Khan, 22, a native of Pakistan relocated to Indiana, just got a job as a development assistant at the Islamic Society of North America, an organization that she interned with last summer in Plainfield, Ind.

She sees herself enjoying an advantage over other new hires because of her new degree: “I have a deep understanding of how nonprofits work with foundations, government, the private sector.”

A fellow graduate, Brittany Sears, 24, says she was worried that employers might shrug at a philanthropy degree. But so far on her job hunt, it has helped her break the ice as she applies for jobs as a fundraising associate. Mostly, she says, prospective employers are impressed to see a résumé rich with volunteering, internships, and descriptions of class exercises related to fundraising.

Still, the new graduates say they sometimes get some quizzical looks when they tell people their major is philanthropy.

Mr. Lighthizer says he quickly explains that he’s studying the how and why of giving and its history and traditions.

So you aren’t just giving out money? they ask.

“No, sorry,“ he says. “Not today.”