NKU program changes lives in and out of class

In Julie Olberding's fall semester class at Northern Kentucky University, she gave her graduate students an unusual goal: help Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America allocate money. Quite a bit of money, actually.

The class, part of the university’s growing Mayerson Student Philanthropy Project, analyzed grant applications received by Toyota and advised the company on how to distribute more than $60,000.

Although the company’s board had the final say in distribution, many of the students’ recommendations were approved – sometimes with changes to the amount the nonprofit would receive based on the Toyota’s available resources.

Since NKU started the philanthropic program more than a decade ago, they have found that when students take a class and participate in giving, they are more likely to continue the behavior. They tend to donate, to volunteer and even to serve on non-profit boards.

“This semester, before class ended … one student raised their hand and said ‘Can I volunteer for Jobs for Cincinnati Grads? I went there and I’m amazed by the work they do,’ ” Olberding says. “It’s wonderful. Students go through, and they find a match and an organization that fits their interests.”

At a recent awards ceremony, Olberding says, four executive directors of non-profits which were receiving Mayerson Awards were former project students.

“It was really inspiring,” she says.

Working with Toyota was part of “indirect giving,” meaning the students couldn’t directly give money to an organization. Students in other classes, however, have participated in direct giving. The class can span any discipline and typically includes $2,000 provided by a third-party donor which can be given to one program or split equally between two. Students “investigate a need and determine what non-profits meet the need,” says Mark Neikirk, director of NKU’s Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement.

There have been other classes in which the students have been tasked with raising the funds for the giving. The class starts with no money and has to devise a fundraising campaign. One class did letter writing, bringing in about $1,500. The Scripps Howard Foundation then matched it, Neikirk says.

Most often, the money donated to the university for the project comes in as unrestricted funds, meaning it can go to any class to fund any project or organization. But more and more, the university is encouraging the use of restricted funds – since that’s how most donations work – which would also provide a greater challenge for students.

Since its inception, about 230 not-for-profit programs have received more than $500,000 from the Mayerson Project. More than 2,200 students have participated, Neikirk says.

“One thing that is amazing about it to me is to see the change in individuals and how they see their ability to make an impact on the world,” Olberding says. “NKU students are middle income mostly, lower income, sometimes first generation college students, and so they’ve said on evaluations ‘I didn’t think I could make a difference. I’m one person, I’m not a millionaire, but this program has made me realize every little bit helps and my little bit can help change a person’s life.’ ”

Do Good:

Donate: to NKU's Mayerson project.

Volunteer: for the 2012 “Spring into Service” event.

Teacher or university official? Want to start a similar program at your school? Request NKU’s handbook with all of the details on how you can make it happen.

By Taylor Dungjen
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