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An Interview with Rebecca Riccio on the Giving with Purpose MOOC

Experiential philanthropy is a teaching method where students are given a sum of money to give away and are charged with the responsibility of deciding which charities should receive them. This gives students a view into the nonprofit world, helps them learn how to evaluate nonprofit organizations, and puts them in an active role in helping to make social change happen. Now, anyone can experience this by joining the Giving with Purpose MOOC, which starts April 2, 2014 on the edX platform, and help decide which charities will receive a total of $100,000. The MOOC is being jointly offered by Northeastern University and the Learning by Giving Foundation. It will be taught by Rebecca Riccio, Founding Director of the Social Impact Lab at Northeastern University, and will feature guest videos  from well-known philanthropists: Doris Buffett, Warren Buffett, Cal Ripken Jr., Soledad O’Brien, Tom Werner, and Ben & Jerry’s Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. Charlie Chung from Class Central sat down with Rebecca Riccio to talk about her MOOC, and edited excerpt of the interview is below.

 

Class Central: What do students learn by giving money away to nonprofit organizations?

Rebecca Riccio: When you give students the trust and responsibility for awarding real money in their communities, it heightens their awareness of what’s going on their community and how important it is to make good decisions. A lot of students come into my classroom not recognizing the role that the nonprofit sector plays in our lives and in the economy. To open their eyes to that in a meaningful way, and give them the money and the responsibility and the decision-making power, fundamentally shifts the way they understand how society works. For me, this methodology cracks open both how social change happens, and how it gets funded, because we’re looking really closely at the nonprofit organizations to determine what’s effective.

On the Role of the Nonprofit Sector:

 

Class Central: How did you know that teaching experiential philanthropy through a MOOC would work?

Rebecca Riccio: We took a chance and we built a great team. The real challenge was building a mechanism through which participants could nominate nonprofit organizations to receive grants, and peer review them. As the teacher, I tried to tease out the essential learning moments for the students in the classroom and translate them into this new format. Primarily, it was giving students a shared intellectual framework for thinking about these issues. If everybody is taught some of the same basic principles, you create a level playing field where they are all feeling empowered to make good decisions. Then in the MOOC they can evaluate the nominated nonprofits by entering information into an evaluation tool which aggregates everybody’s feedback. Nominations will get ranked, and at the end the ones that receive the highest scores are the ones we’ll give money to.

 

Class Central: To what extent do think nonprofit organizations should be evaluated like businesses?

Rebecca Riccio: Well, nonprofit organizations are businesses, so they face a lot of the same challenges as a for-profit business of the same size. So, you need to think about keeping the lights on. And you need to have a business plan that helps you achieve sustainability over the long run. You need to understand the relationship between the kind of work that an organization does and the kinds of funding that it is eligible for–and the sophistication required to obtain that funding. You want to invest in a going concern that has the potential over time to actually make a difference.

Good intentions and great ideas are very compelling, and sometimes nonprofits can tell a great story, but savvy donors know how to look behind the story and pull back the curtain. They may say ‘I love this idea, and I care about what this organization is doing, but they need to convince me that there’s a logical connection between the need in society they have identified and the work they’re doing to address it.’

However, there is not a market-based solution for every problem that society faces. At the end of the day, nonprofit organizations deal with human beings who exist within complex systems. The challenges they face often have complicated social, economic, and cultural roots. We need to understand that it takes patience to deal with these issues, it takes collaboration because so many actors are involved, and it takes a long term vision. When people talk about running nonprofits like businesses, they can miss this complexity. Also, the nonprofit sector is one of the ways that people engage in their communities in ways that are meaningful for them, and that is part of the magic of the nonprofit sector. It plays a distinct role in society that is not the same as for-profit businesses.

 

Class Central: What about the risk of fraud, how much should I evaluate a nonprofit before making a contribution?

Rebecca Riccio: Regarding fraud, people view the nonprofit sector as the place where their charitable dollars should be used wisely. And so when fraud happens, or scams happen, people take it as a personal affront, and I understand that. It is obnoxious to misuse people’s charitable dollars, but it happens and we have to be aware of it. But there are also thousands of charitable organizations out there that are using money conscientiously, and we shouldn’t become so cynical or skeptical that we disengage from giving for that reason.

People need to come to their own comfort level about how much due diligence they want to do, so they can satisfy their own reasons for giving, and have confidence that they are making a good investment. For example, there will be times when a friend is going to ask you to support a walk-a-thon or a relay, and the reason you give doesn’t have to do with the cause — you are supporting the friend. We have so many reasons for giving.

 

Class Central: Are the super-rich driving more philanthropy and if so, are there any drawbacks to this?

Rebecca Riccio: The phenomenon of the very wealthy being prominent in philanthropy is not new, I think what is new is social media, and our hyper awareness of millionaires and billionaires who have emerged out of the technology era, we’re more conscious of them and so we’re following them and their personal lives very closely.

But if you look at how widespread giving is in American households, the existence of billionaires is not a deterrent. $316B was given in 2012, about 2% of GDP. Although the wealthy give a larger amount in total, people in lower income brackets actually give a higher percentage of their income. Giving is part of how we express who we are, what we care about, and what change we want to see in the world. That form of expression is going to happen whether Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are giving a lot of money or not.

 

Class Central: Who would benefit from taking the Learning by Giving MOOC?

Rebecca Riccio: I’m happy for as wide an audience as we can reach to participate in the MOOC because all of us have such a stake in the nonprofit sector. It is not just how we take care of the most vulnerable members of our society. From cradle to grave, all of our lives are affected in different ways by the nonprofit sector, and it is integrally linked to the quality of life in society, as well as to the change we can effect around the world…I want to use giving, and learning about how to give, as a doorway to understanding how social change happens, and understanding the power that we all have as individuals to make a difference–not just with our money, but with how we vote, how we use our social networks and how we spend our consumer dollars. Understanding the whole relationship between how the work gets done, and how it gets funded can make all of us more effective change agents. Society will be better off if we are all a little bit better informed about how that happens.

You can sign up for the Giving with Purpose MOOC, which starts on April 2, 2014.