Doris Buffett’s Learning by Giving Foundation: 'It All Started at Davidson'

A Davidson class that gave away $10,000 to four local charities in 2003 has snowballed today into a multi-million-dollar effort to change lives for the better across the nation.

It all started in 1999, when a grant to a Davidson student from Doris Buffett's Sunshine Lady Foundation inspired Ken Menkhaus to think big about philanthropy–specifically, how to teach it.

Buffett, the big sister of legendary investor Warren Buffett, has famously pledged to give away her entire Berkshire Hathaway fortune in her lifetime. Menkhaus, a professor of political science, wondered what might happen if an entire class could give away $10,000 as the culmination of a semester's study.

He took the idea to Buffett's foundation. She loved it, and soon his new class, called "Philanthropy and the Non-Profit Sector," was soliciting, collecting, evaluating and debating grant applications from around North Carolina. The first awardees included YWCA of the Central Carolinas, Jacob's Ladder Job Center and Seigle Avenue Preschool Co-op.

That effort inspired Buffett to create the Learning by Giving Foundation, which brings money and smarts together in college classrooms across the country.

"This is her passion, combining students and education and philanthropy. It all started at Davidson," said Alex Buffett Rozek, president of the Learning by Giving Foundation and grandson of Doris Buffett. "She likes to say her brother Warren is wholesale philanthropy, and she's retail.... She loves being in a class or meeting people or writing letters and telling students, ‘You've got the passion and the energy and I've got the money, and together we can do great things.'"

Great things, indeed: To date, 3,484 students in 150 college and university courses across the country have awarded 612 grantees a total of $2,254,840 through the Learning by Giving Foundation. Buffett has since endowed Menkhaus's trailblazing course with a $100,000 gift.

Theory and Practice

"Why does the non-profit exist? It's a puzzle for economists," Menkhaus said, addressing students in his spring semester course. "Why are there more in some sectors than others? Why are some needs outsourced to non-profits instead of for-profits? The relationships between non-profits, the for-profit market and government are complex and always shifting."

He boiled it down: "A non-profit exists because the market has not responded to some demand."

Take, for example, the issue of affordable housing right here in Davidson, Menkhaus said. For-profit developers are rational actors who see that it does not make pure economic sense to put an inexpensive house on a valuable piece of real estate.

So, at the intersection of that "market failure" to provide what the local community values as the "collective good" of affordable housing, non-profits like Habitat for Humanity and the Davidson Housing Coalition help fill the void.

Menkhaus, whose expertise encompasses international relief efforts and the intersection of government and nonprofit organizations, has made community service a prerequisite of the course. His students examine the debates, controversies and criticisms surrounding charitable organizations, philanthropic giving and non-profit governance, and then collectively decide how to fund the worthiest proposals.

Lilly Nichols and Kate Bock were in the most recent class, which began 10 days before President Trump's inauguration. They view immigration and healthcare as two primary issues for non-profit initiatives in the times ahead.

"When the government cuts back, non-profits can fill that gap," said Bock.

Head and Heart

This year, the 32 students in Menkhaus's class awarded $20,000 in grants. That brings the total for the course, which is offered every other year, to $100,000 awarded in the Lake Norman and Charlotte regions.

Current recipients include: Community Free Clinic, Concord ($8,400); The Augustine Literacy Project, Charlotte ($5,100); North Mecklenburg Child Development Association, Davidson ($2,500); and Pat's Place Child Advocacy Center, Charlotte ($4,000).

Learning by Giving's Executive Director Amy Kingman said Davidson's partnership with the foundation helps answer the age-old question, "What can I do to make a difference?"

"It's about putting head together with heart, in a way that is both impactful and sustainable," Kingman said. "There are alumni of this Davidson class and now of other Learning by Giving classes doing some of the most effective non-profit work across the nation. They stand out."

Patricia Massey Hoke '07, an alumna of the class, sees her current work as Davidson's director of corporate and foundation relations through the lens of a question she and her classmates considered a decade ago.

"Is it best to work directly for a non-profit, or go out make a lot of money and give it away? It depends on the individual," she said. "When I think about how I can best use my talents, and how other people are using theirs, I think back to that conversation."

Looking Ahead

While big, national charitable initiatives are tremendously valuable, local philanthropy mobilizes and strengthens communities, said Foundation for the Carolinas President and CEO Michael Marsicano.

"While large philanthropic gifts to national institutions garner the headlines, the backbone of American philanthropy is modest giving to worthy causes at the local level," he said. "When multiple modest gifts come together for the same cause, collective impact can change the world."

To assess the effectiveness of Davidson's Learning by Giving work in each of these worlds–national and local–Menkhaus and Kenzie Bell '20 will take a closer look this summer at Davidson grantees from 2003 to 2015, in a study he calls "Learning After Giving." They will analyze the cumulative return on the class's investments and answer questions including: How did the class successfully identify a project with high promise? When did the class miss a critical clue pointing to potential problems? What happened? What can future students learn from their predecessors?

"In spite of the 100-percent turnover rate of students in the class from year to year, we strive to be a learning organization," Menkhaus said. "Periodic assessments such as these capture lessons that can be passed down to future students and grant-seeking organizations."

John Syme



  • June 27, 2017