Lead Story

Finance and philanthropy

Kyle Gammenthaler, March 23rd, 2018

Inspired by a book I’m currently reading called The Wisdom of Finance, I’ve realized that the strategic philanthropy process and the investment process have quite a lot in common. The parallels between the world of finance and the world of philanthropy are fascinating to me. Perhaps these similarities should be unremarkable to me, as both philanthropy and finance can be seen as disciplines under the umbrella of commerce. Nonetheless, my mind keeps wandering back to the junctures between the two.

It’s as if we, as the Strategic Philanthropy class, are a sort of angel investor or venture capitalist. We painstakingly comb through a seemingly endless list of suitors, searching for the perfect match among countless deserving groups. Like many venture capitalist business models, we’re focused on capitalizing on under-funded ideas by offering advice and funding over an extended time period. We must ensure that the investment makes sense in macro as well as the micro, ensuring that big problems are being tackled by the right people.

There is opportunity for waste, fraud, and disappointment. There is also opportunity to serve as a catalyst for life-improving change. This is only one example among many of the synergies between finance and philanthropy.

by Leland Cook ’19

Prepare yourself because I am about to nerd out on Finance topics. I’ve learned in innumerable different classes and lecture classes about this issue of “Agency Problems” that management teams have when running a company.

The problems arise because management teams make decisions and strategic plans equipped with money that is not theirs, but the company’s. The effect is that decisions are made less rationally, more rashly, and without as much care because there is less responsibility tied to the money they are spending. In class the other day, a group of 20-year-olds gave away $100,000 easier with only minor issues and frustrations. This is the same group of people that individually have trouble spending $20 for a meal.

I had never actually felt the reality of what agency problems are until I took Strategic Philanthropy. How in the world was a group able to give away so much money with relatively little hesitation (marginally speaking, of course)? The only reason I can point to is a very distinct separation between the weight and responsibility of an amount of money far larger than any of us have seen and the cognitive decision-making minds of the people in the room. Even the smallest grant awe gave away, $5,000, is more money than any of us could individually afford to give away. When you think about it, it is truly remarkable that it actually took place.

Another way I like to think about it is if the situation had been turned around a little bit, I don’t think any decision could have been made. For example, what if all 25 members of our team had to put in $4,000 of their own money into the pot to make the $100,000? Not just some petty cash either, that would be what I call Sweat Equity, which is the type of money that you’d have worked hard for to save up. If that were the case, the tensions, frustrations, and already fiery opinions would have been magnified tenfold. In fact, I don’t think I could have handled the passion and emotion that that room would have contained. That’s a situation I don’t know if I would have signed up for.

At the end, $100,000 was given away gladly and with relative ease at the hands of 25 poor college kids. That is a feat in itself. I also did not expect to learn about financial management in this class, but this definitely turned into one of the wildest and clearest pictures of an agency problem that I could have imagined. I would also venture to say “problem” isn’t the best word for our class’s situation. It’s more of an “agency opportunity.” That being said, it’s a very interesting thing to note!

by Trevor Pownell ’18

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Selecting my top values from a worksheet with a list of values in class was not a new exercise for me, but the second portion of selecting social causes and issues and connecting them to my values brought a new aspect into the familiar exercise. It was interesting to look at my values and interests and see how they align. Most people automatically list “faith, family, friends” when looking at a list of values, but those seem to be a given, so I tried to think a little deeper and choose values that were not just surface level. However, when I thought about my values, specifically my top three values, I realized that family is one of my core values because of the values they have instilled in me.

My family has been involved in philanthropy and service together since I can remember, and these activities have shaped much of my own philanthropic ideas and actions. There are certain causes I am passionate about because of my family’s involvement – namely my involvement with the Stephen Breen Memorial Foundation. Stephen Breen is my cousin, and he passed away at the age of 15 from a rare form of bone cancer when I was 10. The foundation created in his memory is committed to offering financial aid to local children who seek the strength and values of a Catholic education and to those courageous children and their families whose lives are afflicted with cancer. This foundation has been an integral part of my family’s philanthropy both in terms of monetary donations and in volunteering our time to help run events such as the annual golf tournament, middle school basketball tournament, dinners, and other events.

Because of my family’s involvement together, I have become stronger in my own philanthropic values and have realized just how much my family has influenced me. I am especially passionate about aiding the cancer community, and this passion was only strengthened through my involvement in Camp Kesem throughout college. Camp Kesem is a camp for children whose parents have/had cancer. It truly helped shape who I am as a person and what my philanthropic goals are when I am older. I saw firsthand how difficult and intimidating it was to raise over $60,000 in one school year to fund camp, and how much of a difference large donations can make (in this situation, I am considering over $500 in a single gift to be a large donation). We received a $10,000 gift at a pivotal point in the semester when fundraising was getting difficult, and this gift made such a difference both in morale and in funding. When I have the funds when I am older, I hope to be able to make a large donation to a small organization because I know firsthand how impactful that gift can be.

Camp Kesem is a camp for children whose parents have/had cancer. It truly helped shape who I am as a person and what my philanthropic goals are when I am older. I saw firsthand how difficult and intimidating it was to raise over $60,000 in one school year to fund camp, and how much of a difference large donations can make (in this situation, I am considering over $500 in a single gift to be a large donation). We received a $10,000 gift at a pivotal point in the semester when fundraising was getting difficult, and this gift made such a difference both in morale and in funding. When I have the funds when I am older, I hope to be able to make a large donation to a small organization because I know firsthand how impactful that gift can be.

Though this exercise in looking at our values at first seemed familiar, the extra step of connecting our values to issues we are passionate about caused me to stop and think about my personal passions. I realized just how integral my family has been in my philanthropic habits, and I plan to instill the same values in my children one day.

by Michelle Alpar ’16

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On the eve of the famous March Madness tournament, I could not help but draw a connection to our Strategic Philanthropy course. The NCAA Division I basketball tournament goes by a myriad of names such as the Tourney, the Brackets, March Madness, and my personal favorite, The Big Dance. There’s something inherently invigorating about watching 64 teams duke it out in arguably the greatest sporting tournament on the planet. There will be Cinderella stories, buzzer beaters, upsets and heartbreaks, but most of all there will be great sport. The road to the championship will be long, and the process full of ups and downs. However, through the muck and the mire, one team will arise as the shining Cinderella champion of The Big Dance.

As I read the summaries of the 21 organizations which have made it to our class’s “Big Dance,” I was blown away. People do incredible things to bring healing to hurting hearts. From surgeons traversing continents to do specialized surgeries, to local museums offering free arts and craft to children, people all over the planet philanthropically donate what they can to bring peace and joy to others. It’s so encouraging to read about the many beautiful ways people are getting off the sideline of passivity and getting in the game to make a difference! The expressions of philanthropy are as unique as the people involved, but the result is pretty much the same, great service.

Reading the stories and desires behind just a handful of nonprofits excited me greatly, but then a stark reality hit me. We, as the students of the 2017 Mays Strategic Philanthropy course, cannot give funds to all of them. I was sorely disappointed at this realization as every organization seems deserving in some capacity or another. Unfortunately, our resources are limited, and we have to endure the process of whittling down our bracket to just a few “Cinderellas.” I wish we had infinite glass slippers to give out!

However, since we do not, we welcome all 21 of these fantastic organizations to our own rendition of The Big Dance. I am excited to thoughtfully discuss and consider each one of these nonprofits as we take the current group down from 21 to 12 this week in class. I’m sure there will be some buzzer beaters, maybe even a few heartbreaks, but I’m confident as a class, we will come together to make great decisions. Preferences will have to be put aside at times, and tough decisions will be made, but ultimately, we can rest easy knowing that our efforts will end in celebration. Our mission is to empower Brazos Valley nonprofits to continue creating measurable and sustainable solutions through the investment of our resources. And to that end, I say let the madness begin.

Welcome to The Big Dance.

by Michael Smith ’20

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Why did I sign up for this class (if you can even call it that)? Was it because a friend recommended it to me? Was it because I thought it would look good on my resume? Was it because I thought giving away $100,000 would be cool? What were my motives?

After discussing altruism in class, I am beginning to doubt if any of my intentions can be totally pure. I look at decisions I make in my own life: the people I choose to surround myself with, the organizations I join, the jobs I apply for, and at the end of the day there is this little voice in my head that always want to do what is best for me. You can call it self-preservation, the flesh or whatever you want, but deep down in all of us there is this desire to better ourselves, and to look out for our own glory and success.

You might be wondering what this has anything to do with strategic philanthropy, but I think it is important. The word philanthropy literally translates to the love of humanity. That goes completely against what is natural. Naturally, we want to love ourselves and look out for our own interests, but philanthropy is about loving others and looking out for the interests of others. This is why I think philanthropy can get messy, because it is so unnatural. However, we know from history that living a life for yourself is the most miserable existence you can live.

I believe that motives matter. I believe that the reasons why you do something are just as important as the actual things you do. How can you measure that? How can you quantify motive? You can’t.

I’m beginning to learn that there are so many things in the non-profit world that you just can’t measure. All I can do is hold myself accountable and question why I make the choices that I make. Do I make them out of egoism, purely for my gain? Do I make decisions expecting to get something in return? Do I give so people can know how “great” I am? Do I give solely out of financial or social benefit? Do I give because it just makes me feel good? I hope this experience teaches me how to remove myself as far away as possible from the act of giving and makes it solely about the people and causes being supported. I hope it shows me how to fight that inner voice that wants so desperately to fight for what is best for me.

-Claire Harper ’18

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img_0068Each student in the Strategic Philanthropy class was given $10 at the end of the first day of class. Their sole objective was to “do good” with the funds over the next week. Every student reported out on their experience in the classroom setting.

My perception of the value of 10 dollars is radically altered when looking at it under different circumstances. Ten dollars for a meal? Too expensive to sustain regularity in a college budget. Ten dollars for a shirt? It’s a deal! Ten dollars freely given with the intent of doing good? Influential, to say the least. When originally confronted with the assignment, I was enthused and confident that I would complete it with dignity and flair.

Given 10 dollars, I felt I must give it away in a groundbreaking display of philanthropy. That is an overly glorified explanation of what we were tasked to do, but that’s essentially how I viewed the exercise. I was hopeful that in donating the 10 dollars extravagantly, I could engender the most beneficial effect. Immediately, my mind began to swirl with possibilities and I found myself envisioning grand plans for the worn, crinkled bill safeguarded in my wallet.

Because it was not money of my own, I felt a compounded pressure to be a wise and responsible steward. What could possibly be worthy of my 10 dollars? Therein the problem lied. The first few days the sum was in my care, I devoted unreasonable amounts of energy attempting to determine the most perfect, impactful, grandiose cause. Consequently, I missed the true worth in what philanthropy is all about.

In overlooking the ordinary to solely emphasize the extraordinary, I neglected to recognize that day-to-day philanthropy is just as crucial, if not even more so, than the philanthropy we read about in the news. We are each charged with resources, the amounts of which doesn’t alter the obligations we have to serve and to not only disseminate prosperity, but to save lives, to relieve needs. I’ve come to know that no matter the numbers on your bank statement, the necessity and desire for philanthropy does not diminish. Relationships are forged and morale is strengthened when investments are made in time, energy, and attention in addition to funds.

We often witness calls for sweeping reform, widespread shifts in ideology and practice, yet we each fail each day in our own right. We fail to hold up our end of the bargain, we fail to fundamentally understand our role in the bigger picture. I concede that most of us are not as powerful or wealthy as the Andrew Carnegies and Bill Gateses of this world, but that in no way eliminates our power to do good with what we’ve been given.

“Do good.” That was our simple assignment. Never did the professor lay out parameters or benchmarks for what qualified as “good.” Never did he express any possibility of disappointment in our philanthropic endeavors should we fall short of expectations. No. All that was said was “Do good with this 10 dollars.” There’s something haunting in the simplicity of the charge. In fact, my mind translated the simple and joyful task into something stressful and wrought with ambition. I set out to impress rather than to bless, and that was a major flaw in my strategy.

After days of wrestling with the endless possibilities before me, a paradigm shift occurred in my approach. I felt convicted for deeming local and daily opportunities unworthy of this bill. I realized I was ascribing unfounded prestige upon the 10 dollars, imposing a haughty demeanor on the money. It was then that I began to grasp what living in a posture of philanthropy entails. It does not boast and does not need attention to bear worth. I then was enlightened to the idea that the most glorious gifts and donations are those that are presented with grace, humility and love.

Loving people does not look like a huge check flung at those in need. Loving people does not look like showy gestures inflicted to enhance the giver’s vanity. Love is not a competition, especially when everyone does his or her part. In its own context, philanthropy is an expression of love and a demonstration of genuine regard for others.

by Natalie Braun ’19

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The beginning of a new semester always brings a mix of excitement and nerves for professors and students alike. Students face the unknowns of group work, interpersonal relationships, grades and student-teacher dynamics, while professors consider, well… many of those same things. On top of all that, this semester’s Strategic Philanthropy course is tasked with the incredible responsibility of deciding how to distribute $100,000 to nonprofit organizations. The issue is not “what” we are going to do, but it is more focused on “how” we are going to get there.golf-blog

Approaching this course is like approaching a new golf course without ever having viewed the course layout. The basics of golf are easy: Hit a small ball into a small hole 18 times. It is that easy right?  Not quite. Adding unknown variables to an already difficult activity is especially challenging.

Many may disagree, but the beauty of golf exists in this infinite number of unknowns along the way. There are always challenges and opportunities around the corner, or over the next hill, which test your physical and mental abilities. In a span of four hours, you are frustrated, humbled, overjoyed and probably frustrated some more. Walking away from the round, though, you realize that you’ve overcome challenges, had great conversation with friends and enjoyed much-needed time in the great outdoors. You knew your end goal all along, but the journey to the 18th hole was formidable and exhilarating.

Likewise, I know where this class is going. At the end of this class we will join in celebration with nonprofit partners as we honor the work they are doing. That is a known quantity that is easy for me to wrap my head around. The journey, though, is much less clear. This semester, my role as facilitator places much of the decision-making process onto the students. Our students make many important and life-changing decisions throughout this course – many of which have no clear right or wrong answers. I am confident that this talented group of 25 Mays students is ready for the challenge and to face the unknown. In order for this class to be successful, my students will need to collaborate with each other, compromise when it’s hardest to do so, and commit to an experience that can significantly alter their perspectives.

Please join us this semester as we venture into the unknowns of philanthropic giving and pursue impact in our local community!

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After seeing how much their daughter Grace learned in a new “Strategic Philanthropy” course at Mays Business School, Wil and Jennifer VanLoh donated money to fund the next two courses. A portion of their $140,000 gift to Mays through the Texas A&M Foundation will provide grants for students to distribute to local nonprofits through the course, while remaining funds will help cover operating costs.


Philanthropy is a way of life for the VanLoh family – from left, Grace, Mary, Wil, Jennifer and Sarah.

The course that debuted last spring gives undergraduate students at Mays first-hand experience in the world of nonprofit work. In the first program of its kind to be offered at an SEC school and the first at a business school, students get the chance to learn about various facets of philanthropy, hear from philanthropic leaders and experience the grant-making process from a foundation’s perspective.

Wil VanLoh, founder and CEO of Quantum Energy Partners, said his family routinely holds meetings to make philanthropic decisions for their family foundation. “My wife and I are intentional about including our kids in our decisions,” he said. “We think being good stewards of the resources we are given is a big responsibility, and something we don’t think a lot of people take seriously enough.

“We believe modeling generosity for our kids is one of the greatest gifts we can give them as it helps them understand that one is more blessed to give than to receive. We get tremendous joy out of giving and we want them to experience that at a young age to set the tone for the rest of their life.”

VanLoh said he was impressed with the course, which he said should be offered across the university – and not just at the business school. “This is an all-around great set of skills for these students, and it benefits the community they live in while they’re attending college, so it has a significant ripple effect,” he said. …Read more

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Next semester, Mays Business School will continue its successful initiative called Strategic Philanthropy. Thanks to generous gifts from a private donor and a philanthropic organization, this course is available to Mays Business School students. Texas A&M joins the ranks of other schools from across the nation as they engage local communities with targeted philanthropic efforts.

The Strategic Philanthropy course will examine historical philanthropic developments, philanthropic leadership, grant making and experiential giving. The hallmark of this class is that students will determine how to distribute $100,000 to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations.

Through this exciting and intensive process, students will examine their personal philanthropic motivations, learn how foundations make decisions and apply this learning to real-world scenarios. Please apply if you’d like to take part in this unique opportunity to make a difference and be a part of social change!

We are currently accepting applications to enroll in this course. Additional details can be found on the link below. The class size will be limited to 25 students this year to make sure we are effective and efficient in making our giving decisions.

The application is due by 5 p.m. on Oct. 14th.

Application Link: Spring 2017 – Strategic Philanthropy Application

Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions about this special opportunity! kgammenthaler@mays.tamu.edu

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Courtesy of a $50,000 grant from the Once Upon a Time Foundation and their initiative called The Philanthropy Lab, Mays Business School embarked on an adventure that transformed the lives of many students while deeply impacting local community issues. Freshman Mallory Smith ’19 said, “I don’t want this class to be the end, but I want it to be just the beginning of a lifetime of giving and learning.” This diverse group of students challenged each other, themselves, and myself as we attempted to navigate the nebulous topic of philanthropy. By the end of the course, students were to strategically give away the entire $50,000 to local 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. and they accomplished this with impeccable maturity and determination. These decisions did not come easy or without a significant amount of work and due diligence.

The student board used their mission statement; “We seek to empower Brazos Valley nonprofits to advance positive and sustainable development through strategic giving” to guide their decision making. In addition, they applied their learning by conducting interviews with key organizational staff and initiating site visits to the nonprofit organizations. Finally, the student board wrote and compiled full grant proposals, executive summaries and relevant financial data for each of the 10 finalists in order to discuss and deliberate the best use of these funds.

Our students took this challenge to heart and were able to strategically discuss the merits, challenges and concerns of every single proposal. Along the way, personal philanthropic ideals, values, and motivations were challenged, but a collaborative environment pervaded the inner workings of the class. According to graduating senior Taylor Mehling ’16, “We created a culture of collaboration, where every student genuinely wished to achieve the best solution. People laid aside their egos and spoke transparently about what they had learned through the due diligence process.”

Ultimately, the decision was made to distribute funding to five of the 10 nonprofit finalists through varying sizes of grants. This year’s chosen organizations are BCS Marathon, Boys and Girls Club of Brazos Valley, Elder Aid, Health For All and Voices for Children. Each has a mission and programmatic elements that bring about sustainable development throughout the Brazos Valley.

So often, the word “philanthropy” brings to mind the whims and fancies of well-known philanthropists and their vast amounts of money. Names like Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gates and Buffet stand out among the crowd. The connotation is that the more money you amass, the greater influence you can have. What our students quickly uncovered was that philanthropy is much more delicate and immensely personal. Philanthropy should invoke a human element that starts as one looks inward and extends far beyond oneself into local, national, and global communities. Along the way, partnerships and collaborative efforts must develop if we are to solve our communities’ problems.

It was an honor to watch as our students stewarded a gift of significant proportion with dignity. My hope is that every student has gained the confidence to identify community issues, embrace the confidence to act, and bring others together to make a difference in their community. At the end of the day, it is not about the dollar amount given away. The real difference exists in the lives that will be impacted by these nonprofit organizations. This semester, we were able to link arms with local community partners as local issues were tackled. What a journey for myself, the students and our valued local nonprofit organizations!

by Kyle Gammenthaler, M.S. ’11

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Passion was very present throughout our final board meeting. Several board members spoke up boldly while others processed more internally. By voting, we ensured all voices were heard to a certain extent. Ultimately we can’t all walk away 100 percent satisfied. However, we can all walk away 100% confident we are going to have a positive and sustainable impact on the Brazos Valley.

We will witness the fruits of some of this impact when we return in a year to follow-up with the organizations. However, these funds will have a multitude of effects we may never see. While we can’t measure the full extent of the impact, we know in our hearts we made our decision with pure intentions and thorough determination.

We can find comfort and joy in knowing this is only the beginning. I am confident we are only the first of many Mays Strategic Philanthropy Board’s to serve at Texas A&M University. Future courses will expand on strategies we found successful, and learn from our mistakes. If I had one piece of advice to pass on to future classes it would be this: Throughout this course it’s easy to slip into the mindset that this is our money to give away. Remember this opportunity is a gift in and of itself. Giving, by nature, isn’t even really about us anyway.

I believe we are better philanthropists and stronger individuals because of this process. We have challenged ourselves and expanded our view on philanthropy and the world at-large. We have changed our minds on certain issues a dozen times. We have experienced excitement and we have experienced frustration. We have grown in community and we have grown individually. We have listened to the hearts of one another, and we have been heard by each other. Our mission statement may read “We empower Brazos Valley nonprofits…” but over the past few months these nonprofits have empowered us.

by Ashley Adair ’17

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