Learning how to give: A look at DeGroote’s innovative Strategic Philanthropy and Leadership class


Nearly 30 students in Lynn Fergusson's fourth-year Strategic Philanthropy and Leadership class were recently able to assist two community organizations with much-needed financial support, Thrive Child and Youth Trauma Services and Hamilton Youth Poets (HYP).

First they learn about Hamilton, then they learn how to give back.

Nearly 30 students in Lynn Fergusson’s fourth-year Strategic Philanthropy and Leadership class were recently able to assist two community organizations with much-needed financial support, Thrive Child and Youth Trauma Services and Hamilton Youth Poets (HYP).

Each organization will receive $5,500 to further their efforts, drawn from an $11,000 grant provided by the U.S.-based Learning by Giving Foundation. More than 40 colleges and universities in America have partnered with the Foundation for this initiative, but McMaster is the only Canadian university involved. Since 2012, close to $70,000 has been directed to local charities via the class. It’s education with purpose, and it puts business students in a position to affect real, measurable change in their community.

The first few lectures focus on Hamilton’s priority neighbourhoods — high-density urban areas such as Jamesville, Stinson, Crown Point, and Beasley that struggle with socioeconomic challenges. According to the City of Hamilton, poverty rates in Beasley, for example, are three times higher than the average for the city. Nearly 60 per cent of the downtown neighbourhood’s residents live on incomes below the poverty line.

As the term progresses, students choose a general theme and issue a request for proposals (RFP) from local charities. The class then narrows the field and decides where to focus their giving. A total of 19 proposals were received last term, each related to the theme of youth mental health in priority neighbourhoods.

“We want to get students thinking about how they can contribute to society and find meaning in their work, especially after graduation,” says Fergusson, a Sessional Lecturer at the DeGroote School of Business who also serves as a Partner with Social Impact Advisors.

“Although many of the participating students live in Hamilton, they’re often not familiar with the communities beyond the walls of the university. One of our goals is to help change that by the end of the term,” she explains.

For Christina Del Sordo, a fourth-year Commerce student, the class offered a unique opportunity to learn more about the city she calls home.

“I had not realized how many charitable organizations there were in the city,” Del Sordo admits. “Even though I had grown up in Hamilton, some of these were brand new to me. I had the opportunity to get to know each of these organizations through the RFP process. I learned a lot about our community, and we as a class identified there was a need for action with mental health initiatives.”

Del Sordo’s class wasn’t the first to learn more about Hamilton’s unique challenges. Stacy Drohomyrecky, BCOM ’13 and MBA ’16, joined the board of directors at local charity Food4Kids after being inspired by her experiences with Fergusson back in 2012. The organization delivers healthy food packages to 44 schools in Hamilton and Halton with at-risk children, including those going without food during weekends.

“The class gave me a deeper understanding of philanthropy and corporate social responsibility, as well as giving the experience of being on both sides of the RFP process. It also motivated me to do more in my community,” says Drohomyrecky, who works as a Commercial Account Manager with RBC. The greatest takeaway from the class, she adds, was instilling the notion that any successful business or entrepreneur should think of their community as a priority. “I think this is a great lesson for bright and eager Commerce students who are just entering the workforce,” she explains.

Thrive, one of this year’s charities, provides professional assessment and confidential trauma treatment services, as well as prevention and educational programs, for at-risk youth. In addition to focusing on sexual abuse and behavioral problems, the organization offers services to address the unique needs of refugee and immigrant children, youth, and their families experiencing trauma symptoms.

“Currently, we have 22 children waiting for treatment in this program,” wrote Cathie Pead, Interim Executive Director, in her submission package. In the past year, Hamilton received 1,200 Syrian refugees, 50 per cent of whom are children and youth, she explains. As they settle into a new routine in a new country, the impact of living through a civil war often begins to emerge as anxiety, aggression, and other distressing symptoms.

The funds will help Thrive continue their trauma treatment program, including for Syrian refugees. The program has been especially effective in addressing the impact of childhood trauma while allowing young people to heal in a safe and supportive environment.

“Clients who complete treatment show a significant reduction or elimination of trauma symptoms,” Pead continues. “They learn how to deal with emotional reactions in healthy ways, establish and maintain healthy relationships, and cope with ‘trigger’ events constructively.” A trigger event is a reminder of past trauma – something that could spark an outburst if not properly treated.

HYP encourages local youth to promote their own stories through spoken word, verse, multimedia, poetry, and journalism. It offers programs with names like “Check The Method” and “Emcee WreckShop” designed to engage young people and encourage creative expression. All of the works created by participants are then showcased during an annual spring gathering, Louder Than A Bomb Canada: Youth Poetry Festival. The organization is more popular than ever. In 2016, some 3,400 young people in the city were involved in HYP programs and activities, up from 1,350 just two years prior.

“We have been providing programming for the community for the last four years and have grown exponentially,” Nea Reid, Artistic Director of HYP, explained in her submission. “Our work has been proven to decrease high school dropout rates while increasing literacy, reinforcing positive mental health, and arming youth with transferable skills that make them adept at being leaders.”

Hamilton Youth Poets will be using funds from the class to support their in-school programming, as well as for operational costs associated with the Louder Than A Bomb festival.

The next Strategic Philanthropy and Leadership class will be offered during the fall 2017 term. It’s open to students from any faculty, and also counts toward a minor in Sustainability at McMaster. According to Del Sordo, it’s a worthwhile experience for any student. “This course taught me valuable lessons about philanthropy, our community, and myself that I will bring forth in my future endeavours,” she offers. “This was definitely one of the most valuable learning experiences I’ve had at McMaster.”

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