Where Heart Meets Smart: USD Grantmaking Class Transforms Students into Philanthropists

For 21 years the Thomas C. Ackerman Foundation has supported San Diego nonprofits doing important work in education, healthcare, arts and culture, and youth development. While some funders would be content with this track record, the Ackerman Foundation saw an opportunity to innovate when professors from the University of San Diego Nonprofit Management program suggested a partnership.

Under the guidance of Assistant Professor Dr. Mary McDonald and adjunct professor Christy Wilson (CEO of the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation), 20 graduate students have served as program officers for the Foundation as part of USD’s “Grantmaking for the Greater Good” class over the past two years. Working with input from the foundation’s seven board members, the students research and apply best practices in philanthropy to develop a Request for Proposal aligned with the Ackerman Foundation’s mission and giving priorities. Student teams research applicant organizations, conduct site visits, and make funding recommendations to the board.

To date the partnership has awarded $40,000 in total funding to four local nonprofit organizations: Barrio Logan College Institute, Resounding Joy, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and Second Chance San Diego. Over 100 nonprofits have vied for a grant, making the competition intense. The selected organizations each demonstrate good governance, effective management practices, evidence-based program design, and formal evaluation methods. Collaboration is another common feature.

“In a era when nonprofits are having to do more with less, we see collaboration as a fundamental source of leverage to bring more resources to a project and expand the impact of our funding investment” said Ackerman board president Bob Copeland. “This partnership with the University of San Diego is an opportunity to practice collaboration ourselves, and it has paid off tremendously. The students’ research has brought new ideas to our grantmaking and helped us learn about worthy organizations we would not have known about otherwise.”

Pat Libby, Director of USD’s Nonprofit Institute, echoes the value of this novel partnership. “Learning by doing integrates theory with practice. It’s the basis for our whole program here at USD, and we’ve become a national model. We are grateful to the Thomas C. Ackerman Foundation for investing in this collaborative learning opportunity that is also providing much needed financial support to San Diego’s nonprofit sector.”

While the program has exceeded expectations, one disappointment surfaced. “It was hard to tell the other 96 applicant organizations they were not selected,” said student Andrew Rae. “There are so many great nonprofits doing important work in the community. They all deserve and need funding. It would be great to see other foundations and corporations get involved so more nonprofits could be funded.”

The Ackerman Foundation has fulfilled its two-year partnership commitment and USD is now looking for funding partners who would like to integrate research and best practices into their philanthropic giving. To get involved please contact Jennifer Yebba, Assistant Director of the USD Nonprofit program, at jyebba@sandiego.edu.


Jennifer Yebba
(619) 260-2918


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