Students in an urban studies class at the University of Pennsylvania were assigned extra homework this semester: give away $100,000.

Students in the class covering the economics of the nonprofit sector in Philadelphia--about the relationships between philanthropists and grant recipients--were suddenly thrown into the position of being philanthropists themselves. Ten days before class started, an anonymous donor put real money into their hands.

The class of about 30 split into five groups, each with $20,000. The groups had to establish a mission statement, seek out local organizations aligned with that mission, and vet them as potential recipients.

Like the plot of an old movie (remember the 1945 movie "Brewster's Millions"? Anyone? Or the Richard Pryor remake in 1985?) the students learned how difficult it is to give away money. Putting aside emotional attachments to particular causes or people, they had to unite behind a repeatable, systemic process.

The after-school music program Play On! Philly was short-listed by two of the groups.

"While we did love Play On! Philly, there's an outreach we wanted to see," said Maya Sachdeva, a student who ultimately rejected the organization. "We wanted to see an engagement with the community; we wanted to see parents involved and students as well."

In contrast, another group was satisfied by Play On! Philly's ability to prove that the program had educational influence beyond music.

"I can see these kids, with the opportunities they are having, figuring out how to go to the places they want to go," said Brittany Lekknes, a senior at Penn. "Whether doing really well with the trombone, or exceeding at school, I can see that already in some seventh-graders graders."

Focusing on nonprofits' role

The philanthropic exercise highlighted some of the core issues covered in the classroom as students explored the role of the nonprofit sector in the overall health of a city. Increasingly, cities rely on public-private partnerships to address urban problems, and pairing the goals of corporate altruism with nonprofit mission statements is challenging.

"That's difficult, frustrating, on both sides," said adjunct instructor Doug Bauer, who works at the Clark Foundation in New York City. "When you can find the alignment, the return can be great. But to be successful, the nonprofit has to find a program and make sure its mission is aligned with the corporation."

Bauer has been teaching this class for 14 years with Greg Goldman, but never had real money to play with until this year. Goldman, whose day job is raising money for the Philadelphia Zoo, says the recent economic downturn is affecting nonprofits in ways that earlier recessions did not.

"The combination of the legislative conservatives with deep financial challenges, it is a much different financial predicament," said Goldman. "It's more unclear what it's going to look like, particularly for people who care for the poor and look after arts and culture."

Most of the student groups gave portions of their allotted money--between $2,000 and $7,000--to a handful of nonprofits. None of the organizations was large; all had budgets of less than $3 million. The students wanted their relatively small grants to make a singular impact.

Windfall for East Park Revitalization

One group gave all its chips, the entire $20,000 purse, to a single neighborhood organization: East Park Revitalization Alliance, an urban greening and education program in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood.

"There were three [organizations] that were amazing and lined up with our mission, but then we were blown away by the possibility of what $20,000 could do for one organization," said student Nikka Landau. "We couldn't resist the opportunity to take a shot. But it was a risk."

Since its launch in 2003, the East Park Revitalization Alliance has used urban gardening as a way to teach healthy eating habits to residents of the impoverished sections of Strawberry Mansion. There is no grocery store with fresh fruits and vegetables in the neighborhood, which has high rates of obesity and heart disease.

Director Suku John says the Penn students seemed interested in the alliance's partnerships as way to maximize the impact of their grant.

"There are murals associated with some of our garden sites," said Suku. "We work with the Philadelphia Orchard Project, we work with the department of Parks and Recreation, so they were very interested in the partnerships we have and the fact that we use the partnerships to get more work done."

The East Park Revitalization Alliance has an annual budget of $160,000. John says the $20,000 grant is "huge."