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Sillerman Prize offers support for philanthropic college students

Published: February 14, 2014
Section: News


The Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy in the Heller School for Social Policy and Management promotes philanthropy on campus “that advances social justice through research, education, practice and leadership development.” It sponsors Generous U, a nationwide contest that encourages philanthropic college organizations by having student groups compete for the $10,000 Sillerman Prize and the title of Generous U.

Robert Sillerman ’69 and Laura Sillerman endowed the Sillerman Center in 2008. Since the Center is based in a university, it was natural that the work it did would directly benefit and instill philanthropic values in students. Generous U was inspired by Heller’s involvement in community service and other campus competitions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Robotics Contest.

Andrew Hahn and Claudia Jacobs ’70, director and associate director of the Sillerman Center, respectively, claim that the nature of student philanthropy has changed during their time at the Center. Many colleges and universities that did not teach philanthropy courses now do, similar to the ones that Sillerman sponsors for Brandeis undergraduates and Heller students. At the outset of the Sillerman Center’s existence, campus philanthropy was unusual for university students. There were not an abundance of courses at other schools where students learned about philanthropy by giving money to local non-profit organizations (NPOs), so Hahn and Jacobs largely had to work without a template.

Hahn and Jacobs sponsored a conference at the Heller School, to which 20 universities sent faculty and students to discuss their philanthropy courses. The classes belonged to a variety of departments, including political science, English and sociology. “Professors came together to share their syllabi and discuss how their courses were managed,” Jacobs said. “Doris Buffett, Warren Buffett’s sister, was our keynote speaker.”

Since then, many more schools have added philanthropy courses to their curriculums. Doris Buffett’s Foundation has since become the Learning by Giving Foundation, which has supported nearly 30 colleges and universities around the United States by awarding $10,000 grants to schools that successfully apply for students to allocate funds to NPOs after attending a course that teaches philanthropy. The undergraduate philanthropy course at Brandeis has such a grant.

The entries to the Generous U contest are reviewed by a group of judges across the nation, (who are philanthropists themselves), previous winners of the competition, businessmen and women and people who work in higher education. Each submission is reviewed by at least three judges who score each entry. Those scores are added up, and the entries with the highest scores win, are runners-ups or receive honorable mentions. “Applicants are entitled to an aggregate review by judges which we compile, so no one loses; all the projects tend to be worthy,” said Jacobs. The aim of the competition is to encourage the expansion of existing philanthropy programs on campuses across the nation.

Brandeis University was “the pilot site” of Generous U in its first year. The first winning team was composed of Brandeis undergraduate and graduate students. The second year of the contest also featured Brandeis applicants, but Brandeis students have not entered the competition in the past two years despite efforts on the part of the Sillerman Center to spread the word about the competition to students on campus.

“It would be so awesome to have Brandeis applicants again,” added Jacobs. “Our school stands on the pillar of social justice and making an impact in equity and access to opportunity are important values at Heller as well as the University as a whole. So, Brandeis students, apply by March 3!” Applications are composed of a written essay and three-minute video.

For students interested in but unfamiliar with philanthropy, Jacobs advises taking the philanthropy course titled “Social Justice Philanthropy (SOC)” offered in the fall. The course is taught at the graduate level in the spring and is now ongoing at Heller and is open to graduate students and Brandeis employees. The Social Justice Philanthropy course distributes $40,000 donated by the Sillermans to NPOs.

Students interested in philanthropic efforts on campus can contact the Sillerman Center for more information.