Gephardt News

Sociology course illuminates path to meaningful philanthropy

At Deaconess Foundation on Thursday, March 9, panelists Vontriece McDowell, Keisha Davis, Rachel D’Souza Siebert, and Rev. Aaron Rogers (not shown) explained to students how to vet organizations and analyze the community efforts they aim to fund. 

Earlier this month, students in Philanthropy Lab—a course supported by the Gephardt Institute—heard from a panel on how to appropriately vet organizations and fund initiatives to better impact the root issues of community needs.  

Philanthropy Lab, a course in Arts & Sciences’ Department of Sociology, gives students a theoretical and practical understanding of philanthropy today. The course culminates with the students granting funds to non-profit organizations in the St. Louis community. This year, students will grant a total of $42,000 through funds provided by individual donors and The Philanthropy Lab, a national organization. 

On Thursday, March 9, students in the class traveled to the Deaconess Foundation—located in the Vandeventer neighborhood of St. Louis City—to hear from a panel of community experts about vetting non-profits and evaluating their monetary needs. A grant-making organization, the Deaconess Foundation focuses on child wellbeing through philanthropy, advocacy and organizing for racial equity and public policy change.  

Sitting on the panel were Keisha Davis, Director of Partnership and Capacity Building at Deaconess; Rachel D’Souza Siebert, Founder and Chief Purpose Office of Gladiator Consulting; Vontriece McDowell, Neighborhood Solidarity Partner at Invest STL; and Rev. Aaron Rogers, a health equity consultant who serves on the Community Governance Board for the Racial Healing and Justice Fund.  

Their advice to the Philanthropy Lab students—as they work on the requests for proposals (RFP) to inform their grant process—centered around asking questions that lead to the heart of the issues the organizations want to impact.  

“What are the conditions that could change as a result of your work?” said McDowell. “These types of questions can set the tone for the value you want to add as a funder.” 

“In our RFP, instead of saying, ‘This is what we want you to use the money for,’ we asked, ‘What do you want to do with the funding?” said Philanthropy Lab student Bella Gomez,Class of 2026. 

Rogers stressed the importance of acknowledging that organizations do not have all the answers when considering community issues.  

“The real connection to the mission will always be more related to good questions than good answers,” he said. “Not everybody can have all the answers. But see if they have good questions about the problems they want to solve.” 

The panelists urged the students to analyze how an organization might frame its efforts, and whether or not they acknowledge the broader issues that might come into play.  

“Stop asking, ‘How do we help poor people?’ and start asking, ‘Why are people poor?’” McDowell said.  

D’Souza Siebert impressed upon the students the importance of talking to people who live in a community about the issues facing them.  

“We were at the festivals, in the parks, on the street asking people what they want,” she said. “It feels good to fund specific things, but we need to think about [interconnected issues].” 

The panelists extolled the benefits of not only working with established nonprofits, but to work with community organizers and community groups that may not be as established.  

“Who else do you work with? Who do you talk to?” said Barbara Levin, one of the Philanthropy Lab instructors. “Find people who seek to work with other people.”  

For David Rigby, Levin’s co-instructor, the panelists were an ideal group for the students to hear from.  

“The humanity and compassion with which you talk about your work has been really encouraging, and really great to hear,” Rigby said.