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Your Philanthropic Autobiography


Tyrone McKinley Freeman

Director, Undergraduate Programs, Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI)


Freeman, T. M. (2014). Your Philanthropic Autobiography. Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.


This assignment presents students with an opportunity to compose an autobiography of how their lives intersect with philanthropic organizations through a 3-page essay by combining the powerful practice of storytelling through autobiography to explore students’ own personal connections to philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.

Background and Context

This assignment relates to at least three areas of learning in the degree qualifications profile for the bachelor’s level: 1) Applied Learning; 2) Specialized Knowledge; and 3) Communication Fluency/Intellectual Skills. For Applied Learning, the Philanthropic Autobiography assignment connects knowledge from the students’ personal and professional experiences to knowledge in the field of Philanthropic Studies, which uses multiple disciplines (i.e., the humanities, the social sciences, and the professions) to understand the phenomenon of philanthropy in society. It also requires writing and later incorporates multi-media methods when students create their digital stories. For Specialized Knowledge, the Philanthropic Autobiography assignment enables students to explore definitions and boundaries of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector as well as the central questions and rationales for the field of Philanthropic Studies. Through the process of revision, students gain facility in defining and properly using the principal terminology and theories of the field. For Communication Fluency, the assignment is first completed as a written narrative in the introductory course and primarily shared with the instructor and classmates. It is later revised in the capstone course and translated into a digital story, which utilizes visual and audio media to produce a video clip presentation. The digital story is not only presented to peers in the class, but is designed with a particular audience in mind, be that a potential employer or graduate admissions officer.

The Philanthropic Autobiography assignment is considered a signature assignment by the faculty in the undergraduate program in Philanthropic Studies at Indiana University. It requires students to compose a brief 2-3 page essay about their personal engagement with philanthropy and nonprofit organizations throughout their lives. It is based on two very important concepts in the field of Philanthropic Studies: 1) philanthropy is voluntary action for the public good based on closely held values and beliefs about how to improve society; and 2) everyone has a connection to philanthropy and nonprofit organizations (Payton & Moody, 2008). There is great educational value in naming and exploring these personal connections early in one’s studies to construct a reservoir of experiences from which to relate the formal study of philanthropy. In the PHST-P 201 Introduction to Philanthropic Studies course, newly declared majors and minors in Philanthropic Studies complete the philanthropic autobiography as an exploratory assignment that initiates them into the program and the field. A first draft of the essay is due during week 3 of the course and it serves as a touchstone throughout subsequent weeks with the final draft due during the final week of the course.

Philanthropic autobiographies are continuing narratives (2008). For this reason, students may consult their essays throughout their studies, but are given a formal opportunity to revisit and revise their philanthropic autobiographies as they near completion of the degree program in the Capstone in Philanthropic Studies course as seniors. Having written their first philanthropic autobiographic essay as many as 2-4 years prior, depending upon when they declared the major, students in the senior capstone course reflect upon their essays during the first 3 weeks to recall their initial perspectives on the role of philanthropy and nonprofit organizations in their own lives and society; the values they have expressed or experienced through their community involvement; and subsequent experiences that may affirm, revise, or even conflict with their initial perspectives. The revisited or revised document then becomes the basis for the creation of a digital story during weeks 11 through 14. Both the revised essay and the digital story then become artifacts in students’ capstone e-portfolios as evidence that they have demonstrated achievement of the B.A. program’s learning outcomes and defined their professional identity as newly minted graduates in Philanthropic Studies preparing for the job market or graduate school.


As an assignment, the philanthropic autobiography has worked well in both undergraduate and graduate classes. I have taught at both levels and note that the main difference is that graduate students tend to have more life experiences to draw upon for the exercise. I have also observed the assignment to be helpful for students who initially report either no or low involvement with philanthropy and nonprofit organizations. It is quite common for there to be at least one student at the start of the semester who says, “We were poor and did not have time to volunteer or money to give. My parents were working all the time.” An exercise like this can naturally cause some discomfort for such students because they initially feel unable to relate to it because of their family circumstances. However, as they get into the activity, even if they mostly recount reasons why they were not involved, there’s usually a nugget or two of experience that arises which illustrates their connection, whether patterns of giving and helping within the family structure or between neighbors to make ends meet or interacting with a range of social service or religious institutions which students did not initially connect to philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. The exercise also challenges students to think of themselves not only as givers (i.e., donors, volunteers) but also as recipients. The exercise asks them to think about how they have benefitted from the generosity of others and explore the contours of such experiences. This is frequently a new idea for students, and many often comment upon how they had never saw themselves or thought of themselves as recipients, too. By recounting experiences ranging from receiving a scholarship funded by a donor to being given food by neighbors, students open up pathways for exploring the roles, stereotypes, and assumptions that accompany labels such as “giver” and “receiver” or “donor” and “beneficiary.” They are better able to engage the social relations and interactions between donors and recipients, and gradually come to recognize the agency of recipients.

This assignment is versatile and can be adapted by virtually any discipline or field in order to challenge students to think about what they bring to their studies as learners who have a range of experiences, interests, values, and ideas that can inform and serve their educational goals. We are currently aware of its use in English with a focus on serving as a literary autobiography in which students’ identify their experiences with reading and literature throughout their lives. The same approach could readily be adapted in introductory courses for other humanities, the social sciences, and the professions. Most assuredly, instructors in introductory courses seeking an engaging and reflective means for initiating their students into their subject area would find this assignment valuable. Additionally, due to the range of personal disclosure displayed by students in the essays, this assignment can help build a sense of community in class by enabling students to note commonalities between their experiences, and it can enable faculty to better advise students on other course elements, such as selecting research paper topics, because students’ personal lives and interests are shared. Faculty directors and coordinators of degree programs will find the manner in which this assignment is introduced in the first course and revisited in the capstone helpful for building coherence across the curriculum, supporting program and student learning assessment, and facilitating students’ agency in creating professional identity. Most importantly, students have regularly reported the value of this assignment in giving them multiple points of reference for personally connecting to the content area.

Please note that this assignment belongs to no particular instructor. It is a signature assignment in the field of philanthropic studies that has been developed over time by many people. For this version of the exercise, particular acknowledgement goes to Al Lyons, Dwight Burlingame, Kristin Norris, and the faculty of the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Work Cited

Payton, Robert & Moody, Michael. (2008). Understanding Philanthropy: Its Meaning and Mission. Indiana University Press: Bloomington, IN.

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