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In a conference room tucked within downtown's Historic Fifth Street School, a group of UNLV graduate students confidently present their plans on how best to spend some $300,000. These students have been tasked with determining which Southern Nevada-based teachers, schools, and educational organizations merit grant funding from a local nonprofit.
But it is much more than a theoretical class exercise. The funds are real, and the students have a strong say in how the money will be used.
“We're actually making a difference,” said Lisa Sickinger, a student who received her master of public administration degree in May. “We're not just learning. We're actually helping the community.”
In Grantwell, a course offered through the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs' School of Public Policy and Leadership, graduate students like Sickinger pore over grant proposals, narrow down applicants to a small pool, visit finalists, and suggest suitable recipients for the funding in a student-led and faculty-assisted training program.
The program is part of UNLV's Nonprofit, Community and Leadership Institute (NCLI), a research and innovation center that works to strengthen local nonprofits and public agencies through guidance, networking, and other methods.
The Grantwell program is helping nonprofits, like arts and education proponent The Rogers Foundation, select recipients for grants and ensure they meet the organizations’ missions. The Rogers Foundation, for instance, provides three grants of up to $100,000 to provide for basic student needs, bolster education, and promote the arts among pupils of the Clark County School District.
The foundation, which has partnered with Grantwell since 2015, allows the students to take over the grant process by soliciting, reviewing, and prioritizing applications for the money, lightening the load on the nonprofit's administrators while providing an invaluable learning experience to the graduate students, many of whom want to work in the nonprofit sector after graduation.
“This model of learning works in a ton of ways. We provide benefits for the foundations that want to achieve community change. We help them. Our students end up having an awesome opportunity to learn in an applied way,” said professor John Wagner, NCLI’s director of community relations. "This trains the next generation of leadership in that nonprofit and philanthropic space."
It's certainly been a winning strategy for The Rogers Foundation, said Michelle Sanders, director of finance and administration for the group.
"It was a match made in heaven,” Sanders said. “They (the students) stepped up to the plate and have taken over the marketing, the vetting of the process, as well as going through and making suggestions toward the final decision. They carry a level of professionalism with them. We trust their judgment.”
Though the nonprofit maintains the final say in how the three grants are awarded, The Rogers Foundation executives consistently have chosen from among the grant finalists suggested by the students. Funded projects range from an effort to build a high school performing arts center to an initiative to secure dental care for underprivileged children.
"Impact is definitely the biggest factor," Sanders said. The UNLV graduate students "know that they're affecting someone's program, some child's life, and this decision carries a lot of weight."
The Grantwell class, which developed at UNLV based on a blueprint and with assistance from Brigham Young University, creates better leaders and teaches how the grant process works from start to finish, Sickinger said.
It also earned Sickinger a graduate assistantship. And now, with a referral from Wagner, it has garnered her a part-time job in the nonprofit world.
"I didn't know anything really about nonprofits or foundations before I started," she said of the class. "I was just here to get my credits, but I just enjoyed it so much."
Former student Stephanie Borene, who received her master of public administration degree in 2014, was one of the first Grantwell participants at UNLV. She said she uses the skills she obtained in the course often in her role as a project coordinator with the UNLV Lincy Institute.
She said it was one of the first times she can recall being required to lead a large project and actively practice time management, collaboration, and efficiency.
"It just gives students a unique opportunity that you wouldn't normally get in the classroom," Borene said. "You're actually out in the community, talking with real-life organizations."
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