August 16, 2017

Catholic Health World: Sisters of Charity foundation creates pipeline for philanthropic leadership

The Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina created the Philanthropy Leadership And Community Engagement (P.L.A.C.E.) Fellowship Program through a partnership with Columbia College in 2013. PLACE is a unique program designed to increase students’ awareness of the impact of philanthropy on community nonprofits.

Catholic Health World published the following article about the program:

Sisters of Charity foundation creates pipeline for philanthropic leadership

August 15, 2017

BY RENEE STROVSKY

Michelle Troup, 21, entered Columbia College in South Carolina certain that she was interested in a career in academic science.

A biology major from Powdersville, S.C., she is now busy studying for the Medical College Admission Test, with an eye on graduating with her Bachelor of Science this fall. Her focus has shifted to earning a dual Doctor of Medicine/Master of Public Health degree. Her change of heart, she says, is due largely to the minor in leadership studies she is earning through the P.L.A.C.E. Fellows program, a partnership between the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina and Columbia College to increase student awareness of the impact of philanthropy on community nonprofits.

Lauren Ashley Fleming, also 21, came to Columbia College in Columbia, S.C., from Spartanburg County, S.C., to study communications. When she graduates in the spring, she'll have a major in writing for print and digital media as well as three minors — in public relations, cultural anthropology and leadership studies. And while she still plans on pursuing a career in public relations, her experience in the P.L.A.C.E. program has led her to a desire to use those skills in an organization that promotes social diversity and inclusiveness. 

Both students embody the mission of the P.L.A.C.E. (Philanthropy, Leadership and Community Engagement) program, says its director, Tamara Burk, an endowed professor in leadership and communications studies at Columbia. "We want to create social justice warriors who will use their powers for good," she says.

Sustainable change

Burk stresses that P.L.A.C.E. differs greatly from the service learning programs many colleges offer to students. "This is not the type of project that provides college kids with an opportunity to volunteer for a specific task and then go home and feel good about it," she says. "We are looking to build relationships and become members of a community to affect sustainable change." 

Tom Keith, president of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina, sees P.L.A.C.E. as a natural outgrowth of the foundation's mission to strategically use resources to "reduce poverty through action, advocacy and leadership."

A new mold

The collaboration, begun in 2013, was nurtured by Katrina Spigner, an alumna of Columbia College, former foundation director and current director of the graduate organizational leadership program at the college. Spigner brokered a conversation between Keith, Burk and a now-retired professor, Linda Salane, to envision a way to give a select group of incoming students a deep dive into understanding philanthropy, leadership and community engagement.

"We had no best practices model on how the program would ultimately look; it has emerged and solidified over the past four years with Tamara (Burk) shaping the curriculum based on focus groups and community needs, with feedback from the foundation," says Spigner. 

P.L.A.C.E. students — each cohort numbers approximately 10 — are chosen through a competitive interview process and earn, over the course of four years, a 16-hour minor in nonprofit leadership. In addition to classes that focus on women, poverty, social justice and leadership, plus two electives, each student is required to complete a senior capstone project, 10 hours of community engagement work per semester and two nonprofit internships. The paid internships are funded by the Sisters of Charity Foundation, which awards the program a $25,000 annual grant.

Lots of options

Key to the P.L.A.C.E. philosophy is the notion that students can major in any area they choose. "We are not looking specifically for social work, psychology or human services majors; we have students in the program who are political science majors, community arts and dance majors, pre-dental majors and more," says Burk. "We want them to discover and follow their passions, and then use those interests to make an impact on the community."

To that end, students also are expected to design their own internships. A political science major worked in the mayor's office, a dance major interned with a children's theater group and is now a professional member of the company, which provides artistic enrichment for disadvantaged children. P.L.A.C.E. had a communications major intern at the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault; and a pre-dental student interned at a local free dental clinic and worked with Transitions, a housing program for homeless individuals, says Burk. That student starts dental school in the fall.

For her part, Troup has spent time at Nephron Pharmaceuticals, both in the microbiology labs there and on the corporate side, shadowing its chief executive to learn how to be both a business leader and a philanthropist in the sciences. After a monthlong study abroad experience last winter along the Amazon River, where she studied food sustainability in indigenous communities, Troup is now planning another internship for the fall, researching food accessibility in Columbia. 

"My P.L.A.C.E. experiences, both on and off campus, have made me realize that food sustainability is an issue of social justice," says Troup. "Now I know there are so many different avenues available to make an impact in the public health sector."

Busting through biases

Fleming spent the summer of 2016 leading a children's program at the Gable Oaks apartment complex in Columbia's Eau Claire, a predominantly black community close to campus. "It was as grassroots as you can get; we engaged the kids with reading, math and science experiments and provided lunches," she says. "It was definitely a cultural shift, and a chance for me, as well as the children, to break through barriers and build trust with each other."

She's also done a short internship with Big Brothers Big Sisters.

"I've learned that my passion is working with middle school and high school girls," she says. "I'd like to find a way to combine that with a job in communications that allows me to break down the implicit biases we all have in our society. P.L.A.C.E. has taught me that people's stories are so much bigger than our perceptions of them; we are all going to have to find a way to get along on this planet."

Scaling up

The first group of P.L.A.C.E. fellows graduated in May. The Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina and Columbia College are weighing whether and how to expand the program's reach beyond the private liberal arts women's college.

"We've had tremendous feedback in the community for the internship program, and our students have conducted a workshop at the South Carolina Association of Nonprofit Organizations and given a presentation at the National Collegiate Honors Council conference in Seattle," says Burk.

Because of that national exposure, Spigner has been fielding interest from others about replicating P.L.A.C.E. elsewhere.

"We are actually at a place where this model could be lifted and put in other places," she says. "The key, though, is having the ability to duplicate a director who embodies the core values of the foundation — compassion, courage, respect, justice and collaboration — and has imbued them into P.L.A.C.E. That's what makes this work."

Adds Keith: "We are huge cheerleaders of P.L.A.C.E." The foundation honored the first graduating class with a reception and a video recalling their four years in the program. "It's been amazing to watch the transformation of these young women, under the tutelage of a faculty member like Tamara Burk, become true advocates and crusaders for community change." 

His goal for the program's further growth? "We've talked about expanding this to other colleges, but frankly, I'd like to take it to the high school level as well. We've had discussions with some Catholic school principals that I hope will come to fruition in the next year or so," he says. "We need to connect kids to their communities at an even earlier age."

Pictured: Lauren Fleming, left, and Michelle Troup, center, learn about leadership and philanthropy as P.L.A.C.E. Fellows. They are shown here with Anita Garrett, a consultant and social entrepreneur, at a gathering at the Palmetto Center for Women, an outreach program of the YMCA of Columbia, S.C.

The Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina is a ministry of the Sisters of Charity Health System.

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