Values in Action: The Duke Philanthropy Lab


In this course, we will come to understand the nature of giving—the means and mechanisms, problems and solutions, successes and failures—even as we study the history, theory and structure of civil society.  We will pay special attention to how specific religious traditions and communities have understood personal-societal obligations through time.  In our exploration of this material, we will draw examples from the Jewish traditions (highlighting a premodern model of social organization and mutuality, and exemplifying minority-majority dynamics over time) and American traditions (with a focus on the present), in particular but not exclusively, to ground our analysis.  A special feature of the course will be the opportunity for the class to apply theoretical knowledge to a real world decision-making process by determining how to real funds—to make actual grants—to nonprofit organizations, locally and (potentially) abroad. This course will employ a team-based learning model.  The class will periodically constitute itself as a pluralistic philanthropic board composed of “committees” of 4-5 students; your committee will meet as a working group for a substantial part of each meeting, as well as outside of class.  Each committee will develop funding priorities and award grants to local organizations in specific fields of interest and urgency.  In the process of choosing recipients, we will reflect on several key questions:  What is the basis of private action for the public good?   How do non-governmental organizations operate domestically and globally?  How should charitable dollars be distributed and what role do nonprofit organizations and philanthropic dollars play in a modern democracy?    What are the appropriate criteria to be used to select grant recipients and, as donors, reflect on our own actions and choices?  And—distinctive to this class—how do our cultural, ethnic, and religious traditions and those of others affect how we give and how we can act most effectively for good in the world? This course will provide an in-depth understanding of philanthropy, tsedakah, zakat, benefaction: its historical development, normative and structural elements, and modern agency as a driver of social change.  By the end of the course, students will have knowledge of the history and structure of civil society, the tradition of competing value commitments in civil society, the modern nonprofit sector and its relationship to government and for-profit arenas, and key challenges facing nonprofit organizations today nationally and globally. Ultimately, students will apply this knowledge to a practical exercise in philanthropic grant-making.  Readings come from political philosophy, history of ideas, traditional/sacred scriptures, public policy, and mass media; we will, in particular, focus on a range of readings from the Jewish tradition—from the biblical period to today—in order to explore how these ideas change over time.

Instructors: Laura Lieber and Christy Lohr-Sapp

Laura Lieber (Ph.D., University of Chicago) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religion. Her areas of teaching and research focus on Jewish literature, culture and religious practice, folklore studies, the history and theory of Religion and the Hebrew Bible and its interpretation.
Christy Lohr Sapp (Ph.D., University of Exeter) is the Associate Dean for Religious Life at Duke University Chapel. Her areas of teaching and research focus on Christian theology, leadership, and interfaith religions. She has worked in a variety of ecumenical and interfaith organizations including the World Council of Churches and the North American Interfaith Network.

Crosslisting Numbers: 

Religion 89S
Political Science 89S
Public Policy 89S

Curriculum Codes: