Lighting the philanthropic spark

The first five minutes of Nicole Sutton’s decision bias class at the UTS Business School is unconventional: students are presented with $100, a list of three charities and a choice – If I want to do the most good with this money, who should I donate it to?

“The first time I did it, students didn’t actually believe me,” says Nicole, laughing.

But once their initial scepticism wore off, they found themselves in an unusual position.

“This class is not a simulation. This is not a hypothetical. This is real money – It’s a decision scenario that has real consequences for actual people.”

For most students, it’s an unusual situation to be in – and one that shows that the technical skills of budding accountants can have real impacts in bringing about social change.

“Developing decision criteria, collecting information and weighing up different alternatives, then developing performance indicators and ranking your different options – this is home turf for accounting,” Nicole says.

“If you’re thinking about teaching decision bias, it’s also critically important that students have a chance to actually experience the bias themselves. It’s one of the things that everyone reads about and is like ‘Yep, confirmation bias, that’s a bad thing. I’d never do that’.”

But Nicole’s classes show students that, when it comes to giving to charities, they – and their fellow classmates – actually would. UTS business school students are as vulnerable as the next person when it comes to making decisions based on pre-existing prejudices and then bending the available evidence to support that decision.

The Classroom Giving Games was developed using $5000 in funding from a 2019 Social Impact Grant. It adapts a concept first developed by The Life You Can Save – a not-for-profit set up by one of the world’s most well-known and pragmatic moral philosophers, Peter Singer – to the university environment.

Aptly for the accounting discipline, the project’s success is measureable – the Social Impact Grant funding has enabled 302 students to participate in 20 games, donating a total of $3000 to globally recognised, high-impact charities.

A passionate teacher, Nicole believes the activity improves student’s educational outcomes, but the ultimate aim of both her class and The Life You Can Save is to make giving more effective by challenging people to explore their biases and the myths around charity operations that tend to permeate donation decision-making.

For many students, the class has also been impactful on an individual level – Nicole’s team has recorded a significant uptick in people who have participated in the class participating in programs such as UTS Shopfront, which links final year and postgraduate students with not-for-profits to do voluntary work.

Looking ahead, Nicole is keen for others teachers to use the lesson plans and other resources the team has developed in their own classrooms.

“The nice thing is that this topic around decision biases is taught in every business course at every university around the world. We’ve designed the activity to be plug-in-and-play. As long as you have an hour of class time and you want to do something around decision biases, you can do the activity.”

Nicole also believes individuals and corporations that are considering giving to charity should think about the opportunity to amplify their impact that the Giving Games provide.

“Supporting us by donating the cash we use in the classroom, means you get more bang for your buck. Not only can you donate to a fantastic charity but that donation is going to go through the mind of a student – and that could potentially be transformative.”

“We’re not claiming that after one class a student’s life is going to be completely changed but it could be the spark that sets them on a course to pursuing a more altruistic career.”

More information on the Giving Game concept is available on The Life You Can Save website. To find out how you can contribute to the Giving Games at UTS contact Nicole.Sutton@uts.edu.au.

The Problem

Students can struggle to make the connection between the technical accounting skills they learn at university and their personal ability to contribute to positive social change.

The Response

Nicole Sutton and her team adapted the Giving Games – originally developed as philanthropic education tool by not-for-profit The Life You Can Save – to the university classroom. The activity challenges students to think about decision bias and how it plays out in the real world.

What helped accomplish this?

The Life You Can Save developed the concept behind The Giving Games – without their support, the project couldn’t have gone ahead. The $5000 in funding from the Social Impact Grant scheme was also instrumental.

What has changed as a result?

The Giving Games helps students to critically consider their own decision-making processes when making charitable donations. It also helps them to see how the technical skills they learn as part of their accounting course can be used in a not-for-profit environment. So far, 302 students have participated in 20 games, donating a total of $3000 to globally recognised, high-impact charities.

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Impact Area

Expertise

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UTS Faculty or Unit

Organisers

Interviewee

Nicole Sutton, Lecturer, Accounting Discipline Group
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