By Pat Danahey Janin
“Aha” moments are essential in learning. They represent a moment when sudden understanding occurs and important connections become clear.
As an instructor I strive to foster those “aha” moments in learners who seek to develop their skills and analytical abilities. Visual supports, case studies, storytelling and thoughtful dialogue contribute to “aha” learning moments.
My recent experience with the case study method for teaching confirms that case studies are an effective learning tool to help students and professionals contextualize philanthropic activity. They make visible important connections to better understand the contributions of voluntary action for the public good.
My research and teaching focus on philanthropy and ocean issues. Teaching about philanthropy and the ocean is hard because ocean and policy students don’t know philanthropy and philanthropy students often don’t understand ocean policy.
This year, I created a teaching case study and had my own “aha” moment. The teaching case study was an effective way to help learners assess an unfamiliar landscape in which nonprofit organizations and informal philanthropic activity were at work around an ocean issue.
The ocean is a “big deal” – it covers 71 percent of the planet and produces more than half the oxygen that we breathe due to marine photo synthesizers. We all benefit from the ocean. It also directly affects the livelihoods of nearly 100 million Americans living in coastal communities in the U.S.
Taken to the global level, more than 600 million people live in coastal areas that are less than 10 meters (32 feet) above sea level. The more we understand about the ocean, the better we can focus our own efforts to care for it.
Ocean philanthropy, which I define as voluntary actions for the ocean, comes in many forms and at all levels. Across the globe, there are volunteers, organizations, and donations directed at addressing ocean issues, ocean health, and ocean life. Ocean philanthropy may be a local grassroots organization addressing turtle conservation or a large environmental NGO campaigning on illegal and unregulated fishing.
It includes eco-activists spurring global mobilization around plastics like the young Indonesian Wijsen sisters who created Bye Bye Plastic Bags on the island of Bali, and the Ocean Elders like Sylvia Earle and Jean-Michel Cousteau advocating for more marine protected areas.
Philanthropic foundations are active nationally and internationally making grants for science and conservation, supporting ocean governance dialogues, ocean literacy efforts, and the possibilities of a large-scale circular economy. Ocean philanthropy occurs in a complex global context and intersects with many other societal issues such as security, health, and employment. It is hard to understand when we only look at one actor or one issue.
This year, in my Philanthropy and Oceans course at the French Political Science School SciencesPo Paris, I presented a teaching case study to my international students based on a 2016 ocean event to examine philanthropic activity. The event occurred when industrial pollution released in the ocean created the massive death of marine life and ruined the livelihood and food resource of 200,000 people in central Vietnam.
Thanks to the case study, the students were able to weigh the pros and cons of a tough nonprofit leadership decision, discuss the importance of the specific country context, examine cultural and historical elements of generosity, and assess the role and limitations of nonprofit organizations. The student response confirmed my belief that philanthropic studies and nonprofit professional development opportunities would benefit greatly from more case studies for learning.
The case study method for teaching
Teaching with case studies responds to the need for active learning approaches where learners are engaged in discussion and debate and test their ideas. Referred to as problem-based learning in certain contexts, the case study learning method uses questions to stimulate critical thinking and draw out ideas and underlying assumptions.
I chose to use the teaching case study to generate discussion, challenge students’ initial assessments of the situation, and even explore controversial positions. Philanthropic activity happens in a specific political, economic, social, and legal context. It “looks” and “feels” different depending on where it takes place.
My goal was to help these learners—potentially future public policy actors—make connections across seemingly different fields of study, to give them a better understanding of the concepts we had learned in class, to embrace different perspectives, and finally to learn from each other. I also wanted them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and reason through a key decision.
The challenge with philanthropic activity is first how it is defined and second its visibility. Philanthropy is a contested concept and is not present in all societies like it is in the United States. Formal philanthropic activity tells part of the story. Informal generosity and organization often reveal a dense network of individuals voluntarily working towards the common good.
The teaching case study allowed these students who had a distant understanding of Vietnam to identify the importance of the specific country context, appreciate cultural and historical elements of generosity, and better understand the role and limitations of both formal and informal philanthropic activity.
Student takeaways illustrated the “aha” moments I had hoped to create: One student was able to see the interconnectedness of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors and found that “no philanthropic organization exists within a vacuum.” Another student understood the ethical struggles facing philanthropic actors and stated that “sometimes philanthropic behavior and doing the ‘right’ thing is not always clear cut and simple.” One student pointed to the innovative nature of the nonprofit sector concluding that “having an impact cannot always be done in traditional ways and most often creativity is your best ally.”
Finally, the importance of informal philanthropic activity became apparent to one student who commented that “most of the philanthropic sector is constituted by things you cannot measure and people you do not immediately see.”
The student responses confirmed my belief that philanthropic studies and professional development opportunities would benefit greatly from more case studies for learning. In my view, contextualizing philanthropic activity helped students move away from a critical normative view of what people and organizations “should” do to critically assessing what else could be possible. Students went from the ideal response to the messy, complex but productive responses of philanthropic actors, organizations, and actions.
Fostering those “aha” moments through teaching case studies based on real events and decisions is an interesting and interactive way for all of use to learn about our own experience of the nonprofit sector and its challenges. Case studies are learning laboratories that reveal the numerous interconnected issues our societies are facing.
This is an open call to practitioners in the marine environmental sector to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have an interesting situation or challenge that will help nonprofit students and professionals learn.
My experience confirms my own interest in writing and teaching with case studies to better understand the connection between key societal needs and philanthropic activity.
Pat Danahey Janin is a Ph.D. candidate at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, adjunct instructor at SciencesPo Paris, and a consultant in pedagogical design and philanthropic activity around the ocean.