Donors’ Gift Creates Student Philanthropists


This past summer, retired financial executive and current FIU student at BBC, Herb Gruber, along with his partner Donna Lee Steffens (FIU ’06), offered to award a $25,000 grant to a local non-profit to be chosen by FIU students enrolled in a philanthropy-themed course.  The goal was to acquaint students with the work of non-profits, stimulate interest in careers in the non-profit sector, and introduce students to philanthropy and the responsibility that comes with it.

Gruber, a Miami resident and former CEO of Heller Financial Company/Miami was following an existing model for innovative real-world teaching and learning that he read about, which has been implemented by Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford. (New York Times, May 2014.)

After Gruber brought the idea to FIU development officer Jan Solomon, she put out the call for an appropriate class to implement this approach and the Communication Arts Department answered. Communication Arts had already implemented service learning into public speaking classes through a project with the Miami Coalition for the Homeless and was excited about the new challenge.  The Department proposed making philanthropy the theme in an advanced public speaking class, with students researching and advocating for different charities in their persuasive speeches. Gruber selected the Communication Arts’ course from a host of courses proposed by departments across the curriculum and new faculty member, Elena Nuciforo embraced the challenge for her scheduled Fall class, Advanced Public Speaking (SPC 3602).

The results have been amazing.  Students in the class selected South Florida-based non-profits and conducted extensive research on the charities including fact-checking and conducting financial reviews of the company’s record for use of donations.  They then prepared their persuasive speeches to pitch their chosen charities as worthy candidates for the $25,000 award. After the initial presentations in class, the students voted and narrowed the selections to five non-profits. They then formed five teams to work with the chosen charities to further research and refine the proposals. They were required to provide a comprehensive understanding of the organization, a statement of need, a plan of action, and a budget for the final presentations. In the final week of class, the five teams presented their non-profits’ proposals for the grant in front of the organizations’ representatives, their classmates, and student judges from Lambda Pi Eta, Communication Arts’ chapter of the National Communication Association’s honor society, and the Department’s TEDxFIU Club. Among the worthy organizations presented were the Miami Music Project, the Epilepsy Foundation, and the Florida Association for the Deaf, but in the end the judges voted to fund the IDEAS FOR US project.

The winning presentation was given by students Orietta Caula, Joanna Suarez, Chloe Castro, Alejandro Cerice, and Linda Elvir (L to R in photo above) in support of the non-profit student-founded organization IDEAS for Us, which seeks solutions to promote sustainability and positive environmental change.  The charity’s specific project proposal is to retrofit the Camillus House buildings with solar panels and other energy-saving devices, with the support of AGT, who will donate its solar panel installation services, and Florida Power and Light (FPL), who is consulting on the project and will conduct free, ongoing energy audits.  FPL has determined that the annual cost savings to Camillus House will be approximately $35,000, which means the $25,000 award will generate over $350,000 over the next 10 years.

In addition to providing sustainability for the chosen charity, Gruber and Steffens’ gift has sparked an academic sustainability. Communication Arts Department chair, Joann Brown explained: “Our students were changed by this experience and our faculty have embraced the pedagogical model. We want to keep it going as a powerful means of teaching students advocacy, argument and persuasion. It truly represents the best efforts of individuals and organizations in the community and illustrates how our combined efforts can make things happen in exciting ways.”

Gruber and Steffens agree. They announced they will award another $20,000 this month to fund two new iterations of the course model for the Spring semester: Nuciforo’s Advanced Public Speaking class (SPC 3602) at the Modesto A. Maidique Campus and Daniel Blaeuer’s Business and Professional Communication class (COM 3110) at the Biscayne Bay Campus. A new batch of student philanthropists is in the making.



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