Inspired by their experiences in business, education and philanthropy, Bruce and Karen Levenson hoped to find a university interested in curriculum and programming on philanthropy and nonprofits that would enable college students to make a significant social impact today and for the rest of their lives.
Through a lifetime of philanthropic efforts, the Levensons interacted with many good-intentioned nonprofit leaders who did not have the business and leadership skills required to enable their organizations to reach their potential. As a successful entrepreneur and business leader, Bruce Levenson knew how important it was to change that dynamic in the nonprofit and social sector. As a former Maryland public school teacher, Karen Levenson ’76 also “believed deeply in the power of teaching through meaningful hands-on experiences.” For several years, Levenson led a philanthropy education program for teenagers that included visiting multiple nonprofits and collectively deciding on an actual grant to a nonprofit. The high level of excitement and motivation among those high schoolers convinced the Levenson’s that experimenting with a similar approach among college students would be worthwhile.
In 2008, the couple approached the University of Maryland, which enthusiastically took up the opportunity to design a program that incorporated their life lessons. The School of Public Policy launched the first undergraduate and graduate courses in philanthropy and nonprofit leadership in 2010. Recruited to Maryland to lead the new philanthropic and nonprofit program, Bob Grimm’s first undergraduate students researched and studied the history and practice of philanthropy and then set up and operated their own philanthropic class fund – ultimately awarding a $10,000 grant, funded by the Levensons, to a local nonprofit organization. The Washington Post profiled the first undergrad course in which sophomore Eran Friedman observed:
This course was the first time we were able to get our hands dirty in something,’…It challenged them to think more, he said, because the money was real, the potential impact was real, and they had to figure out what to do. Donating $10,000, it turned out, was a lot harder than it sounded.
The popularity of the undergraduate philanthropy and graduate nonprofit leadership courses at the School of Public Policy grew exponentially. Students thirsted for hands-on opportunities and experiences that tapped their personal passion and immersed them in the world of philanthropy, nonprofit leadership and social innovation.
The initial efforts spread across the campus when Levenson called in August 2011 to see if Maryland would be interested in hosting a campus event with the actor Kevin Bacon who was working with Levenson’s nephew at the time. Grimm and his team subsequently developed the idea of combining the actor’s campus visit with a prize competition coined the Do Good Challenge. By February 2012, Kevin Bacon donned a Fear the Turtle t-shirt and produced a YouTube video challenging all Maryland students to devote time advocating, fundraising, volunteering, supporting, and/or developing solutions for the social issues they care about during the spring semester. While encouraging Terps to “do good, feel good,” Bacon promised to lead a celebrity panel of judges who would come to campus and pick the winner of the competition. More than 100 student teams competed and the raucous finals event could be described as a cross between Shark Tank and American Idol. With a packed audience of over 700 who cheered for their favorite teams and multiple camera crews, six student finalists pitched their impact and vied for the $5,000 first-place prize. Ultimately, a new student group founded to recover leftover food from campus dining halls won the first Do Good Challenge.This group recovered 6,000 meals from the campus dining halls, transporting those meals to local shelters and food banks, and recruited two other campuses to adopt their model.
Maryland helped turn this student group into an award-winning nonprofit, known today as the Food Recovery Network (FRN), through a variety of supports inside and outside the classroom. The students enrolled in nonprofit leadership courses and obtained free office space. Grimm served as the founding Chair of FRN’s Board of Directors (2012 to 2016). Robert Sheehan, the academic director of the executive MBA program at the Smith School of Business and the professor of a popular graduate course on nonprofit strategy, devoted considerable time supporting the development of FRN’s business plan. Even the law firm of Beveridge & Diamond, where Grimm’s wife Laura Grimm worked, joined the cause as FRN’s pro bono counsel. By 2018, the Food Recovery Network operated on 230 college campuses, recovered more than 2.7 million pounds of food, and spurred pioneering government-sponsored food recover programs nationwide.
President Wallace Loh arrived at Maryland in the fall of 2010 and immediately embraced the budding Do Good effort. He has opened every Do Good Challenge Finals since 2012, frequently shares the stories of FRN and other Do Good groups, and regularly meets with Do Good students. President Loh worked to grow the effort and through his leadership coupled with a significant gift from the Levenson Family and state funding, the University secured $75 million to launch the Do Good Institute, transforming the University of Maryland into the nation’s first Do Good campus in the fall of 2016. This new collaboration expanded programming and opportunities to engage all Terps in Do Good activities, courses, and programs, during their time at Maryland. Loh stated, “We believe that our ‘Do Good campus’ will lead to a ‘Do Good world,’ where we will have a positive impact on all of the world’s citizens.” His sentiments were echoed when United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon came to campus in October 2016 and paid tribute to the Do Good Institute, calling on all young people to be “The Do Good Generation.”
Today, thousands of students enroll in Do Good courses each year and compete in the annual Do Good Challenge. Those experiences spark students who help rescue imprisoned journalists from abroad; raise awareness and implement change surrounding mental health accessibility on campus; build schools for students in Honduras; recycle and supply medications to more than 17,000 people from low-income backgrounds in South America; raise more than $4.2 million for patients at Children’s National Hospital, and advance the development of a device to save the lives of older adults. “In a very short time, the Do Good Institute has transformed the University of Maryland with opportunities that empower the next generation of nonprofit leaders and with campus-wide experiences aimed at all University of Maryland students with the goal being to ensure that when they graduate they will do so informed and motivated to give back to the communities they choose to make home,” said Levenson.
Numerous Do Good alums quickly earned national and international recognition for their impact. Two recent alumni have been named to Forbes list of Top 30 Social Entrepreneurs Under 30; another alum was named a 2017 Ernst & Young Social Entrepreneur of the Year in Argentina, and yet another alum named a 2018 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Finalist. “We are reinventing the college experience by producing a new Do Good Generation that will produce transformational results in Maryland and around the world,” explains Grimm, the founding director of the Do Good Institute and the Levenson Family Chair in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership.
The Do Good campus model earned swift international and national recognition including the 2017 Voinovich Public Innovation Prize sponsored by an international association of nearly 300 universities with schools and programs in public policy and public affairs (NASPPA). The University of Maryland also won the 2017 Place Award from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. The award recognized Maryland’s excellence in community, social and cultural development work. And thanks to a variety of Do Good campus initiatives, the University of Maryland recently rose to being ranked as one of the top ten innovation and entrepreneurship undergraduate programs in the country by the Princeton Review.
The Do Good Institute continues to grow each year with the support of the School of Public Policy and the University. Maryland students can take undergraduate and graduate nonprofit leadership courses across the university’s colleges and schools; add a minor in nonprofit leadership and social innovation; participate in multiple prize competitions; earn fellowships designed for emerging nonprofit leaders; and grow promising start-ups at the Do Good Accelerator with grants, mentoring and coaching to scale-up students’ ideas.
“Our family is proud to have been there from the start, supporting the Do Good Institute and this ambitious endeavor to transform the University of Maryland into the world’s first Do Good campus," says Karen Levenson. "The innovative approach Maryland is taking will provide us with a new generation of nonprofit leaders and social innovators much better equipped to take on the challenges of our times.”