You have $500 to donate to an organization. Which one do you choose?

This is one of the questions Jessica Flanigan is posing to students in her Critical Thinking and Methods of Inquiry classes this semester. But the question isn’t merely hypothetical. She is putting a practical spin on it by picking four organizations and asking students to collectively choose one. And the money? It’s real.

Welcome to the Jepson Philanthropy Institute, an idea that is giving students an opportunity to act as consultants, conduct research and focus on effective altruism.

“Our goal is to assess the ethics and effectiveness of institutions that aim to promote altruistic causes, with a particular focus on leadership and management,” says Flanigan. “Students are also learning about different ways of reasoning, cognitive biases and failures of individual and collective reasoning, and the unique challenges of reasoning as a leader or follower.”

The idea is based on a giving game bioethicist Peter Singer does with students in his Practical Ethics course at Princeton University. Flanigan, one of Singer’s former students, heard about it and wanted to try it with students at Richmond.

“I want students to think about why we give and where we give,” she says. “What does it mean for a cause to be truly worthwhile? Because you’re going to devote your life to what you see as truly worthwhile.”

The idea is also a practical way to get students to construct arguments and apply ethical reasoning.

Flanigan is teaching two sections of the course this semester. Each class has $500 to complete the task thanks to a Jepson Promise Grant. The organizations the students are studying and that are potential recipients are Future of Humanity Institute, Millennium Villages Project, GiveDirectly and the University of Richmond.

They are also evaluating other organizations. Evaluations of 39 organizations will be posted on the Jepson Philanthropy Institute website. They are a mix of local, national, international and research-based.

“Our hope is that the website will be helpful for donors who are investigating potential charities and that it will grow over time,” says Flanigan. She is planning to teach the course again in 2017.

“By looking at all these different charities or organizations, we are learning about the logic behind them and analyzing them in a philosophical way that makes us question our intuition and become more critical of the institutions around us,” says Carney Judge, ’17. “I think we are really learning to analyze the effectiveness of an organization on our own and not rely on outside sources as much as we usually do.”