OMAHA, Neb. -- A free online course that starts Monday will offer students the chance to learn about giving from Warren Buffett and help decide how to spend more than $100,000 of his sister's money.
More than 4,000 people have already signed up for the course that will also feature philanthropic advice from baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr. and the founders of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. Boston Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner and journalist Soledad O'Brien are other featured guests. The amount being given away could grow if more students sign up.
Buffett and his older sister, Doris Buffett, will be featured in the first class to talk about their motivation for philanthropy. Warren Buffett is gradually giving away all of his $58 billion Berkshire Hathaway stock while Doris Buffett has already given more than $150 million away en route to her goal of redistributing all her wealth before she dies.
"The trick is not to have her give it away faster than I make it," Warren Buffett joked because his family's wealth is tied to the Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate he runs.
Each one of the big-name givers will be featured in videos at the end of each of the six class sessions discussing an aspect of philanthropy.
But everyone involved with the course agrees that the fact students get a chance to give away real money may be more important than the famous speakers because it makes the lessons more powerful.
"It's an experience that gives profound insight into deciding how we meet the needs of our society," said Rebecca Riccio, the Northeastern University professor who will teach the course.
The Giving With Purpose online course is modeled after a class that has been taught at more than 30 universities that allows students to give away $10,000 after evaluating several nonprofits and learning about effective giving. This online offering allowed Doris Buffett's Sunshine Lady foundation to expand the classes without adding staff to manage the program.
"Giving With Purpose allows us to extend the classroom walls to include any individual passionate about philanthropy," Doris Buffett said in a statement. "There are thousands of people with the energy and ideas to make a difference."
Riccio said the course will focus on individual decision-making in giving and will teach strategies students can use to make sure their donations are effective.
"I'm trying to teach people about giving with their heart and their head," Riccio said.
Charitable gifts should be relevant to whatever people are passionate about, Riccio said. But this class will teach people how to judge what kind of impact a nonprofit makes and how well-run the charity is based on how much it spends on administration.
Allyson Goldhagen said she hopes many more people sign up for the class because she found the university version of the course so valuable, and she's looking forward to helping teach the online course.
Taking Riccio's class at Northeastern shaped the way Goldhagen thinks about nonprofits and helped her land her current job at the Associated Grant Makers, where she helps charities in the Boston area become more efficient.
Goldhagen said the course can help people realize how important their gifts are to nonprofits, even if they are modest. That's why she talked both of her parents into taking the course.
"I really hope that they start to think differently about the world and their impact on it," Goldhagen said.
Doris Buffett's grandson, Alex Buffett Rozek, organized the online course, and he said he hopes this will be the first of many times it is offered.
In addition to what students learn in the course about effective giving, the nonprofits involved are also learning because usually the classes focus on smaller local charities. As students review organizations that might receive grant money, the charities learn about the process of winning grants.
"These grants are huge to the organizations that receive them," Rozek said. "And because they went through the process, they do understand how to fill out a grant application and get funding."