These students have $50,000 to help the environment. How can they do the most good?

Hugh Shirley, a fourth-year student at Northeastern, is planning to participate in the social impact-athon. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Imagine you have $50,000 to donate to nonprofit organizations that would help them carry out their missions. How would you split it up? How would you ensure you’re doing the most good with the money you have?

For Northeastern students participating in an upcoming conference called the Social Impact-athon, this isn’t a hypothetical situation. Over the course of the weekend-long event, which runs from Friday, Jan. 18 through Sunday, Jan. 20, teams of students will hear proposals from a dozen Boston-based nonprofit organizations that are doing work related to the environment. Then, at the end of the weekend, the teams will submit plans for awarding a total of $50,000 to at least three of those organizations. A panel of judges will rate the students’ plans, and select one to make a reality. And the organizations included in that plan will get real money.

“We’re giving students the responsibility for awarding real-dollar grants,” said conference organizer Rebecca Riccio, who directs the Social Impact Lab at Northeastern. “We’re challenging them to consider the responsibility of making choices that have real-world impact.”

The money was donated by the Germeshausen Foundation, which provides funding for programs that support the arts, the environment, and other causes. In addition to the $50,000 donated by the Germeshausen Foundation, each student who participates in the conference will be given $1,000 to award to any of the organizations at the event.

“This is going to be a great experience,” said Hugh Shirley, a fourth-year biochemistry student at Northeastern who is planning to participate in the conference. “To work on a project that has real purpose and real oomph, that transforms it from a hypothetical situation to a real-world opportunity.”

I’m really excited to see these organizations in the Boston area that are working toward environmental justice because this is my own backyard. Being able to award real money, I think that’s really exciting.

Sophie Gong, Northeastern student

All of the organizations participating in the event work with communities that have been disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change. They include Alternatives for Community and Environment, Clean Water Action, and Green Roots, Inc.

Riccio said that she and other organizers invited nonprofit organizations that were “explicitly committed to environmental justice and community engagement.”  

Public health issues exacerbated by a changing climate, such as asthma caused by worsening air quality, disproportionately affect “communities of color in rural ‘poverty pockets’” and “economically impoverished Native American reservations,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Riccio said that students who participate in the conference will learn how climate change affects specific communities in Boston and beyond in order to determine how best to distribute the $50,000 at stake.

“I’m really excited to see these organizations in the Boston area that are working toward environmental justice because this is my own backyard,” said Sophie Gong, a senior at Northeastern studying environmental studies and sociology. “Being able to award real money, I think that’s really exciting.”

Students interested in participating can apply online through Friday, Jan. 11.

For media inquiries, please contact