Vaishali Mamgain engages with students in her Economics and Happiness class at USM. Mamgain is associate professor of economics
and director of the Center for Compassion. Photo: Thalassa Raasch/MaineCF

A MaineCF donor’s unique gift helps establish a Center for Compassion at USM.

When Vaishali Mamgain arrived in Portland in 2002 she was stunned to see an African woman in a headscarf walking down Congress Street: the scene didn’t fit her idea of Maine as a predominantly white state.

Mamgain had come to Portland from her home in India via the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she earned her PhD in economics. Intrigued by her new knowledge of Maine, Mamgain researched how refugees fare in Maine’s labor force and wrote an article for the Journal of Refugee Studies.

The journal’s editor complimented Mamgain on her research and data, but asked her a pointed question: Had she actually interviewed any refugees? As an economist, Mamgain had focused on numbers, not people. Nothing in her training, in graduate school, or her professional life, prepared her to “be present” as refugees told her their stories.

The realization inspired Mamgain to incorporate “contemplative practice” into economics classes she teaches at the University of Southern Maine. Today her focus on helping students connect with others has grown into a planned Center for Compassion at USM supported by funding from an anonymous Maine Community Foundation donor.

The donor learned about teaching compassion after she heard Dr. James Doty share research on how practicing compassion can benefit health and help unlock innovation and creativity. Doty is a Stanford University School of Medicine professor and founder-director of the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

The donor’s support shows how creativity can go hand in hand with giving. She worked with her attorney to determine which assets made the most sense to contribute, and chose lakefront land she owned with her sister. She gifted her portion of the land to MaineCF, which sold the property and added the net proceeds to her donor-advised fund at the community foundation. As advisor to the fund, she can recommend grant funding to help launch the center and support other charitable organizations throughout her life.

“This is a great example of how donors can give unique assets such as property, real estate or business interests to the foundation, with the net proceeds funding their charitable giving for many years to come through a donor-advised fund,” says Laura Young, vice president of philanthropy at MaineCF.

The donor says she turned to the Maine Community Foundation because of its statewide reach and ability to help bring about change. She cited the example of former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who started his scholarship program through the community foundation.

“We need compassion more than ever today,” she says, “and we need to recognize each other’s humanity.”

Part of the center’s mission will be to reverse economic, social, and racial injustice. USM students will mentor local high school students who participate in projects of PeaceJam Maine, the local chapter of a nationwide program supported by 14 Nobel Peace Prize laureates that trains youth to be leaders and bring about positive change.

Mamgain’s work at USM has continued to grow with an “Economics and Happiness” course, a weekly reading and practice group on compassion, and planned trainings based on protocols developed at Stanford and Emory universities. She envisions compassion cultivation embedded in courses across disciplines and throughout the University of Maine System.

Mamgain says she’s been overwhelmed by interest in the topic from both faculty and students: “The students love it. They want to be able to connect with others in their research.” And when the center opens, she says, it will be a place where “we can have conversations, deepen our connections to each other, and speak to our own hearts.”

You, too, can be creative in converting non-cash personal assets into charitable resources. MaineCF accepts the following:

  • Appreciated stock
  • Business interests
  • Life insurance
  • Private foundation funds
  • Real estate
  • Retirement funds
  • Tangible property