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Employee Spotlight

Forging Bonds Between Generosity and Religion

A chain of events stretching through five universities and a faith conversion led Dan Heist to his research linking religion and philanthropic behavior. Most of Heist's research explores how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints facilitates volunteer behavior—from accepting church callings to volunteering to pray.

Dan Heist, assistant professor with the MPA program at the Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics at the BYU Marriott School of Business.
Photo courtesy of BYU Photo.

“Latter-day Saints are extremely philanthropic,” states Heist, the newest faculty member in the MPA program at the Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics at the BYU Marriott School of Business. “Studies show we spend more time volunteering in a single month than the average person does.” Heist saw this trend firsthand after he joined the Church while studying at Pennsylvania State University. During his studies, he became curious about Latter-day Saints’ tendencies toward prosocial practices.

Although Heist majored in speech communication at Penn State, where he graduated in 2003, he pivoted his academic emphasis and received his master’s degree in philanthropic studies at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in 2010. After graduating from Indiana University, Heist completed his PhD in Social Welfare from the University of Pennsylvania in 2019. Three years later, he moved to Utah to teach at the Romney Institute.

At BYU, Heist examines how nonprofit organizations, such as the restored Church of Jesus Christ, help society. “For me, the work I do in understanding nonprofits is directly related to the establishment of Zion,” Heist says. Although he previously taught at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Heist expresses that working at BYU is different because of the religious background and motivation of the students.

The nonprofit management and social impact classes that Heist teaches at BYU Marriott highlight that difference. The courses revolve around providing projects for students to work on that promote the prosocial behavior Heist believes is necessary to create Zion. “I love my students,” he says. “My goal at BYU is to help each student achieve their fullest divine potential. God is an extremely generous being, and that generosity is part of our divine makeup.”

Currently, Heist and his students work with Project Read, a program educating illiterate adults, and the Black 14 Philanthropy, which works to educate, feed, and serve underserved communities.

Heist’s MPA students will also learn how to create a nonprofit organization from the ground up. He and his wife are in the process of creating a program in Philadelphia to help inner-city children find opportunities for education outside the public school system. “In our inner-city congregation in Philadelphia, my wife and I saw that the youth in public school systems were in a dead-end in terms of education. We decided to create an organization that would help them find better education earlier through Catholic schools and other private schools,” says Heist.

Over the next few semesters, students in Heist’s classes will learn the ins-and-outs of creating a grassroots organization. “Working in the nonprofit sector can be messy,” Heist says. “Our community-based projects help students experience some of the messiness of the work and learn how to organize and apply the knowledge they gain in class to a real-world situation.”

For students who want to learn more about charitable giving, Heist suggests finding an organization that is personally meaningful. “Get involved, try for a leadership position,” he urges. In a word, he says, “Volunteer.”


Writer: Liesel Allen