Why philanthropy merits scholarly study

As giving grows in importance, universities need to engage seriously with the topic, says Charles Keidan

October 23, 2014

Source: Getty

There is the issue of teaching the coming generations of philanthropists, foundation professionals and fundraisers about how to distribute or raise funds

Ask a university head about philanthropy and, most likely, they will emphasise its centrality to their institution and boast of new donors, buildings and partnerships. Ask that same head about academic scholarship on, and teaching about, philanthropy and you may be faced with a blank look.

The rise of philanthropy in higher education, mirroring its increased prominence in society more generally, presents a paradox. While universities arm themselves with a “philanthropy workforce” and sophisticated donor-profiling software, another question has received far less attention: where is the academic scholarship and teaching about philanthropy? And, in an ideal world, how should that be approached?

Even as research funding and posts have contracted in recent years, higher education “development” has experienced unprecedented growth. Cadres of fundraising directors, alumni officers and “advancement” professionals are tasked with forging a “culture of philanthropy” to help replace the funding to UK higher education that used to be provided by the state. Between 2006-07 and 2011-12, giving to universities increased by 35 per cent, from £513 million to £693 million. By 2022, it is estimated that annual philanthropic income to UK higher education could rise to £2 billion a year, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s Review of Philanthropy in UK Higher Education: 2012 Status Report and Challenges for the Next Decade. Shirley Pearce, former vice-chancellor of Loughborough University and chair of the Hefce review body, has led the charge: “How many vice-chancellors…have grasped the potential of philanthropy as a powerful weapon in the battle to advance their university?” she asked in Times Higher Education (“Get Paid to Ask for Money”, Opinion, 4 October 2012).

But the case for recruiting philanthropy scholars is just as strong. When government took an over-arching role in the provision of public goods, philanthropy and charitable giving could be dismissed as amateur pursuits; after all, giving is marginal, voluntary and discretionary while state spending is substantial, involuntary and, at least in theory, universal. Thus, the rationale for studying government and politics was greater than the logic of studying philanthropy and charity. But what if the balance is tilting? In an era of public austerity and private abundance, philanthropy has not only acted alongside government but has been encouraged by the state to assume a greater role through public policies such as tax breaks, match-funding schemes and giving campaigns. The growing role of philanthropy is especially evident in higher education, making the case for systematic investment in university-based scholarship and teaching about philanthropy even more compelling.

Yet research I have conducted with colleagues on the countries, institutions, disciplines and levels at which philanthropy is taught across European universities shows that university-based centres, courses and training are not keeping pace with the growth in the scale and prominence of philanthropy in recent years. Across the continent, there are only 20 individual courses on philanthropy or with philanthropy as a core component. Of the 20 countries surveyed, 11 – mostly Western European nations such as the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and France – offer some provision, but philanthropy education is barely on the radar in northern Europe or (with the exception of Lithuania) the former Soviet Union.

Such variations are hardly surprising given the different alignments of state, market and civil society across Europe. In some countries with strong civil societies, such as Sweden, philanthropy is often viewed as an obscure social institution negatively associated with plutocracy and paternalism. Philanthropy’s common meaning and usage also varies from one country to another, which can affect the way it is “framed” as a subject of study. In the UK, for example, a strong voluntary tradition has meant that the space between state and market has traditionally been understood in the context of voluntary sector studies, which includes philanthropy within its rubric. And, in the US, non-profit management education has been a dominant frame.

There are signs, however, that philanthropy and its handmaiden, charitable foundations – structured vehicles for the distribution of private funds for public purposes – are finally achieving global academic visibility. The world’s first School of Philanthropy opened at Indiana University in the US in 2013, and Europe is now home to eight dedicated academic centres of philanthropy and two chairs, the majority of which were created after 2000. The European Research Network on Philanthropy, which facilitates collaboration on “giving” research across the continent, is flourishing. The proposed creation of a school of philanthropy in London and courses, centres and training elsewhere in the country will add to this momentum.

Nonetheless, major challenges remain. First, there is no consensus among scholars about what should be studied or taught. As an interdisciplinary phenomenon, philanthropy inevitably lends itself to – but also requires – expertise from a range of disciplines. On the positive side, this creates a potentially rich and vast research agenda. For example, political philosophy can and does contribute to our understanding of the relationship and tensions between philanthropy and justice. Can philanthropy create more just societies or does it actually negate that pursuit? Public policy and legal scholarship can build on this work to inform debates about the regulation and tax treatment of charitable giving, and the appropriate boundaries of charitable activity. Historians and anthropologists can contribute to our understanding of these questions across time and place, and sociologists can help to explain the dynamics and operations of the social and political power inherent in philanthropy.

Other disciplines also provide important empirical insights. Behavioural economics, for example, is exploring the response of donors to economic changes and to incentives, the latter being a topic of particular interest to those based in development offices. Business and management disciplines provide insights into social finance and other market-based solutions to social problems, as well as specific expertise on organisations, leadership and strategy. Interestingly, our research shows that philanthropy in Europe is most frequently taught in business fields. Nine of the continent’s 20 philanthropy courses are located there, with a further three in economics.

Woman counting notes of currency

While it brings benefits, this diffusion also creates complexity. How will the field develop from such a fragmented base? Is there a sufficient critical mass of scholarship, peer-reviewed journals and student demand? How will the seemingly endless variety of research questions, approaches and methods coalesce?

These issues appear equally unresolved in the US, where I spent time as a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, after nearly a decade as director of the London-based Pears Foundation. In Stanford’s case, expertise resides in disciplines including political science, law, sociology and business. At Indiana University, expertise is also drawn from different disciplinary settings, but comes together within a School of Philanthropy that grants undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in philanthropic studies. Perhaps the most remarkable element of US philanthropy education is the surge of philanthropically backed “student philanthropy” courses, in which students make real grants of up to $100,000 to local charitable causes. As someone who taught such a class at Stanford, I can attest to their impact on learning about philanthropy and developing grant-making skills. This model is virtually unheard of in Europe and is not practised at universities here.

Whatever model of philanthropy education universities adopt, other hazards lie ahead. For example, our research indicates that university leaderships are lukewarm to the development of a knowledge base about philanthropy. It remains far more intuitive for them to see philanthropy in instrumental terms, as a source of funds. As one head put it: “It is an interesting idea and proposition but not something I had previously thought about. I need to make a leap to this.”

Another difficulty is the unresolved tension between two distinct thrusts of philanthropy education. Alongside the urge to reflect on the related normative and abstract questions, there is the issue of teaching the coming generations of philanthropists, foundation professionals and fundraisers about how to distribute or raise funds. The lack of skills-based techniques and training is a cause of frustration among some donors and practitioners. The growing number of executive education courses on philanthropy will address some of this pent-up demand, as well as providing a tidy revenue stream for universities, but the tension between scholarship and skills is likely to remain.

Yet the research also uncovered signs of a renewed openness to philanthropy education among research-focused foundations, which invest millions in higher education each year. As one put it: “Philanthropy is a legitimate and important subject of study and needs to be underpinned by academic questions, research methods and theoretical models.” This is significant, not least because universities are likely to sit up and take notice if foundations show an interest in funding this area.

In addition, the appetite for philanthropic income is naturally piquing an interest in philanthropy among some university leaders. Several universities are rediscovering the origins of philanthropy at their institutions; Princeton University historian David Cannadine’s keynote lecture at the University of Liverpool last year, for instance, focused on the role of private giving in the establishment of the university. Meanwhile, one development officer told me that the philanthropy centre at her university “helps to open doors” to philanthropists, while, in the US, some development departments work with behavioural economists at their own institutions to refine their techniques and tools to maximise donations.

Such instrumentalisation of philanthropy education presents several dangers, however. First, it could narrow the scope of scholarly enquiry, gearing it towards research on stimulating giving or towards master’s-type courses with a more vocational and craft-based bent. Our research suggests that the latter might be happening in Europe, where the majority of current courses on philanthropy (13 out of 20) take place at postgraduate level.

Second, the funding of university-based philanthropy education by philanthropists and foundations is a thorny issue, with potential conflicts of interests on both sides. Philanthropic backing may be motivated by a desire to promote philanthropy as well as study it. This could push funding towards disciplinary settings broadly sympathetic to philanthropy (such as business and management) and away from those asking more critical questions (such as ethics or political theory). As one self-deprecating foundation leader put it: “You wouldn’t go to a tobacco company for funding of cancer research.”

Meanwhile, universities could find themselves conflicted between, on the one hand, welcoming philanthropists and seeking philanthropic funds for a range of causes and, on the other, supporting rigorous academic scholarship about philanthropy. They might become sensitive to scholarship that asks critical questions – especially of the particular philanthropists who support them. In the US, where philanthropic income represents an even bigger share of university budgets, it is not unknown for scholars whose research raises awkward questions about philanthropy to be cautioned against biting the hand that feeds them. One colleague reported receiving just such a “friendly” caution from his development office. As philanthropic funding of philanthropy education grows, so does the risk of self-censorship.

Ideally, funding for philanthropy studies would come largely from statutory research councils, channelled into existing disciplinary settings. Philanthropic support should be cautiously welcomed, but background correspondence and funding agreements between donors, university leaderships and academics should be made public to reduce real or perceived conflicts of interest.

Philanthropy’s imprint on the fabric of university life is just emerging. As its profile rises, we should expect some celebration of its contribution to higher education – but we are also entitled to demand more rigorous and robust scholarship about its role in society.

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Research Assistant LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS & POLITICAL SCIENCE LSE
Lecturer in University Study Skills UNIVERSITY OF HAFR AL BATIN
Lecturer in English Language UNIVERSITY OF HAFR AL BATIN

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

Application for graduate job
Universities producing the most employable graduates have been ranked by companies around the world in the Global University Employability Ranking 2016
Construction workers erecting barriers

Directly linking non-EU recruitment to award levels in teaching assessment has also been under consideration, sources suggest