Monthly Archives: September 2014

HE philanthropy – but not as you know it

Universities need to engage seriously with philanthropy as a subject of study, says Charles Keidan.

Which university raises the most money through donations? The answer is Stanford University, which generated over $1 billion in philanthropic contributions in 2012 alone. With hundreds of development staff, strong alumni relations and close links to the tech titans of northern California, it is hardly surprising that it lies at the epicentre of Silicon Valley generosity. Moreover philanthropy—the private contribution of resources for public purposes—is in the DNA of American life.

Its importance in Europe is harder to gauge. Vastly different histories, cultures and traditions across European states shape the context within which philanthropy is practised. This heterogeneity—as well as limitations of research and data—also makes it difficult to make pan-European predictions about philanthropy’s future. But as the capacity, and in some cases willingness, of European states to provide public services diminishes, the balance of power is shifting from state to private interests. This sets the stage for European philanthropy to assume an increasingly important role, one that deserves greater attention and scrutiny.

The retreat of the state has particularly significant implications for European universities, which are seeking private philanthropic resources on an unprecedented scale. In the UK, the Higher Education Funding Council for England recently set an ambitious goal for British universities to raise £2 billion a year by 2022. This, as a recent report recognised, will necessitate a doubling of the fundraising workforce and major investments in recruitment, retention and skills of university-based development professionals, making fundraising a vocation—and a lucrative one for those who master the craft.

But the growing importance of philanthropy to contemporary society means that universities also need to engage seriously with philanthropy as a subject of study as well as a source of funds. Universities are well placed to critically examine and disseminate knowledge about philanthropy as a social phenomenon. Questions about the history, ethics and political philosophy of philanthropy are of particular interest to humanities and social sciences scholars; business and management scholars are more interested in understanding market-based solutions to social problems through models such as impact investment.

In the US, this effort is well underway in institutions from the impressive Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University, where I have spent the past few months as a visiting scholar, to the world’s first School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, which opened in 2013. Growing numbers of American college students are also acquiring practical skills through student philanthropy programmes.

The philanthropy research landscape in Europe is also growing. The European Research Network on Philanthropy, a pan-European collaboration, has played a catalytic role alongside eight dedicated academic centres of philanthropy, most of which have been established since 2000. These include two centres apiece in the UK and the Netherlands, with their thriving civil societies providing fertile settings for studying the subject.

Yet research I have conducted at the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy, to be published in September, suggests that many people still perceive the study of philanthropy to be a lost cause. They argue that it lacks disciplinary roots and a clear and consistent definition, and that students appetite for courses on the subject is unproven. Meanwhile, vocationally oriented skills in grant-making and fundraising are still in their infancy, which is an issue of contention among some grant-making and fundraising practitioners. To overcome some of these challenges, a more holistic approach is needed.

First universities and research councils need to recognise the importance and legitimacy of philanthropy as a subject of study and invest in it. This should include supporting scholarship on philanthropy and associated doctoral programmes. Rene Bekkers, director of the Center for Philanthropic Studies at VU University Amsterdam, estimates that €5m is needed for a three-year comparative survey project on philanthropy in the EU.

Second private foundations need to become more aware of the importance and value of research into their field. Although some are willing to invest in academic research in general, few have contributed to producing academic knowledge on philanthropy itself. There are good reasons for this. Many philanthropists are action focused and understandably wary of investing in research that could be perceived as navel-gazing when pressing social problems exist. Others are concerned that research of this kind could raise awkward questions and increase scrutiny about their practices, such as the ratio of annual spending to the size of endowment. 

But none of these are reasons for inaction. At a time when public finances are stretched and greater reliance and expectations are placed on philanthropy, it is both timely and necessary to understand more about this powerful but mercurial phenomenon.

Charles Keidan is a philanthropy practice research fellow at the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy at City University London. This article originally appeared in Research Fortnight on 7th Sept 2014