Philanthropy emerging as focus of academic study

Academic scholarship and teaching on philanthropy are thin but emerging, with much of it geared to the business of raising money and giving it away, and with the potential to cause conflicts between its funders and those who study them, a British philanthropy scholar and practitioner says.

In Europe, university-based centers’ courses and training “are not keeping pace with the growth in the scale and prominence of philanthropy in recent years,” Charles Keidan, a philanthropy practice research fellow at the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy at Cass Business School at City University in London, writes in an article in Times Higher Education.

Growth outpaces scholarship

Between 2006-08 and 2011-12, giving to universities in Britain grew to 693 million British pounds, or $1.2 billion, from 513 million British pounds, or $822 million, and is expected to grow to 2 billion British pounds, or $3.21 billion, by 2022, Keidan writes in “Why philanthropy merits scholarly study.”

Yet across European universities, the article says, there are only 20 individual courses on philanthropy or with philanthropy as a core component.

Gain in visibility

It also see signs that philanthropy and charitable foundations, which it characterizes as philanthropy’s “handmaiden,” are “finally achieving global academic visibility.”

It cites the world’s first school of philanthropy, which Indiana University opened in 2013, and the fact that Europe is now home to eight dedicated academic centers of philanthropy and two chairs, most of which were created after 2000.

Still, consensus among scholars is lacking “about what should be studied or taught,” the article says.

“As an interdisciplinary phenomenon, philanthropy inevitably lends itself to — but also requires — expertise from a range of disciplines,” it says.

That creates a “potentially rich and vast research agenda,” and multiple disciplines have the potential to provide “important empirical insights,” it says.

Challenges

But that “diffusion” among multiple disciplines “also creates complexity.”

Those complex issues, which seem “equally unresolved in the U.S.,” the article says, include questions about how the field will develop from a fragmented base; whether there is sufficient “critical mass” of scholarship, peer-reviewed journals and student demand; and how the “seemingly endless variety of research questions, approaches and methods will “coalesce.”

The article also says its research indicates “university leaderships are lukewarm to the development of a knowledge base about philanthropy,” and it cites an “unresolved tension between the 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 article says.

“The lack of skills-based techniques and training is a cause of frustration among some donors and practitioners.”

Chasing philanthropic dollars

Research for the article “uncovered signs of a renewed openness to philanthropy education among research-focused foundations, and found the “appetite” for philanthropic income is “naturally piquing an interest in philanthropy among some university leaders.”

But such “instrumentalization” of philanthropy education presents some dangers, the article says.

It could “narrow the scope of scholarly inquiry, gearing it towards research on stimulating giving or towards master’s-type courses with a more vocational and craft-based bent,” it says, adding its research suggests that might be happening in Europe, where most current courses on philanthropy — 13 of 20 — are post-graduate courses.

And funding of university-based philanthropy education by philanthropists and foundations creates the potential for conflicts of interest “on both sides,” the article says,

“Philanthropic backing may be motivated by a desire to promote philanthropy as well as study it,” it says. “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).”

Possible conflicts for universities

Universities also 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,” the article says.

Universities “might become sensitive to scholarship that asks critical questions — especially of the particular philanthropists who support them.”

In the U.S., where philanthropic income represents an even bigger share of university budgets, it says, “it is not unknown for scholars whose research raises awkward questions about philanthropy to be cautioned against biting the hand that feeds them.”

Recommended solution

The ideal approach, the article says, is for funding for philanthropy studies to come mainly 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,” it says.

“Philanthropy’s imprint on the fabric of university life is just emerging,” the article concludes. “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.”

Todd Cohen

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