Momentum: Another Nice Boost for Philanthropy Studies on Campus

University of Denver

University of Denver

With annual U.S. charitable giving edging toward $400 billion, 10 percent of labor force working in the nonprofit sector, and a drumbeat of reports about how top funders are wielding influence on issues like education, you'd think that a veritable army of academics and experts would be closely scrutinizing philanthropy right now. 

That's not the case, as we've noted before. Few think tanks have programs in this area, while the academic study of philanthropy tends to fall between the cracks of established disciplines and subfields — always a turnoff to academics seeking stardom, or at least tenure. Given these challenges, we have not been optimistic that philanthropy will ever get the attention it deserves from scholars. Still, Amir Pasic, Dean of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, made a strong case in IP not long ago that the body of work in this field is already rapidly growing and improving, with many research efforts emerging on the scene. 

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In pondering the future of philanthropy research, one unknown is the extent to which donors are likely to be drawn to this area and what new resources they may pump into academic institutions or think tanks. On the one hand, such giving has obvious leverage potential, since producing better knowledge and training strong leaders in this field can lead to a more effective philanthropic sector writ large. On the other hand, how many donors get excited by giving to study giving? 

More than you might think, actually. Campus philanthropy programs have been proliferating in recent years, and among the newest ones is the Institute for Philanthropy and Social Enterprise at the University of Denver (UD), established earlier this year. 

Recently, that program received a $10 million naming gift from Laura Barton and her family. University officials said the gift will provide seed capital and long-term funding to support the institute’s mission to address major social issues such as poverty, education, homelessness and healthcare. 

The institute — which is free-standing and is not a part of any school, department or college at the university — boasts four main programs: Cross Sector Partnerships, Evaluation and Policy Labs, Social Entrepreneurship Programs, and Strategic Opportunities. 

Barton's gift will allow the for the hiring of two staff members who will launch the these cross-sector partnerships and social entrepreneur programs as well as other strategic opportunities.

As for Barton herself, her family has long supported the university and David Miller, the executive director of the institute. (Previously, Miller led the Denver Foundation for two decades, presiding over enormous growth in its giving.) Barton's past support of DU has included the lead gift for DU’s $6.3 million Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium, which opened in 2005 and was the first collegiate stadium in the nation to be designed solely for lacrosse.

A trustee at the Denver Foundation, in 2008, Barton made a generous donation to the foundation to create a fund in the Community Endowment. Her philanthropic priorities include education, reproductive health, human services, and children’s health. 

While Miller is a newcomer to academia, there are now plenty of models to choose from regarding how to structure the mission and activities of such outfits. So far, it seems like the new institute is off to a very strong start. Quite apart from the broader imperative to expand knowledge of philanthropy, this venture makes a lot of sense given that Colorado is yet one more site of an explosion in new wealth over recent decades — with a surge in new giving following right alongside.