Is a New Golden Age of Philanthropy Scholarship Dawning? Don’t Count on it

If you believe that philanthropy is one of the most powerful forces shaping U.S. society—and increasingly, public policy—the near indifference to this subject among academics is nothing short of bizarre.

The top associations of political scientists and sociologists have nearly 30,000 combined members. And yet, you can almost count on two hands the number of these scholars who’ve made philanthropy their principle focus of research.

Meanwhile, there’s an almost comical glut of research in certain areas, like the behavior of legislators and voters, or the lives of people on public assistance. Those subjects are important, of course, but where’s all the scholarship digging into the billions of philanthropic dollars spent to (indirectly) influence legislatures and voters or to provide social services?

Political scientists have studied the role of campaign contributions in elections nearly to death, but have largely missed that the flow of tax-deductible charitable donations to influence public policy is actually greater than electoral giving.

Related: There’s a vast body of scholarship that focuses on the poor, and yet very few academics study rich people. That’s no minor blind spot, given who actually runs America and the world.  

The skewed allocation of intellectual firepower has become glaring as power has shifted away from government and into the hands of private donors. In an era when the public sector has fewer resources to do new things— and less wherewithal, thanks to polarization—philanthropy is edging into the driver’s seat of American life. This shift is only going to intensify as the fiscal screws tighten on government and more activist mega-donors arrive in the public sphere. 

For these reasons, I cheered when I saw that the latest issue of PS: Political Science & Politics is devoted to a symposium on philanthropy.

The eminent scholar Theda Skocpol kicks things off with a rousing call to keyboards titled “Why Political Scientists Should Study Organized Philanthropy.” She writes:

Many public efforts undertaken by governments elsewhere occur in the United States, if at all, only at the behest of wealthy people who make donations amplified by taxpayer dollars. Subsidized philanthropy is literally at the heart of American public policy.

The outstanding articles in this collection serve to reinforce Skocpol’s point, and they’re written by contributors who rank among the tiny sliver of academics who actually care about philanthropy. Authors include Kristin Goss, Steven Teles, Sarah Reckhow (who I profiled here), and, of course, Rob Reich of Stanford, who has lately emerged as an especially strong advocate of more scholarly inquiry into philanthropy and, in his own work, tackles some of the critical big questions around philanthropy and democracy.

You should definitely read this collection of essays, especially Kristin Goss’s piece, “Policy Plutocrats: How America’s Wealthy Seek to Influence Government,” which nicely frames the key issues at stake, here. She also offers up original new data showing that more than “half of America’s most prominent philanthropists (56%) have serious policy interests: they are seeking to inform, advocate for or against, or reform the implementation of public policy through charitable, advocacy, and/or issue-specific electoral donations.” Goss points out that just half of the 194 individuals in her donor set had an estimated combined net worth of $968 billion—which, I should note, is a sum greater than the current assets of over 90,000 U.S. foundations built up over the past century of philanthropy.

We’re not just talking about a tidal wave of new money coming into the sector. It’s in the hands of some of the most aggressive, activist living donors ever seen in this country. While John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie stood largely alone in this kind of role a century ago, we’re moving into an era when dozens or scores of donors are active at that level—all against the backdrop, as I said, of growing public sector paralysis.

So, yeah, you bet that academia needs to pay more attention.

The Political Science & Politics symposium is just the latest hopeful sign that more smart academics are waking up to this challenge. Earlier this year, Erica Kohl-Arenas, an assistant professor at the New School, published a new book, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty. This volume is both notable and important, as Kohl-Arenas engaged in years of field research to really understand how anti-poverty philanthropy efforts play out at the ground level, focusing on farm workers in California. That kind of research is standard fare for academics, but you almost never see it applied to philanthropy. Now, if we just had more scholars like Kohl-Arenas. 

Another bright spot is the recent explosion of scholarship on philanthropy and K-12 education, by far the most heavily studied corner of the sector. Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University, led the way here in 2013, with her groundbreaking book, Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics. Then, last year, Rick Hess and Jeff Henig published an enormously illuminating collection of essays, The New Education Philanthropy: Politics, Policy, and Reform. This year, Megan Thompkins-Strange wrote Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, published by the Harvard Education Press—which will soon publish a book by Michael Feuer, TheRising Price of Objectivity: Philanthropy, Government, and the Future of Education Research.

So all this is good news, and more research is in the pipeline. That said, don’t count on academics to push forward the boundaries of knowledge significantly when it comes to philanthropy. For one thing, as Daniel Drezner recently pointed out in the Washington Post, there’s an “awkward elephant” standing in this room: “The trouble with social scientists studying philanthropic foundations is that social scientists are also funded and will continue to seek funding by such philanthropies.”

Drezner makes a good point. Are foundations interested in funding scholars like Kohl-Arenas who point out the way funders disempower their grantees? Are they interested in bankrolling the likes of Linsey McGoey, who last year published a stinging critique of the Gates Foundation? Probably not.

But the bigger problem, here, is that most academics just aren’t interested in philanthropy.

Think about your typical political graduate student. That person, like most Americans, probably enters grad school knowing next to nothing about philanthropy. In contrast to electoral politics, which is in the news all the time, philanthropy flies below the radar of U.S. life and is not a subject that people are naturally familiar with and drawn to. Even most New York Times reading college grads probably can’t name more than five foundations.

Grad students aren’t interested in philanthropy for the same reason that most journalists and bloggers couldn’t care less: It can seem like an obscure and sleepy niche sector compared to the bigger, glitzier precincts of American power and influence.

And if you are a grad student interested in philanthropy, chances are that your adviser and peers will try to steer you toward a more marketable field. You see, the study of philanthropy tends to fall between the cracks of established disciplines and subfields, and, for that reason, is likely not a ticket to academic stardom, much less tenure.

Theda Skocpol writes in her intro essay to the Political Science & Politics symposium that “What all of us in political science can surely agree to, however, is that the time has come for much more robust research on the political roots and results of organized private philanthropy.”

I wish she were right. In fact, most people in political science are totally checked out in this regard. Academia is probably never going to plug the vast knowledge gaps around philanthropy.

All of which is why the philanthropy sector itself is going to have to find ways to underwrite far more research on the field—truly independent research—than is currently being done. I have an idea on that challenge, which I’ll share in a later post.

David Callahan is founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy. (davidc@insidephilanthropy.com) His new book, The Givers: Money, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age will be published by Knopf in April 2017.

See more articles by David here