Philanthropy Scholarship is Strong and Getting Stronger

In a recent post, David Callahan celebrated a surge of scholarship about the impact of organized philanthropy on our public life, but remained skeptical that academia “can plug the vast knowledge gaps around philanthropy.” The post was titled "Is a New Golden Age of Philanthropy Scholarship Dawning? Don’t Count on it."

I’ll take that bet.

Hundreds of scholars across the country and around the world are conducting meaningful research on myriad aspects of philanthropy, providing new knowledge and insights. ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action), a leading association of researchers in philanthropy, has nearly 1,300 members, and 450 papers were presented at its 2015 conference. Approximately 340 colleges and universities offer courses in philanthropy and related subjects, often taught by scholars who research such topics.

That said, philanthropy has only in the past few decades formed an organized scholarly community. There are, indeed, as Dr. Callahan writes, “vast knowledge gaps,” particularly as compared to knowledge about such sectors as government and business. But philanthropy scholars are narrowing those gaps every day.

We philanthropy scholars are making progress by combining the great strengths of the academy without limiting ourselves to a single discipline. Because the traditional disciplines are not primarily interested in philanthropy, they tend to make the subject about something else that is central to that discipline. For example, take political science, where there is a welcome flowering of research on philanthropy. It is concerned with power and how the wealthy exercise it through their donations, whether publicly subsidized or not. Philanthropy in this single disciplinary view becomes window dressing for power, self-interest or status. Research that is primarily interested in philanthropy does not shy away from examining the privileges of wealth, class, or race, but it requires us to take giving seriously, however impurely it manifests itself.

I am biased by my role at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, the first school governed by a faculty dedicated to teaching and research on philanthropy, sharing an interest in the puzzle of philanthropy and eager to see what all disciplines have to contribute to its understanding. With other like-minded efforts, we are bringing to bear a multidisciplinary perspective of “Philanthropic Studies” that sees philanthropy expansively as “voluntary action for the public good.”

I agree with Dr. Callahan that the excellent emerging work he describes is still not enough. But where we may have more than enough is beyond the academic realm and the volume of novel information that cries out for perspective and organizing principles.

I am not alone in feeling bombarded by reports and research products on the latest developments in innovative giving and fundraising, often accompanied by attempts to coin new terms that will have a proprietary or branding effect for the producer. These are “ephemera,” as they are not vetted by scholars and formally published. They are generated by very bright and mostly well-meaning colleagues, but without a link to academia to scrutinize, gather and maintain these fleeting insights, we risk reinventing the wheel every few years as “old wine gets poured into new bottles.”

We are fortunate that philanthropy does have emerging multidisciplinary scholarly networks. In addition to ARNOVA there is ISTR (International Society for Third-Sector Research) and the Science of Philanthropy Initiative at the University of Chicago. I’m seeing more research driven by social problems rather than disciplinary traditions, capturing the imaginations—and increasingly, the career commitments—of promising scholars who find the puzzle of philanthropy intellectually compelling and socially promising. Our school and fellow institutions are graduating the first generation of Ph.D.s and scholars specifically trained to teach and conduct research in philanthropy, who are already making game-changing contributions.

Academia will never be as nimble as the latest “new label” concept derived from a quick survey of the current well-known leaders in the field. We get these kinds of reports on a weekly basis and they are informative and valuable for the time being. Yet it is steady academic research that shows us, for example, what proportion of philanthropy in the U.S. comes from foundations (16 percent of the $373 billion that Americans gave in 2015), how financial giving compares to total GDP (steadily around 2 percent), and how these have changed over more than 60 years. This data comes from Giving USA 2016, a report published by Giving USA Foundation that is researched at our school and includes the collaboration of the Foundation Center, the Urban Institute, and others. There is also the most rigorous social scientific survey of American households across multiple generations that has for the past decade included questions about their giving and volunteering as personal and societal circumstances change, the Philanthropy Panel Study, which makes data available free to all scholars to use in their research. Indiana University Press has published 46 books in the first university press series on philanthropy. These efforts rely on the independence of academia to follow where the scholarship leads. This is hard to do when one’s funding source has an urgent agenda that has no time for building knowledge whose practical impact is yet to be determined.  

As the independence of academia is under pressure in our polarized times, it is important to remember that all of the glitzy tech innovations that boast of changing the world relied on a bedrock of mostly publicly funded basic research that made it all possible. I think the same holds for philanthropy where many of our scholarly studies will not tell us how to resolve today’s dilemma at work, but developing our fundamental understanding of how and why people give individually and collectively should lead to major social innovations and transformations.

Finally, it is not only that basic research on philanthropy is still thin, it is that philanthropy research has mostly gone unreported, which is why it is terrific to see it covered here by Dr. Callahan. I look forward to seeing more in this publication and hope it also infects the mainstream press so our field can more widely share its knowledge and attract more talent to study philanthropy.

Amir Pasic, Ph.D., is the Eugene R. Tempel Dean of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.